Saving collage photos, papers and ephemera… it’s always a challenge. But, I’ve found a system that works well for me. It might help you, too.
Step One: Sort collage elements by themes
I save my collage elements — especially magazine photos — by color, in manila folders. I start with the major color groups (red, blue, green, etc.) and then expand (lime green, turquoise, etc.) as my collection of saved images becomes too large for anything simpler.
I include all kinds of papers in my folders. So, when I want something blue, I open my “blue” folder and I’ll see my primarily blue magazine images, but also blue tissue paper, maybe some bits of blue ribbons or fabrics that I intend to use in collage, and so on.
Of course, my collages are usually more color-driven than image-driven, per se. So, organizing by color makes sense to me. (If you’re not familiar with my torn-paper collages, you’ll see many of them online at Aisling.net.)
For someone else, it might make more sense to organize by other themes, instead of (or in addition to) by colors.
Your categories might be “faces” or even more specifically, “women’s smiling faces,” etc. Or, “dark-looking castles,” “cute cottages,” “kissing,” “fast cars,” “vintage images,” or whatever.
Step Two: Store the folders in a big portfolio
All of my manila folders are stored in one large, flat old-fashioned artist’s portfolio thingie. You know, those huge black folders made from heavy cardboard, covered with a black, textured surface, and they tie at the top and sides with cotton tabs.
(Collaging the outside of that big portfolio is optional.)
You may prefer a portfolio that’s easier to carry and comes in a color. But, any good, big portfolio will work fine.
In my studio, my portfolio fits nicely on top of my chest of drawers that holds my fabric art and mixed media supplies, like my iron, fusible webbing, frequently-used fabrics like muslin, etc. (It’s a small chest of drawers that fits underneath my sewing table. So, the big collage bits folder is pretty much hidden unless I’m looking for it.)
You can also hide the folder under a bed, behind a door, between or in back of bookcases, and so on.
I’ve tried many organizing systems for my stacks of wonderful papers and collage images. This has worked the best for me.
Paintbrushes are important for many artists. I have jars & jars of them for all purposes.
Foam brushes are useful in almost every kind of art I create.
When I’m creating collages, especially torn-paper collages in my artist’s journals, I apply the gel medium — as an adhesive as well as a sealer — with a foam brush. (That same gel + foam brush works fine for applying glitter or metallic leafing to my art, too.)
Two more notes: I generally get at least three to five uses from each foam brush. I wash them thoroughly and promptly after using them.
And, if you use the kind with wooden handles, the wood can be recycled in a variety of projects. (For some of my cloth dolls, that handle is the perfect size to reinforce the doll’s neck, as the wooden dowel will extend from the head through the neck and then into the torso.)
All you really need are some pictures, something to use as glue, and something to support your collage, like a piece of paper.
For pictures, words & phrases
– Magazines, newspapers, printed materials, junk mail
I especially like fashion, travel and nature magazines for photos. “W” magazine is great for huge, almost surreal images, as well as great words & phrases. “Town & Country” magazine offers a nice mix of fashion, travel, home & garden photos, as well as yummy ads.
If I’m going to sell the finished work, I’m careful about using magazines such as National Geographic. Though their pictures are gorgeous, they have a reputation for being difficult about copyright issues.
For words and phrases, I like health, fitness, religious and New Age magazines, as well as junk mail… including the envelopes, which are often better than whatever’s enclosed in it.
I find free magazines at public libraries and sometimes at laundromats (ask if they’re ready to get rid of some of them).
Adhesives and glues
For now, I’m using Golden Gel Medium (Soft Gel – gloss) with a sponge brush. However, I want to try other kinds of glues and mediums. Golden works fine, but I’m not thrilled with how they run the company, and I suspect that other, less expensive gel mediums work just as well.
When I use a sponge brush, I rinse it out completely as soon as I’m finished with it. I can usually use the same sponge brush for a week before it starts to fall apart.
When I’m applying the gel medium, I use an old phone book underneath my work.
Support for the collage
Anything can support your collage. I generally use a regular spiral-bound sketchbook for my daily collages. However, for this one, I used a file folder. I’m not sure why; it seemed like the right choice.
You could use poster board, canvas, wood, or almost any surface that will accept glue.
(Some dishes or tiles work well with collages, but others don’t. Test different materials and adhesives to see what works for you.)
I like gold leaf and glitter, but that’s a personal preference. Almost anything that you can glue to a surface can be used as an embellishment.
2. Select images and words or phrases.
Go quickly through your materials, and — without much thought — choose images, words & phrases that appeal to you. Tear out the entire page and set it aside.
Tip: If you like more than one element on a page, separate them. Otherwise, it’s easy to forget that you were going to use more than one item from a single page.
I often select a word or phrase early in this process. In this case, I chose “Uncompromised” quickly. The word “promise” is in red in it, and I realized (light bulb realization) that when I compromise, I’m breaking a promise to myself or to others. Even if it’s just small and unspoken, it’s still a betrayal (big or little) of an ideal that I held or aspired to.
That’s a concept worth examining, as I work on daily priorities.
Remember that you can use a word or phrase from a sentence. I chose “you deserve” from a laxative ad!
When you feel pleased with your collection of pages, or when you have a stack of about ten pages, pause and begin working with them.
3. Tear the images in the approximate size, and then to the exact size.
If a page is really large, it can be more difficult to tear out the precise element that I want. So, I tear the page around the general area of the element, and then tear more exactly.
When I’m making the final tear, I try to tear it all in one go, not inching along, a little at a time. A smooth tear usually looks nicer, unless you have a specific reason for a very jagged edge.
Also, when you tear the magazine page, there will be a white edge in one direction of the tear. (The yellow arrow points to it.) I like to work with either all white-edged images, or keep all of my images without white edges.
4. Apply adhesive to the back of the image.
This is going to be a little messy… or even a lot messy. Revel in it!
With something underneath the image — so you can smear or practically lather the gel medium (or whatever glue) — apply the adhesive to the back of the image.
If the adhesive is too thick, it can be lumpy underneath the image. If the adhesive is applied in a really thin layer, it can dry too quickly. However, as long as some of it sticks to the collage, that can be enough.
If you’re using gel medium, remember that it sort of melts with extreme heat.
You can use an iron (there are special irons made for this, too) — with some sort of release paper between the collage and the iron, so the iron doesn’t get all gooey from the melting medium — and the heat softens & reactivates the gel.
So, even dried gel medium can be reactivated and it’ll suddenly adhere the entire image to whatever’s underneath it.
I only do this when the collage is nearly completed — before I apply any glitter or gold leaf — if there’s clearly a problem where part of the collage didn’t adhere correctly.
Keep in mind that your lower layers (and at least some of their edges) will be covered by later additions to the collage.
5. Place the image where you want it to be, in your collage.
Try to place it exactly where you want it to be, or at least fairly close. If you lift, stretch, or drag a piece of magazine paper, it can stretch and look a little odd in your final work.
If your collage element seems to bubble, it’s okay to pat it flat, but don’t try to smooth it. (I learned that from collage artist Claudine Hellmuth.)
If you brush it or rub it with your fingers to smooth it, it’ll stretch the paper and the finished result might be disappointing.
Bubbled paper seems to shrink back to shape was the adhesive dries, or at least some papers will do that. So, if you’re going to put something over the bubbled piece, let the bubbled part dry, first. It might flatten out on its own.
6. Keep working. Build up more layers. Tear more images as you work, if you need more images.
I usually tear out the first three or four images that I’m going to work with, and then start building the collage.
When I’m happy with them, or if I decide to add another image that I haven’t torn out yet, I pause and tear out what I’ll need next.
If I have a massive pile of torn paper — good stuff and paper that I may (or may not) use — it can become confusing.
7. Continue to build your collage.
Remember that the first layers are the background. As you add layers, they’ll be on top. (It’s amazingly easy to forget this, sometimes.)
The focal point (or points) of your collage should probably be on top. The leading areas tend to attract the attention of the viewer.
However, it’s okay to tuck little surprises in the lower layers, for the viewer to “discover” as he or she explores the collage.
Also, don’t despair if your collage looks messy. Some will be more messy than others. It’s okay.
Here’s a close-up of one area on this morning’s collage.
Here’s what you need to know if you make a “mistake.”
1. Milky areas will probably dry clear.
2. If the paper looks translucent in some areas (like right above the letter T in the photo above), they’ll probably turn opaque when the adhesive dries.
3. Anything that looks weird when the collage is nearly finished, can be covered with embellishments (glitter, gold leaf, threads, pieces of mica, paint, etc.) or you can cover it with another image or phrase.
It’s okay to change your mind.
For this collage, I’d selected a great image of a model looking in one direction. However, I discovered an even better photo on the back of it: Mulawi children in colorful, traditional clothing.
So, allow for serendipity as you work.
8. Keep building your collage until you’re happy with it.
It’s okay to take your time. It’s also okay to rush through this in a flurry of creativity.
You can start the collage, walk away from it, and finish it later in the day, or the next day, or the next week!
Tip: When you think to yourself, “I think this is nearly finished,” it’s probably finished. Stop! Take a break, and then take a fresh look at it.
It’s better to stop too early than take the work too far.
9. Consider adding embellishments.
I love embellishments, but you don’t have to add any at all. Every artist has his or her own style.
Tissue paper (it may remain translucent if you use gel medium over and underneath that layer).
Thread, glued on or stitched on.
Beads, mica, sand, pieces of glass.
Paint, oil pastels, stencils, rubber stamp art.
You can even embed something that plays a tune or says something (like in greeting cards) in your collage, for people to press.
The possibilities are unlimited.
10. (Optional) Finish with a coat of gel medium.
After the collage is fully dry, you can seal it with a thin coat of gel medium. It’s not necessary, but it will give the collage a uniform level of gloss (or a uniformly matte finish, if you used a matte gel medium).
This will also protect the collage from dust and damage, if you want to leave it “as is” instead of displaying it under glass.
Tip: If you’re using this in an artist’s journal — such as a spiral-bound sketchpad — place a piece of wax paper between the collage and the facing page. That will prevent the pages from sticking together if the journal is stored where the heat might soften the gel medium.
My finished collage
Though I could probably explain all of the elements, it’s true that “a picture is worth a thousand words.”
Basically, this is about re-evaluating compromises… things that I decided were okay, short-term, as a step to a more important goal. for me, it’s easy for those to become long-term issues.
For me, the image of the happy children in colorful clothing is important. It’s how joyous and self-expressive we all can be.
And yes, we all deserve to live deliciously, savoring every moment!
Here’s the YouTube video. It’s only four minutes, so it’s a bit of a whirlwind.
Wax paper is always among my basic journaling supplies, and I use it any time I need to protect pages that include glue, water media, or anything sticky.
When I travel, I pre-cut sheets of wax paper, and tuck them into the back of my journal. Usually, I use a rubber band or a binder clip to hold them in place, so I don’t lose the sheets.
The following article is based on one that I wrote around 2005, and it’s still important for many people creating artists journals.
Wax paper can be a vital tool if you’re keeping an art journal. Wax paper can separate damp art journal pages — after they’ve been painted or collaged — so they don’t stick together. I carry wax paper with me when I travel, so I can work on several journal pages in a row, and not wait for pages to dry completely.
Wax paper has many great features:
Wax paper is inexpensive.
It’s slightly porous (so the pages dry underneath). In other words, the air can get through.
It’s super-easy to use.
Wax paper is environmentally friendly.
You can often use the same sheet two or three times before throwing it away.
You’ll find wax paper at the grocery store, in the aisle with foil and plastic (cling) wrap. In the States, the leading brand is Reynolds’ Cut-Rite wax paper. That’s it in the photo. The package is about the same size as a roll of foil or plastic (cling) wrap.
Sometimes it’s half-hidden on the bottom shelf. In other areas, wax paper is a popular product for use with microwave ovens, so you’ll find wax paper more prominently displayed.
Regular wax paper is generally not recyclable. The wax surface (often made with petroleum products) is considered a “mixed” paper product. I have not yet tried any of the recyclable wax papers (like “If You Care” brand wax paper) with my artists journals.
When I’m separating journal pages with wax paper, I try to let each page dry so it’s only damp, not wet. (Sometimes I have no choice. If the page is really sticky and I can’t wait for it to dry at all, I have to hope for the best.)
Then, I place the journal so the pages are as flat as possible.
After that, I cut or tear the wax paper so each piece is slightly larger than the journal page it will protect. An extra half-inch on each side is usually enough.
The key to success is not to allow much weight or pressure on damp pages. In other words, the wax paper should practically float on the damp page. Don’t press it onto the page.
WAX PAPER AND GESSO
Generally, I gesso five or six pages at a time. I’ve successfully gesso’d up to eight pages at a time. However, I’m usually working with spiral-bound sketchbooks. They’re generally my favorite journals.
If I was working with a regular, bound journal, I’d watch carefully to see how much the binding “pulls” the pages back together. I might have to work with just two pages at a time.
(Big binder clips can come in handy if the binding on the journal is really tight. Clip the dry pages together — in separate bunches, if necessary — and that should take some of the pressure off binding, keeping the damp pages apart.)
Remember, wax paper is not 100% reliable when you want to keep wet pages apart. If your journal page is the most perfect thing you’ve ever created, and you’d be devastated if it was damaged… well, stop journaling until that page has dried completely.
From my experience, wax paper sticks about 10 – 15% of the time. I may collage over those pages later, since the surface of the page is already a bit distressed. Or, I may leave them “as-is” to reflect the creative process.
It all depends upon how they look when the page is dry, and I take a fresh look at it.
I’ve used wax paper when I’ve gesso’d in airplanes (very dry air) and — at the other extreme — in sultry, humid Houston.
I have slightly better success with wax paper when the air is dry and the pages dry more quickly.
If you try wax paper and don’t have much success with it, try gently crushing the wax paper — before you use it — so it holds the pages slightly apart.
Note: It’s important to gently crush the wax paper; if you fold it enough that the wax falls off at the crease, that line (or point) may stick to wet paint, gel medium, or gesso.
WAX PAPER AND PAINT
When I want to separate wet, painted journal pages, I’m far more careful with the pages.
Then, I will separate two pages at the most: The one that I’ve just painted, and the one that I’m currently working on. Because wax paper isn’t 100% non-stick, I don’t want to risk damage.
Remember: Less weight or pressure on the wax paper means less risk of sticking. Also, the drier the pages, the better.
Paint is designed to be sticky and adhere to paper. If it’s so wet that the moisture actually penetrates the wax paper, the results may be disappointing.
Weigh your options carefully. If your painted journal page is the best thing you’ve ever created, maybe it’s more important to preserve that, as-is, than rush into the next journal page. (If you’re in a class and this happens, have a second or third journal with you. Then, you can keep working while the first journal page dries, and not miss any valuable class time.)
WAX PAPER AND GEL MEDIUM OR GLUE
Wax paper is best for separating pages with small amounts of wet gel medium or glue on them. However, most gel medium won’t stick to wax paper.
In storage, I also use wax paper to protect every page of my collaged art journals. Then, even during sultry summer heat, the gel medium doesn’t re-soften and stick to the page opposite it.
Think of it this way: We use an iron to “melt” gel medium for image transfers. Likewise, gel medium can become sticky if you store your journals in a hot attic, garage, or other really warm area.
Unlike gel medium, glue can be hit-or-miss with wax paper. It can vary with how wet the glue is, and if the glue contains alcohol or any kind of solvent. (Alcohol and solvents will dissolve the wax on the wax paper, so it’s useless.)
You can test this ahead of time. Put a blob of the glue on a piece of paper, and place a piece of wax paper on top of it. Press gently, enough so contact occurs.
Then, wait a minute or two and see if the wax paper sticks to the glue. If it does, wax paper won’t protect your journal pages where that glue is wet and exposed.
You may be safe with sheets of foil as separators. Or, consider thin sheets of teflon-coated plastic, sold in kitchen supply shops; they were invented to safeguard very sticky cookies, meringues, and so on.
Plastic wrap (cling film) isn’t usually helpful. It tends to stick to paint, gel medium and glue, and some glues will completely melt it. If you have to choose between plastic wrap and nothing between the damp pages, opt for nothing. Really. Some plastic wraps — especially the more expensive kinds — are practically guaranteed to stick to your damp pages, prevent them from drying (ever), and not peel off (ever).
Wax paper is a valuable tool when you’re working with damp pages in your art journal or illustrated diary.
Wax paper isn’t foolproof, but it’s still one of the best and least expensive ways to keep damp pages from sticking to each other.
You’ll have the best luck when you’re working with gel medium. Gesso and glue have a higher “failure” rate with wax paper.
However, in art there are no “failures,” just challenges and opportunities to create new and different art, and to make the most of life’s surprises.
The good news is, wax paper will prevent most damp pages from sticking together. And, for most of my own journaling, that’s good enough.
Gesso can be a useful option for artists journals as well as painting and mixed media art. I use gesso often, because I often create heavily embellished pages in my journals. I need the extra strength that gesso adds to my art journal pages.
If you create heavily embellished pages in your journals, as I do, gesso can provide more support. It can strengthen the paper you’re working on.
However, you don’t have to gesso pages in your artist’s journal. In fact, most artists never use gesso in their journals. I only suggest it if you’re working with paint, heavy embellishments, or mixed media.
What is gesso?
Gesso is a primer. It looks a lot like paint, and it goes between the surface you’re working on (the support) and whatever you’re using for your artwork.
Originally, gesso only came in white. Artists put it on surfaces such as:
Hardboard (such as masonite, MDF or plywood)
On wood and hardboard, the gesso is a two-way barrier. It prevents the board from soaking up the paint too much. However, it also prevents any acids, oils or glues from migrating into your finished painting. (The latter could spoil the colors.)
On canvas, gesso prevents the fabric from soaking up the paint. The colors won’t bleed, and you won’t use as much paint.
That’s a good reason to use gesso on paper if you’re painting in your art journals: You’ll have more control over the color, and you’ll save money on paint. (Generally, gesso is a lot cheaper than paint is.)
Gesso makes the surface a little stiffer. It can also give the surface a little more texture (called “tooth”), so the paint sticks better.
Today, gesso comes in many colors. White is still the most popular, but black and colors are also widely used for art journaling and other art. So, the gesso can be part of your finished artist’s journal page, too.
Gesso is useful for mixed media artwork, too. When I’m using a cigar box as the support for an art shrine, I almost always cover it with gesso… unless the design on the box is going to be part of the finished shrine.
(Also, some wooden cigar boxes look spectacular if they’re simply polished, so the wood shines.)
What’s the difference between gesso and regular paint?
Gesso is usually thinner and creates a slightly rough surface when you apply it.
Long ago, artists made their own gesso. They mixed calcium — like chalk — in a thin base of animal glue.
Yes, it was rather smelly. It also had to be shaken or stirred regularly, because the chalk quickly settled to the bottom of the mixture.
I don’t recommend making your own gesso, but if you want to try it, here are a couple of websites with recipes:
When you see religious paintings and icons painted on wooden supports, gesso is probably underneath the artwork. That gave the wood some “tooth” so the paint stuck to it (and didn’t peel off), but it also kept the paint from sinking into the grain of the wood.
By the mid-20th century, gesso began to change. In 1955, the first water-based acrylic gesso was created by Liquitex, the paint company. That gesso could be used underneath oil paint and underneath acrylic paint.
In recent years, some artists have questioned whether or not acrylic gesso is the right product to use under oil paint.
That’s not an issue for most people working in art journals.
However, if you also work with oil paints and want to buy just one gesso for both, discuss this with someone who’s current on this topic. (Or, look it up online to see what the latest theories are.)
Gesso and artists journals
As many of us began to create art journals, we found new uses for acrylic gesso. For example, it’s ideal for use under collages.
Note: The acrylic/oil issue shouldn’t affect art journalers who use oil pastels and crayons over acrylic gesso.
However, since the oil in oil paints, oil pastels, and similar products can weaken the paper in your journal, it’s a good idea to treat the paper with a coat of gesso, first.
When I journal, I use white gesso most of the time.
However, I’ve also used black gesso as part of the finished work. Here is an example of a page with black gesso on it. It’s from my Decluttering Journal.
I used rubberstamp letters (alphabet letters) and an opaque (pigment) white stamp pad. I also added details with a white gel pen. The “tooth” (rough texture) of the black gesso can work well with opaque (pigment) gel pens, such as Sakura Gelly Roll pens.
How to use gesso
Like paint, gesso can get messy if you play with it. I usually spread newspaper on the desk, table, or floor where I’m working, just in case.
Shake the gesso container so it’s well mixed. Whether it’s acrylic gesso or traditional gesso, it’s still likely to separate.
Because gesso is water-based, you can use a regular brush to paint it on. I use a sponge brush for fast coverage.
If I’m working with an art journal, I apply a thin coat of gesso to one side of the page. That’s usually enough.
However, if I’ll be using heavy embellishments and the page needs to be very strong, I’ll use gesso on both sides of the page. Depending on how thick the gesso is, I may apply more than one layer to each side of the page.
Remember that the binding of your journal is also subject to wear & tear. Sometimes, especially when it’s a spiral-bound journal, I’ll paint gesso out to the edges of the page, including around the holes where the wire is.
Also, a journal with heavy embellishments will only hold up to a certain amount of page-turning. (In my classes, I often pass around my journals so people can look through them.) I closely watch the condition of my journals, and “retire” them from classroom use when they start to show signs of stress.
Cheap gesso has more water in it and will take longer to dry. If you’re going to apply gesso to the back of the page, too, be sure to let the paper dry completely before painting that second side. Otherwise, you’ll seal in moisture and weaken the paper.
Does price or quality matter?
No two people are likely to agree on this question.
When I’m using white gesso — which is most of the time — I buy whatever’s cheap. It works fine for my art journaling pages.
I often buy gesso in large tubs — like ice cream containers — to save money. As long as you put the lid back on securely, gesso stores well.
That’s sort of the best of both worlds: By buying in bulk, I get the best price for a higher-quality gesso.
When I want a colored gesso, especially black gesso, I spend considerably more and shop for very good brands.
In addition, I’ve tinted small amounts of cheap white gesso for special projects.
I start with a jar or paper cup that’s partly filled with white gesso. Then, I slowly add coloring until I achieve the color that I want.
For color, I’ve had luck with:
Plain (unsweetened) Kool-Aid
Dr. Ph. Martin’s concentrated water colors, added drop by drop to white gesso
Cheap watercolor paint drizzled into the gesso
Adding acrylic paints to the white gesso
Remember: If your Kool-Aid contains a sweetener, that can attract paper-munching insects and rodents.
You’ll find a variety of gessos, each created for different kinds of art.
In addition to colored gessos, some companies make a “hard gesso” that goes on thick and can be sanded to a smooth finish. Although this product would be too heavy for use on regular journal pages, it could be useful on a heavy journal cover or other rigid support.
Gesso powder will mix into acrylic (and other) gessos to make them heavier, thicker, textured, and so on.
Gesso is the primer. It helps paint stick to any surface, including paper, cloth or board.
Gesso prevents paint from soaking into your journal page.
Gesso strengthens paper so that you can apply layers of collage and heavier embellishments.
You don’t have to use gesso, ever. It’s just an extra tool for certain kinds of art journaling.