Art Journaling with Mixed-Media Collage – Tips for Beginners

This is from my 2002 post to the old ArtistsJournals2 list at Yahoo!Groups.

Some of the information (and the terminology) has changed.

For example: In the late 1990s, we’d started calling them “artists journals.”  Then, people began calling them “art journals” and I used the term art/journals.  Now (2021), we’re using terms like “art journaling,” “mixed media art,” and sometimes “scrapbooking.”

Whatever you call them, they’re illustrated diaries or journals, and they’re important.

Here’s my 2002 article, slightly updated. (You may want to compare it with my 2008 article, originally at the Artists Journals site.)

Changing course collage - better and smarter - a different route
Journal page from 25 April 2002

I’ve been doing these quick collages for months now, though not consciously doing them daily.

As I’m writing this, I’m starting each day with a collage, the same as I used to do morning pages.

I allow myself a half an hour for the initial collage process. Then, later in the day, I may go back several times – adding more things – until I’m pleased with it.

But it all starts with the determination that, whether it’s good art or not, there will be a collage when I’m finished!

Page preparations

Usually, I paint with gesso throughout my journal so the pages are strong enough to support collages here & there.

I’ll leave a few pages for writing, then gesso two or three pages so they’re prepared for collage. That forces me to avoid having an all-text journal.

My current journal is fully gesso’d pages, because this one will be entirely art.

Gesso for art journals

For my art journaling, I use any gesso that’s cheap, from the fine art supplies section of Michael’s.

Gesso makes the paper stronger, so it doesn’t suck up the glue or paint so much, and it has “tooth” to grab whatever I apply to it in layers.

I buy mostly white gesso.

Yes, you can buy it in colors, but if you start with white, you can add color to it (in small batches) with watercolors (including Dr. Ph. Martins), acrylics, even food coloring or unsweetened KoolAid if you like! But I’m happy working with white, usually.

Then, the images

I store a wide range of images in folders, kept in a heavy cardboard portfolio, to use when I want to do a collage.

I also keep a stack of magazines & newspapers on hand for my collage work.

And I go through and grab whatever images, words, and phrases strike my fancy at that very moment.

If they connect somehow, great. If they’re completely disrelated, that’s okay too. It usually makes sense to me when I put it all together, in the context of my thoughts at the time.

I love layers in my work. For this reason, I’m very big on using colored tissue paper.

Adhesives hold it all together

From 2002:

I use Golden Gel Medium (soft/gloss) for the adhesive, and when the tissue paper is saturated with the gel medium, it remains translucent after it dries.

However, the gel medium will make the paper buckle sometimes. I like that, because I’m very process-oriented. I’m not interested in a collage that looks pre-printed. The buckling and extra glops of gel medium work for me. But I know that not everyone likes the buckled-paper look.

I apply the gel with a sponge brush. Sometimes, I forget to rinse them. Though I’m much better at remembering now – due to environmental concerns – I stock up on inexpensive sponge brushes (10 cents each during Michael’s sales) regularly.

[2021 update: Now, I’m using Yes! paste. I apply it with a sponge brush or a cotton swab, depending on what I’m applying to the page in my art journal. It rarely buckles or puckers. I absolutely love this product!]

While the page dries, I’ll place a piece of waxed paper over it so I can turn the page and either write or do another collage. If it’s facing another damp-and-drying page, I’ll keep waxed paper between the pages for a week or two until the adhesive is fully cured.

Embellishments in your art journal

Don’t limit yourself to paper and the occasional paint or colored accent.

I highlight some of my work with different types of leafing… gold, copper, etc. I adhere it with the same medium or paste.

For some of my work, I think of other ways to attach stuff.

For example, on a “hurting” day, a bandaid may hold an image in place.

And there are grommets, paper clips, straight pins, safety pins, and so on. Think beyond tradition and rules!

I never fret because an item prevents the journal from fully closing, nice and flat.

Frankly, by the time I get done with lots of pages, the whole thing is so layered (and sometimes a bit buckled) that it hasn’t a chance of closing nice OR flat, ever again!

Cover additions are a nice touch

Often, I sew a button to the front cover of the journal, and a piece of string (I like hemp twine) or ribbon attached with a grommet to the back cover, so I can tie the journal closed when I carry it around or shelve it.

But, you may think of other ways to secure your art journal. Think of it as yet more mixed-media art, not just “what’s going to hold this journal closed, in my purse or backpack.”

Do. Don’t plan!

button and string tie on an art journal cover

These collages are exciting to me.

I never know how they’ll turn out until I start putting the random bits of paper together and realize what the internal message is. It’s sort of like bringing what’s deep inside me, forward.

From time to time, I’ll display my new (real) art journaling and mixed media art pages here, as I create them.

For example, you can see some of my 2008 collages at a follow-up article, How to Collage in Your Art Journal.

My best advice is to make your journal your own. Mimic others while you’re learning, if you need to.

But, as soon as you can, start following your “what if…?” whims. Experiment, and then tweak if necessary.

Soon, you’ll find your own style. And – of course – it will evolve over time, as we do as individual.

In many ways, I feel as if art journaling reveals who we really are. And that’s important, as self-expression and as a legacy for the future.