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Collage Composition 101

February 20, 2009

I wanted to do some collages that were spontaneous but were strong in design. I did not want to get bogged down staring and struggling over one lonely collage. As all of you may already know, I love to work on many things at once.

To my existing collage materials, I had added a wonderful collection of print images and nice big text from our magazine tear-out sessions a couple of weeks ago, so I was eager to do something with them. Plus, I have promised that I will participate in Dale Copeland’s International Collage Exchange this year. Therefore, I needed thirteen collages for the exchange.

I started by unrolling a huge piece of white acid free paper on a big table and painted random strokes with different colors of acrylic paint all over the paper, using a brayer and brushes, trying to stay loose and not think about what I was doing. My goal was to cover most of the paper.

Then I glued torn and cutout pieces of handmade papers and magazine pages randomly all over the painted surface, leaving generous spaces for the paint to also show through. I used Golden acrylic gloss medium as the adhesive, applied with a brush. Papers were allowed to overlap in places.

The paper ended up looking like a huge, wild and crazy collage with abstract painted passages. I didn’t want to consciously choose what pictures or textures would work together.

I let this dry overnight. The next step was to cut out bases for finished collages from the large sheet, using a 5 x 7 mat as a composition viewfinder. Placing the mat opening over different areas on the collaged sheet, turning it in different directions, I determined compositions that pleased me, and using the mat opening as a template, I proceeded to mark with a pencil and cut the whole thing apart into individual 5 x 7 collages. Not all of them touched. I didn’t want to worry about leftovers — just nice compositions were key. I kept the unused scraps in a pile to cut and use as additional overlays where needed, or to use in creating smaller collages.

Having cut out a whole stack of little collage bases, here is where it gets to be really fun. This is where one begins to see all kinds of possibilities to build on what is already a basically pleasing composition.

In these images, where you see photographic elements that look like they’ve been consciously cut out and placed into the composition, in most cases they were. I also painted into some of the compositions after gluing everything down. I mounted these onto a larger sheet of paper with heavy gel medium generously applied to the backs of the collages. I like nice big borders.

Note: I didn’t realize until after the fact that I might have wanted to document this tutorial with photographs. I promise to do one again and show you pictures. But hopefully this will give you a rough idea of the whole process.


“The Big O” – Collage – Image Size 5 x 7″ –  Paper Size 9 x 12″

Looking through these again, I decided that where there are edges showing my sloppy scissor work, I will just color them in with some watercolor crayons. I don’t enjoy precision cutting, nor do I plan to make a habit of it.

Here are a few more from the ongoing series.


“Burst” – Collage, Image Size 5 x 7″, Paper size 9 x 12″

“Enough” – Collage, Image Size 5 x 7″, Paper size 9 x 12″


“Heart Song” – Collage, Image Size 5 x 7″, Paper size 9 x 12″

13 Comments leave one →
  1. February 20, 2009 1:51 pm

    How interesting that you are going to town with your composition view finder. That’s exactly how I spent yesterday. I was trying to save a large painting that wasn’t working. I did work myself into a few corners, but I enjoyed myself and I will have some interesting pieces as a result- some will end up in the junk pile too.

    You work looks lovely and spontaneous, whereas mine has many layers of “over thought” sequences and a lot more paint. Variety is the spice of life!

    Great idea.

    • February 20, 2009 2:50 pm

      Margaret, you of course could apply that process to a big piece of unstretched canvas! I also have a lot of chunks of painted and textured canvas that didn’t make it in a previous incarnation “overthought” for sure. Can’t throw anything out, unfortunately.

  2. February 20, 2009 2:07 pm

    “Enough” is my favorite!!!

    • February 20, 2009 2:53 pm

      So happy you like that one, John. I love the large format magazines with the big, strong contrasts that can be used as simple design elements.

  3. February 20, 2009 10:19 pm

    Ooooooo, I LOVE these!!!

  4. February 21, 2009 9:30 am

    Love to hear that detailed description of the process. It would be fun if you made a little video of it. Thanks Martha. It’s so interesting to hear how others work.

  5. February 23, 2009 2:29 pm

    I love the big O piece- I think its the patcwork in the red that caught my eye!


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