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Collage Composition Tricks

October 25, 2010

At the request of Pat Q in a comment on a previous post, I am going to describe how I determine the edges of my collages. I’ll show two of my favorite ways. In addition, I’d like to show you a way to make more interesting compositions.

With many of my collages, an irregular edge is more compatible with the materials and the feel of the piece, such as when I’m using torn, weathered, and hand made papers. In that situation, I compose the collage on paper that is much larger than I want the main composition to be, so that I’ll have a nice wide border and control my standard overall dimensions.

First I will draw very light pencil lines the placement and size of the desired finished collage right on top of the backing paper , then glue down my pieces just beyond the drawn measurements, no more than maybe 1/16 of an inch. That way the lines won’t show, but I can stay within my parameters. These end up looking like this:

“Distilled” – Collage with Hand Painted and Weathered Papers
8 x 8″ on 11 x 14″ Backing

But I sometimes like collages with clean, crisp edges, so they can then be mounted on larger paper. Here’s what that process looks like:

I keep different sizes of clear plexi on hand to use in projects like this. You’ll soon see why. You can buy plexi in small sheets and cut it down to size yourself (very easy!) or you can have the store cut it for you. This one is 4 inches square. I’ve pre-cut some pieces of lightweight plain paper that will serve as my basic backs for the small collages. They are slightly larger than the plexi, about 1/8″ bigger on each side. I will glue my basic collage elements and papers to one of these pre-cut squares, ignoring the outer edge, like this:

I’m just choosing interesting papers and juxtapositions at this stage. If you work this way, you will get some surprising and dynamic compositions.

Adding more papers . . .

And this is the back of the basic collage after I’ve completely covered the front:

Now I will trim off the excess papers to the edge of the white paper square.

Here is the front now, after I’ve trimmed away the excess papers.

Here I’m adding interesting elements to the collage.

Now I have the collage the way I want it.

I now use the clear plexi to measure the final composition that I want, and trim the collage to size, using the plexi square as a cutting guide.

. . . here is the final trimmed collage.

Then I will glue the finished collage to a nice heavy paper backing, using a stiff glue that won’t cause it to wrinkle, such as heavy acrylic gel. You can also mount it using a heat activated fabric adhesive, such as WonderUnder or Stitch Witchery.

And voila! My finished collage with a nice wide border.

Update: I have a feeling there will be additional Q&A about this post, so please read through the comments too. If an additional question that you’ve thought of requires a lot of further explanation, I’ll include my answer in a future post to make sure everyone sees it.

16 Comments leave one →
  1. October 25, 2010 1:51 pm

    Thank you for posting this tutorial Martha! I know it seems very basic and common sense to someone that has made about a million of these, but to those of us that haven’t…it’s wonderful to see the steps taken.

    What are you using in the first few steps to glue your pieces together with? Is that Modge Podge or something else? I started to get some this weekend but didn’t like the fact that it can leave things tacky. Also…is there anything one can use to adhere the layers together that won’t cause them to wrinkle? Probably not since most of the time you are working with magazine print and such.

    Was also wondering (last question I promise!), when you use the Wonder Under to adhere your collage to the backing, do you then iron from the back or on top of the collage?

    Ok…enough for me today! 🙂
    Thanks so much for your willingness to share with us all!

    • October 25, 2010 2:19 pm

      Great questions, Itaya. I knew I would leave some loose ends! 🙂

      OK, first off I use whatever’s handy to glue collage elements down. Usually it’s clear acrylic medium, undiluted. But I have used PVA glue slightly thinned with water. That works just as well. I think Mod Podge should work, though I don’t use it.

      There is a wonderful trick for adhering pieces without wrinkling, though I don’t let a few wrinkles bother me. I learned this trick from Jonathan Talbot in one of his collage workshops. You apply two coats of acrylic gloss medium to the backs and fronts of all the papers that you want to use in your collage. You have to then lay them out on a sheet of plastic or a plastic bag to dry between applications. Don’t cut anything out — just apply the medium to both sides of whole magazine pages, etc., or large pieces of collage papers.

      Once everything is dry you can proceed to cut out the shapes you want to adhere. What you’ve essentially created is an “iron on.” The pieces can be ironed together with a tacking iron or any small iron, using a transfer sheet. My transfer sheets are the throw-away silicone coated sheets that come with peel-off labels, etc. Place the shiny side down over the collage elements and press them together. Here’s the info on the Jonathan Talbot workshops. You would love them!

      The same procedure applies to mounting a collage to a backing with Wonder Under, etc. I use of a transfer sheet, shiny side down, on top of the face of the collage, and press.

      Hope this answers all your questions. Have fun!

  2. October 25, 2010 8:42 pm

    Thank you for the tutorial on how to use the medium on a sheet of plastic…I had never heard about this step bu I am anxious to play with this process. Imagine and Live in peace, Mary Helen Fernandez Stewart

    • October 26, 2010 12:39 am

      Mary Helen, actually the plastic is used only as a framing and cropping guide. I don’t apply anything to the plastic itself, although you may have gotten my wheels turning again! 🙂

  3. October 25, 2010 9:38 pm

    Thanks Martha – great info. I don’t do very much collage work, but I sure can use the plexi template in cropping my paintings done on paper – what a time and hassle saver that could be!

  4. metroframe permalink
    October 26, 2010 8:43 am

    I am not a collage artist but retweeted this to followers because I thought it was very well done and a good example of sharing how to information Thank you for posting.

  5. pat q permalink
    October 26, 2010 4:13 pm

    Martha: Thank you so much for sharing your techniques for your collages. I enjoyed it immensely and learned a lot. Now to be brave and forge ahead.
    You are so inspiring and generous in your sharing.

    • October 26, 2010 4:40 pm

      Glad you did, Pat! Jump in and try it. I learn only by doing, and believe me, there’s plenty of trial and error. What I love is making additional discoveries in the process.

  6. October 29, 2010 4:48 am

    Wonderfu and informative info Martha…thanks a lot and the end piece is stunning!!

    • October 29, 2010 8:35 am

      Thank you, Cynthia! Just peeked at your blog and am loving what’s going on in your studio. Beautiful stuff!

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