Monday, August 25, 2008

How to collage

Collage--Easy and Infinite
(Originally published January 3, 2008 in the Santa Cruz Sentinel)

Collage is one of those art media—like coloring with crayons—that nearly everyone has experienced firsthand in school. My 15-year-old carried a stack of magazines to her art class just last week. Although gluing down found images on a piece of paper meets the definition of collage, like most art forms, the creative possibilities of working with collage are infinite.

Although the techniques of collage were first used at the time of the invention of paper in China around 200 BC, the term collage (which comes from the French word coller, to glue) was coined by artists George Braque and Pablo Picasso in the beginning of the 20th century when collage became a distinct part of modern art.

The wide appeal of collage may be that it’s easily produced from readily available materials. And those materials can be virtually anything—from paper (magazines, photographs, newspapers, handmade, etc.), to fabric, to all sorts of flat and not so flat objects. (Collage usually refers to two-dimensional works; its three-dimensional cousin is called assemblage.)

To illustrate the endless list of possible collage materials, consider two illustrations in “Collage Techniques” by Gerald Brommer. The first, an abstract work by Blessing Semler, has the following list of materials: handmade papers, fabrics, old watercolors, photographic negatives, burlap, photographs, and painted paper on canvas. The second, a concept piece by Marlene Zander Gutierrez, uses cast paper, velvet, barbed wire, nails, and plant materials on paneling.

I was recently invited to a meeting of the Contemporary Quilt and Fiber Artists (CQFA) by Brookdale fabric artist Debbie Wambaugh, and was pleased to see lots of beautiful examples of fabric collage in their show-and-tell session. What they might categorize as non-traditional quilting, is also collage in the sense that they are assembling disparate pieces of fabric and embellishments to create a new whole.

I especially enjoyed certain artists’ ability to recreate scenes of depth and dimension—a still-life with fruit or a coastal landscape, for example--using two-dimensional, inherently flat materials. It seems tricky and a challenging exercise to replicate the shape and form of real-life objects, with nothing but scraps of fabric.

After visiting the group, I gave myself a collage assignment using materials I already had on hand—in this case, cereal and frozen food boxes. I saved what my family used for a month and was dismayed to see how much cardboard we throw in the recycling bin in that short amount of time.

Actually, I have long wanted to make art from cereal boxes after seeing a beautifully collaged ancient-Greek-style statue in the San Francisco Airport terminal last year. The entire figure—including the face, hair, toga, and even a broken-off arm--was fashioned entirely from long, layered strips of packaging cardboard to create a phenomenal work of sculpture.

For my project, I decided to collage a hubcap I found on the roadside. I washed all the grease and dirt off, then used scissors to cut up narrow strips of packaging cardboard in varying lengths. After deciding on my design, I applied bookbinding PVA glue with a brush to each strip to glue it in place on the hubcap. (Keep an old damp cloth towel and lots of paper towels nearby to wipe the accumulating glue of your fingers and other surfaces as you work.) Although I like that my creation was no-cost (except for all that packaged food), I could also drill a hole through the center to add a clock kit.

A book that discusses collage techniques with practical craft applications is “Collage with Color” by Jane Davies. She includes instructions for using collage to make book covers, lamp bases and shades, jewelry, gift boxes and greeting cards. When covering non-porous objects such as glass or metal, she recommends first priming the surface to be collaged with an all-surface acrylic paint or primer. If the object to be collaged is a porous material such as wood, cardboard, papier-mâché, bisque pottery, Styrofoam, etc., it need not be primed.

Davies suggests covering the object with lokta or some other strong but flexible paper, and then collaging with similar paper on top of the base layer of paper. (Lokta is a handmade paper from Nepal made from fibrous bark which grows in the Himalayas.) She suggests using a synthetic glue such as PVA which dries clear and does not wash off. Generally, PVA is not archival (Elmer’s, Aleene’s, Sobo, etc.), but it will last years before showing its age. PVA used for bookbinding is a little more expensive, but is archival.

When the collaged piece is finished and dry, apply one or two coats of acrylic gloss or matte medium. Be sure the medium penetrates all the nooks and crannies in the paper, but don’t let it pool. This will give your piece a finished look, cover up some of the stray adhesive, and also make it water repellent.

I would encourage you to think beyond the conventional to come up with a unique collage creation. The same daughter who carried magazines to school last week, came home yesterday with a belt covered in magazine images, themed by scenes from one of her favorite books, Alice in Wonderland.

For objects or materials for collage beyond your recycling bin, try a thrift store for good prices such as the Goodwill Bargain Barn near Costco in Santa Cruz. (I haven’t been there yet, but I hear it’s smart to get there early and bring gloves to dig through their $1-per-pound clothing bins.)

For an introduction to inspired fabric collage, attend a meeting of the Contemporary Quilt and Fabric Artists in Campbell. See their website for meeting and workshop dates, and examples of their work at,

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