3 Simple Tips for Making Collage

Eli Hill
May 15, 2019 8:34PM
Ehryn Torrell
Secondary Collage [02], 2017

Dada artist Hannah Höch used collage as a way to create social commentaries and surrealist worlds. Contemporary artist Wangechi Mutu cuts up magazines in order to reimagine the images that we’re accustomed to seeing. And Barbara Kruger combines images with text to reframe language and surprise her audience. These artists, and many others, take advantage of the ripe artistic potential of collage. They meld together stray materials, found objects, and text to create transfixing works of art. Best of all, collage is incredibly accessible for artists of all levels.

To get started with collage, all you need is some source material, a few tools, and an eye for composition. For those looking to try out collage for the first time, or to hone their skills, we’ve outlined what you need to know before diving in.

Find the right backing and adhesive

Hollie Chastain, Psychopomp. Courtesy of the artist.

Wangechi Mutu
In Killing Fields Sweet Butterfly Ascend, 2003
rosenfeld porcini

To begin, you’ll want to prepare yourself with a few supplies, such as a support, tools for cutting into paper and photographs, and some adhesives.

For the backing––the support that will hold your collaged pieces––you have a wide array of options. Some artists prefer collaging onto a board, such as plywood or particleboard, while others prefer working directly onto a piece of paper. Make sure the backing supports your materials. If you’re planning on using paint or other liquid materials in your collage, consider using canvas or mixed-media paper.

Next, consider how you want to adhere your materials to the backing. For many collage artists, archival adhesives such as Yes! Paste, UHU glue sticks, or gel medium work well for layering papers, fabrics, and photographs.

Hollie Chastain, Paradise Lost. Courtesy of the artist.

Hollie Chastain, author of If You Can Cut You Can Collage, advises beginners to try out adhesives with source materials before starting their collage. “Every type of paper reacts differently to every type of adhesive and it can be easy to get discouraged when you add an element to a careful composition and the paper bubbles or smears,” Chastain explained.

If you’re considering alternative methods for adhering materials, such as staples, needle and thread, tape, or image transfer, make sure you have a backing that will support these methods. For example, if you plan to sew photographs onto the backing, or embroider your collage, you’ll want to choose a backing that isn’t too thick or dense, such as paper or canvas.

Lastly, you’ll want to gather some tools for cutting up your source material. Aside from scissors, tools with blades such as X-acto knives or rotary cutters will help you achieve sharp edges. To create precise simple shapes, artist Anthony Iacono uses hole punchers, and other bladed tools that he finds in craft stores. “I recommend going to Michaels, and just spending time in the scrapbooking aisles, or the sewing aisles,” Iacono offered. “When you’re starting out, stealing ideas from the craft world can be a really interesting source for inspiration.”

Gather source materials—and make your own

Anthony Iacono, Bird of Paradise, 2018. Courtesy of the artist and Marinaro Gallery.

Anthony Iacono, Rose, 2017. Courtesy of the artist and Marinaro Gallery.

To develop a library of collage materials, you may want to parse through what you already have, before purchasing anything new.

Before Iacono took up collage as his primary medium, he created sculptures. When he made his first collages, he used what was nearest to him: cheap craft paint that he used on his sculptural works. Since then, he’s moved onto using high-quality paint, but when he was beginning, the simpler materials were ripe for experimentation and a source of inspiration. In addition to art materials you may have, personal photos, old books and clothing, or recycled paper can all serve as great collage materials.

“My least favorite material is new, shiny magazine paper,” Chastain said. “It doesn’t take adhesives well because of the coating and can be frustrating, especially for someone just starting out.” She prefers to use periodicals from the ’60s and ’70s, and frequents library discard sales in search of inspiring books. Another way to scout out found photographs, is by using image libraries, such as the New York Public Library’s image collection, or sifting through open source images on Google, Flickr, and Wikimedia Commons.

You may prefer to create your own source materials. Iacono paints and cuts every piece of paper he uses in his collage. To create your own library, you may also want to cut up old artworks you are no longer attached to, print images on specific pieces of paper or fabric, or take photographs specifically for your collage.

Plan out your composition before gluing it down

Before you adhere your source material to your backing, take some time to plan out your composition. Unlike other 2D mediums that rely on direct mark-making, such as painting or drawing, collage offers the opportunity to arrange the various elements of your artwork. “Lay all the elements out before committing with glue and move them around…until it feels right,” Chastain suggested. Take advantage of the medium’s flexibility by trying out different arrangements.

Iacono begins his works by making drawings and color studies; he then uses those preparatory works to develop his sharp compositions of carefully layered pieces.

If you’re not sure how to go about planning your artwork, try focusing on one or two of the basic elements of composition: color, form, line, shape, texture, or value. Or, as Chastain recommends, try limiting the amount of pieces you’re working with. “If it feels like you need to cover your entire working area with clipped figures and color and texture, try laying everything out the way you think you want it and then taking two things away,” she suggested.

Eli Hill