How to Make Mixed-Media Collages - Creating The Background

How did you make that? This is a question I get about my finished art pieces. Each layer is simple to make. Together, they create a complexity that at first glance is hard to deconstruct.

In this blog post, the first in a series of four, I briefly cover the origins of mixed-media collage and take you step-by-step through how I make my background papers!

Part 1 – A Good Foundation - Background Papers
Part 2 – Popping with a Focal Point
Part 3 – Decorating with Embellishments
Part 4 – Finishing With Topcoats to Make it Shine

I consider myself a mixed-media, collage artist. I like collage because of how complex the layers look. I like working with a variety of media – old and new paper, paint, pastel, pencil and three-dimensional objects. Truthfully, it means I don’t have to pick just one medium to narrow my work down to, which is admittedly a bit lazy, artistically speaking.

For me, the end-result of the finished piece is always something unexpected and that I had to have faith in as the work was in progressing. That process of creating each mixed-media collage piece is a gentle walk along a very quiet and spiritual path that always leads to that magical clearing in the woods where the piece is.

I taught a mixed-media collage workshop last year at Accent Arts/Palo Alto. To prepare, I wanted to understand the definitions of collage and it’s history so I could provide that context to the workshop participants. In a nutshell, it started with professionals who were using paper and ink in their day jobs.

My personal theory about many artists is that they appropriate materials from their day jobs as book or paper makers, workers in pastel-making factories, or welders and use those materials “on the side” to make art. I imagine rows of Benedictine monks who, after a long day of scribing original pages of Bibles well before the Guttenberg press was invented, unwind by doodling. Or maybe they even slipped in some “art” to their professional, scribed works! But I digress…

Artist Nita Leland says collage has a long and distinguished history. No matter what I do in collage, chances are it’s been done before, but never like I will do it. That is another important feature of collage – it is very much like your signature – you are in it, no matter what.

A BRIEF HISTORY OF THE ORIGINS OF COLLAGE by Nita Leland, from the book: Creative Collage Techniques: A Step-by-Step Guide (authors: Nita Leland and Virginia Lee Williams)

Collage started with the invention of paper in China around 200 B.C. Twelfth-century Japanese calligraphers prepared surfaces for their poems by gluing bits of paper and fabric to create a background for brushstrokes. Later, in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in the Near East, craftsmen cut and pasted intricate designs and used marbled papers as part of the art of bookbinding. Today’s collage artists invent exciting variations of these ancient collage techniques.

Artists in medieval times, beginning in the thirteenth century, often enhanced religious images with gemstones, elegant fibers, relics and precious metals. Later, in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, nuns made bookmarks trimmed with cut and colored papers, which they carried in their prayer books. Frequently, the materials used were selected for their symbolism, a practice that continues in contemporary collage.

Renaissance artisans of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries in western European countries pasted paper and fabric to decorate the backgrounds of coats of arms in genealogical records. Cut-paper silhouettes appeared in the Netherlands in the seventeenth century. Craftsmen in prehistoric and primitive societies in many parts of the world used seed, shell, straw, feathers and butterfly wings as collage material. Shamans and holy men in some societies secured these and other materials to masks used in sacred rituals. All of these materials appear occasionally in artists’ collages today.

So how do I do “it”?

PART 1 – A Good Foundation: Making Background Papers

I make the papers I use for my mixed media pieces specifically for that purpose. Using discarded paper from my printer that has text on it, or old sheet music, magazine pages, basically anything with printing on it – I create stashes of background paper for future use. In selecting the base paper, I avoid too much density, either with the text or printed images, because some white space is my preference.

If you want to try this right now, start with something as small and simple as a page out of the white pages section of the phone book or a piece of newspaper.

TIP: glossy papers and/or thicker papers with coatings such as pre-made metallic paper, wrapping paper, watercolor or art paper and such do not work well for this. The cheaper and softer the paper, the better.

Step 1.  Give it Some Color

For the first layer, I use watered-down cheap craft paints from Michael's or . They are only $1-2 per bottle. I choose two coordinating colors  - for example, hot pink and lime green.  I don’t worry too much about whether the colors go with one another though.  There’s always a use for the papers in any color scheme later on.

I use a 1-inch wide cheap paint brush from the hardware store to paint alternating stripes on the base paper. Sometimes I paint a harlequin pattern or just random large dots.

TIP: Again, cheaper paints are better, as long as they don't contain lumps. Thin them with water so you can see through to the background text when you paint them onto the paper.

TRICK: Try painting squares or rectangles. Keep it loose and simple with lighter colors.

Step 2.  Stamp It

After the paint has dried, I use a rubber stamp to add the second layer. It doesn’t really matter what stamp I use. It could be the Eiffel Tower or a small bouquet of flowers. I usually use plain black ink, but occasionally I will use a coordinating ink color.

TRICK: The key to this step is to make a somewhat uniform grid of stamped images on the paper using the same stamp, in roughly the same orientation. I just stamp the image across the paper. If the paper is 8.5 x 11 size, there are 8-12 stamped images on the paper, depending on the size of the stamp. I try to put the stamps on the lighter paint or white areas so they show up better.

Step 3.  Make Your Marks

I add a third layer of depth on the background papers using chalk pastels and/or colored pencils. I might make loose, large circles around the edge of painted circles, or vertical lines in between two colors, or check marks like when you check something off your shopping list.

This layer not only makes the paper very complex and interesting, but it also creates that personal “signature” of the artist because no two people will draw their circles or lines the same way.

TIP: Don't think to hard about this step. Just throw the marks on the paper - staying loose and free. And don't put too many. Marks are like little pieces of chocolate in art - meant to be savored.

By the time my pieces are finished, there are 6-8 different layers on them. In the second part of this series, I will show you how to use these background papers on two or three-dimensional surfaces, adding even more layers. Stay tuned for all my tips and tricks.


Do you make mixed-media collage art? I would love to hear from you about what to do and how you do it.  If you are new to this type of art, try out making backgrounds and let me know your successes and challenges by posting in the comments section below.

This post is contributed by a community member. The views expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of Patch Media Corporation. Everyone is welcome to submit a post to Patch. If you'd like to post a blog, go here to get started.

Laura McHugh August 06, 2011 at 10:12 PM
We're going to take photos next Friday night of the three steps to making a fabulously complex background. Stay tuned!
Laura C. Strom August 07, 2011 at 05:45 AM
What a fun article! Thanks for teaching us how this is done, Laura.
Laura McHugh August 07, 2011 at 05:49 AM
Laura - Please try making a background or two and comment on how it turned out for you! You'll have it all ready for the next post. And stay tuned - we will take some photos next Friday 3/12 and include them with the next post - the focus piece.
gail jones August 11, 2012 at 05:09 PM
thank you!.
gail jones August 11, 2012 at 05:13 PM
I can hardly wait for the next one!


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