So. You’re not an artist. You have two left hands. You can’t draw, paint, or even take good photos. Also, you have no materials! And you don’t know how anything “should” look. But guess what. YOU CAN STILL MAKE A BEAUTIFUL COLLAGE.
I’m in school studying graphic design, and collage is my specialty. (I make a lot of the collages you see at the top of Rookie articles, for example.) But you don’t have to go to college to learn this technique, obviously. Collage is for everyone! Think of the things you paste in your diary, or the moodboards you make on your Tumblr, or the photos and quotes you stick on your bedroom wall, or your shrine. All of those are types of collage, so you’re already a collage artist, you.
Collage is an easy, fast, and very satisfying mode of artistic expression. There are no hard and fast rules for making a collage: you can make a brilliant one out of two images or a thousand; out of flat or three-dimensional pieces; through analog or digital means.
Follow the links to get inspired, and let me help you start with a few tips!
Lifestyle and women’s magazines and free fashion lookbooks provide the most accessible (= the best) materials for collage, because at least 50% of their contents are advertising (which really annoys the non-collagist part of me) and fashion shoots. Those pages contain really strong, beautiful images, which are perfect for collage! Plus, the quality of print and paper in most magazines is really great. You don’t need to buy them—just ask your family and friends to pass them on to you after they’re done reading them instead of throwing them out (it’s even better than recycling).
Even in trashy tabloids, you can find real gems. The inglorious paparazzi will provide you with material for a nasty piece.
Headlines from the daily paper can make a great comment on your collage and turn it into a piece of poetry.
National Geographic magazine is a great source that deserves its own paragraph. Not only are its photos big and beautiful, but the variety of its themes will serve all kinds of collage needs. People, animals, nature, architecture, prehistoric jewelry, art—National Geographic has it all!
Old books, magazines, music sheets, and maps (my personal faves) make great collage materials. Vintage ALWAYS looks good. You don’t have to scour eBay for expensive rare editions or haunt fancy antique stores—it’s not worth it, since we’re not collecting vintage photos for their historic value. We’re cutting them up to make pretty collages! Way better sources are second-hand stores, junk shops, flea markets, car boot or garage sales, and your grandma’s cabinets.
This is the one time you SHOULD judge a book by its cover. Don’t judge it by its contents! My favorite books to ransack for collage images are called Sails and Engines and Amateur Gardener. I have no interest in sailing or gardening, but the mysterious diagrams, blurry photos, and complicated technical illustrations or machines, plants, and bodies are great for adding some science-fiction magic to a collage.
P.S. A word of advice on shopping for old books and stuff: when you’re at a tag sale, sidewalk sale, thrift store, or what have you, pretend that all of that precious junk is just JUNK to you. Don’t freak out over every cute box or gorgeous photo, or the seller will see dollar signs in your eyes. Act like you’re buying those vintage copies of Look magazine to pack your dishes in before moving, and you’ll have more room to haggle for a lower price.
When I’m working on a commissioned piece for a magazine or album cover or website and have a specific vision of what kinds of images I need, I search for big, high-quality photos on Google Images and piece the collage together on my computer. I can add an “analog” feel by scanning papers, textures, and backgrounds. Also, a lot of people scan and publish vintage photos on Tumblr, Flickr, and blogs. With Picnik, Photoshop, or another photo-editing tool, you can crop a photo and change its colors and textures, helping you make a beautiful collage out of almost any shitty snapshot.
You know what else is fun? Working on a piece with a friend. Allowing someone to change your work can be difficult if you’re a control…enthusiast, but it’s also really interesting and can be rewarding and have great results. Like, look at this collaboration between the collagists Andrei Cojocaru and Captain Spezzo:
Stuff by other people
There are COLLAGE KITS you can buy—they’re like the kits people make for scrapbooking, prepared by individual artists. Some people sell them on Etsy; some artists trade them through Flickr and other art-sharing sites.
Of course, if you’re making an analog (nondigital) collage, you know that you need scissors and glue. But wait! It’s not that simple! Because glue and scissors come in many different varieties!
A nonsponsored, unpayed-for recommendation from the bottom of my heart: UHU glue sticks are THE BEST. They don’t stain or wrinkle paper like liquid glues; rip your paper like cheap, hard glue sticks; or dry so quickly that you have to glue the same piece of paper over and over while you figure out where to place it. For big areas (e.g., the background of a collage) and for achieving different textures, I use double-sided adhesive tape, but don’t try that with thin magazine paper—the tape does some weird chemical thing to the paper to leech it of color after a couple of months.
As a lefty, I prefer X-ACTO knives to scissors, which can be awkward for me to use. X-ACTOS require a lot of attention and patience at first, but they’re way better for small, detailed pieces, since they’re more precise than scissors. When using one, be sure to put a thick, stiff, unslippery plate or mat between what you’re cutting and the surface you’re working on—hurting yourself or damaging your furniture with an X-ACTO blade is easier than you think!
You don’t have to use paper for your collage. Try wood, cardboard, or canvas; experiment with different markers, paint, pencils, or even puzzle pieces. You can collage your mirror frame or notebook cover, or a letter to a friend.
It starts with a shoebox; pretty soon your collage-junk stash has taken over your whole desk. You never know which tiny piece of that photo form your mom’s old Elle will become indispensible for a future work of art. Sometimes the leftovers and scraps turn out to look more interesting than the original thing you cut out!
You’ll need to develop a system to navigate your sea of papers. It can be whatever works for you—it doesn’t have to make sense to anyone else! I spend a lot of time organizing pictures by COLOR and SUBJECT in separate folders.
Sometimes I find some photos that I really want to use somehow, but have no idea how to combine them. I tape them to the wall above my desk and stare at them for a couple of days; eventually my brain connects the dots by itself!
If your archival family photos or vintage Vogues are too precious to cut, scan them in 300 dots per inch and then print them out or work with the digital versions.
Watch and share
This is nominally a collage DIY, but a step-by-step isn’t really going to help you. Collage isn’t like a paint-by-numbers set, and there’s no one way to go about it. I think the best thing you can do is to look at a lot of different work and learn about different approaches to the medium. Luckily there’s this thing called the internet, where you can find tons of collage inspiration. You don’t need to be a professional artist to become part of the online collage community! Here’s where to start:
- Notpaper is a blog that features interviews with collage artists.
- Kolaj is a Canadian magazine devoted to collage, with artists’ portfolios and articles on the history and philosophy of collage art.
- WAFA is a global collaborative collage artists’ collective.
- The Jealous Curator features art recommendations written with wit and charm by a cool (and jealous) lady.
- Collagista! is a good source of inspirational links.
Good luck, and have fun with your scissors and glue (or scanner and Photoshop)! ♦