I generally like to create unique collages one at a time. Both of my worktables stay littered with scraps of papers that I may use on that one piece. I hate clutter, you see, but I can tolerate it if everything is dedicated to one isolated project. However, sometimes I decide to do a series of related collages, and I must face the challenge of an ongoing mess.
I was taught in a workshop once to stage (lay out) all pieces in the series at the same time. The problems I see with this approach are twofold: 1) you have to know up front how many total pieces you plan to make in the series, and 2) you have to have a lot of work space. My work space is limited, and I don’t know ahead of time how many I’ll be making in the series because, in reality, I may get bored.
So, while creating my recent series “Women Who Read,” I came up with my own process, which I am sharing here. First I decided on the series’ theme. In this case, I chose “Women Who Read” because a friend had given me an old desk calendar featuring portraits of women reading. I had already cut out all of the portraits, so I spread them out on my worktable and paired them up by color, artist style, pose, etc. Now I had the primary focus for my collage series.
Considering the sizes of the portraits and looking at what size backing material I had available, I calculated how big to make each collage. Since I wanted to sell these collages without frames, I needed to be sure that they would fit easily in standard frames (11×14, 12×16, 16×20, etc.) purchased inexpensively at Michaels or Hobby Lobby. For this series, I selected a 12×16 overall matted size because I had a tablet of 140-lb., hot-pressed, 12×16 watercolor paper just dying to be used as backing.
Since I wanted the mat to be at least 1.5 inches wide, I deducted three inches from each finished dimension, reducing the image space to 9×13. I was taught that a collage should “breathe” around the edges. In other words, one should leave white space (a blank border) around the outer edges before the mat starts. Given the final size of these collages (12×16), I felt that a .5-inch white space border all around would be sufficient. Therefore, the workspace within each collage would be 8×12.
Using light pencil strokes, I drew my exterior lines (8×12) on two sheets of backing paper. Eventually I will make sure that the paper slightly overlaps and covers these lines (and sometimes I have to erase the lines gently). I tend to go overboard and draw a one-inch grid inside the outer lines, too. This helps me with the placement of individual pieces of paper.
Finally it’s time to select the collage papers to be used throughout the whole series. This is the fun part. I look at the patterns and colors used in the focal pieces that can be repeated in the collage papers. I get a general sense of the colors to use. These papers remain on my work table throughout the series so that I can make a finite number of choices as I go along. In “Women Who Read,” I used a variety of paper types: found papers (magazine artwork, reused gift bags, etc.), manipulated papers (hand-painted, dyed, or imprinted papers), and decorator papers (purchased at art supply or craft stores).
Beginning with the placement of the focal artwork, I stage the collage roughly on a sheet of backing, staying within the outer guidelines I drew. I may cut down larger sheets of collage papers so that I can slip them behind other pieces during this trial and error process. My goal is to be able to use the same papers across the series because this helps to tie the collages together.
Once I have a strong sense of what papers I’m going to use and the placement of the pieces, I can then begin the actual collaging. (Colle is “glue” in French; hence, the verb “to collage.”) Some artists take a digital photo of the staged collage to use as a guide during gluing, but instead, I merely transfer the collage onto another backing sheet, one piece at a time. This is when I get serious about measuring and cutting the papers to size. I can also adjust the composition as I go along, adding or removing papers. In the “Women Who Read” series, I first glued only the centers of the focal pictures into position so I could slide papers in behind. I glued down their edges only after I was sure nothing else needed to go in behind. And I made sure that some papers were glued over the focal pieces to soften the hard edges.
It’s okay to allow a few collaged pieces to extend into the white “breathing space” border beyond the exterior pencil lines, but keep those extensions to a minimum. You just want to create interest, not blow out the whole border. I even like to let a piece or two trail off under the mat . . .
I made all five collages in this series one right after the other over the course of two weeks, maintaining the same degree of mess on my work tables. I continually referred back to the completed collages as I worked on subsequent ones so that I could look for those repeating patterns, papers, and colors. As a result, if someone were to buy any two or more of the five collages and hang them together as a grouping, I believe they would work well together.
As always, I applied a couple of coats of matte UV protective spray, followed by two or three carefully brushed on coats of satin varnish. And then we added a 1.5-inch white mat, leaving the .5-in breathing space around the collage. Voila! The collages are ready to be framed and displayed!