How to Collage in Your Art Journal

This is updated from a 2002 letter to my old – now closed – ArtistsJournals2 list at Yahoo!Groups.

Some of the information (and the terminology) has changed.  We started calling them “artists journals.”  Then, people began calling them just “art journals.”  And then other terms emerged, too.

As of 2012, when I posted this article here, we were calling them “artists journals” again.

By the time you read this, that may have changed… again.

Whatever you call them – art journals or artist’s journals – they’re illustrated diaries or journals, and they’re important.

Here’s My Early Art Journaling Article

Artists journal page, 2004I’ve been doing these quick collages for months now, though not consciously doing them daily.

Now, I’m starting each day with a collage, the same as I used to to morning pages. I allow myself a half an hour for the collage process, and often go back several times throughout the day to add things until I’m pleased with it.

But it all starts with the determination that, whether it’s good art or not, there will be a collage when I’m finished!

Pre-Collage Steps

You can skip this step! (I often do.)

If I’m going to use lots of layers of paper – or heavier elements in my collages – I strengthen the pages with gesso.

I paint with plain white gesso throughout my journal so the pages are strong enough to support collages here & there.

Or, if I’m going to do a lot of painting – with acrylic paints – in my journal, I gesso the pages, first.

I’ll leave a few pages for writing, then two or three pages that are prepared for collage. That forces me to avoid having an all-text journal.

My current journal is fully gesso’d pages, because this one will be entirely art.

I use any gesso that’s cheap, from the fine art supplies section of Michael’s.

Gesso makes the paper stronger, so it doesn’t suck up the glue or paint so much, and it has “tooth” to grab whatever I apply to it in layers. Usually, I buy only the white gesso.

Yes, you can buy it in colors, but if you start with white, you can add color to it (in small batches) with watercolors (including Dr. Ph. Martins), acrylics, even food coloring or unsweetened KoolAid if you like! But I’m happy working with white, usually.

Collage Images – Selection and Storage

I have images stored in folders, kept in a heavy cardboard portfolio, to use when I want to do a collage. I also keep a stack of magazines & newspapers on hand for my collage work.

And I go through and grab whatever images, words, and phrases strike my fancy at that very moment.

If they connect somehow, great. If they’re completely disrelated, that’s okay too. It usually makes sense to me when I put it all together, in the context of my thoughts at the time.

I love layers in my work. For this reason, I’m very big on using colored tissue paper.

Collage Adhesives and Sealers

I use Golden Gel Medium (soft/gloss) for the adhesive, and when the tissue paper is saturated with the gel medium, it remains translucent after it dries.

How to collage art in your journalHowever, the gel medium will make the paper buckle sometimes. I like that, because I’m very process-oriented. I’m not interested in a collage that looks pre-printed. The buckling and extra glops of gel medium work for me.

But not everyone likes the buckled-paper look.

Tip, if you want smoother pages: If the paper buckles or bubbles in spots do not try to smooth it out while the collage is wet… or even damp. In most cases, the paper will flatten (mostly) as it dries, if you leave it alone.

I apply the gel with a sponge brush. I often forget to rinse them, so they’ll be used just once or twice, and I buy them in bulk, every few years.

While the page dries, I’ll place a piece of wax paper over it so I can turn the page and either write or do another collage.

If it’s facing another gel’d page, I’ll keep waxed paper between the pages for a week or two until the gel is fully cured. Otherwise, the gel remains tacky enough to stick to the facing page.

Using Gold Leaf

I also highlight some of my work with different types of leafing… gold, copper, etc.

I adhere it with gel medium, too. Don’t get caught up in trying to use the “perfect” adhesive for each job. Gel medium works well for almost anything. When it won’t hold, I use Household Goop!

Attaching Other Things to Your Collage

For some of my work, I think in terms of other means to attach stuff.

On a “hurting” day, a bandaid may hold an image in place.

And there are grommets, paper clips, straight pins, safety pins, and so on. Think beyond tradition and rules!

I never fret because an item means that the journal won’t close nice & flat. Frankly, by the time I get done with the gel medium on lots of pages, the whole thing is so buckled that it hasn’t a chance of closing nice OR flat, ever again! *grin*

I sew a button to the front cover of the journal, and a piece of string (I like hemp twine) or ribbon attached with a grommet to the back cover, so I can tie the journal closed when I carry it around or shelve it.

Avoid Perfectionism!

These collages are exciting to me, because I never know how they’ll turn out until I start putting the random bits of paper together and realize what the internal message is. It’s sort of like bringing what’s deep inside me, forward.

Mostly, I love collage and I love journaling, and what I learn about myself – and life, in general – in the process.

More? You’ll find additional notes on collage techniques in my Insight Shrines class handouts (in PDF format), and my letter to Erin about art/journaling.

And, from time to time, I’ll display my actual artist’s journal pages here, as I create them.

Artists Journals – My Letter to Erin

Early in 2002, my friend Erin asked how I created my art journals.  Before you read my reply to her, here’s the backstory:

How to create an art journal during a challenging time.Back then, I was in a marriage that was falling apart. My husband was divorcing me. I knew we’d drifted apart. We’d gone to a marriage counselor, but as far as my husband was concerned, it was time for both of us to move on, separately.

I felt stunned. Blindsided, in a way.

For some time after that, I was holding on by a thread, emotionally (and sometimes, mentally).

The Harry Potter books were new, and my kids and I loved the stories.

Harry Potter faced massive, undeserved challenges… and he won. That message kept me from falling apart completely.

At that same time, several of my friends were dealing with their own real-life challenges, and they found the same “dreams can come true” message in Rowling’s books.

And then someone suggested creating our own artsy-craftsy version of Hogwarts.

It wasn’t about magic.

It was about “lost arts.” Our school/events would share things like authentic bookbinding, found-art techniques, calligraphy, and so on. We’d buy and restore a medieval castle, and then… well, we weren’t sure what would follow. (I’m not sure that part really mattered.)

Of course, it was a fantasy. We all knew that. But, during our darker days, pretending it might be real, someday… that helped tremendously.

Several of us started keeping illustrated diaries of our emotions and our dreams for our pie-in-the-sky school.

So, I started posting some of my “Hogwarts” journal pages, online. They were among my earliest examples of how art journaling could work.

My Letter to Erin

One day, my wonderful friend Erin asked me to explain how I worked on my art journals… the nuts & bolts of art journaling.

Here’s my 2002 reply, slightly edited. Please forgive the shifts from present tense to past tense, and back again. Even now, parts of this story are difficult to tell.

Hi, Erin! I’m glad you asked about these journals.

Generally, I have a couple of them going. One has been my angry one, that no one will ever see. It’s unattractive, but it’s kept me from venting too inappropriately sometimes. Pain and rage are scribbled on its pages.

5" x 8" journal entitled "Hogwarts Journal."But, I keep other journals, too. Right now, I’m finishing a “Hogwarts” journal. It’s in the photo on the left.

That journal was part of a collective project, among friends who – like me – were facing difficult challenges.

When we got together, we’d share our journals with each other.

Everything was there, on paper, in words and all kinds of art.

Often, our journals were messy. That was appropriate. Each of us had different, messy problems to deal with… breakups, job issues, family tension, health challenges, and so on.

Those get-togethers and journals got us through the dark times. And then, one by one, we gathered strength and reinvented our lives… stronger.

And, one by one, we drifted apart. Some changed jobs or moved away. Others went back to school or got married. And so on. Most of us still keep in touch, online.

But even when I thought I was finished with the “Hogwarts” journal, it was still at my elbow, convenient for adding more art & ideas, completely unrelated to the original “Hogwarts” idea.

Now it’s nearly full. When I look at it now, it’s almost as if someone else had created the early pages in it.  I’m glad that’s all in the past.

I also have an event-related journal in progress. That one’s about the arts events where I teach.

(Note: as of around 2008, I stopped teaching at events. I wanted more time at home with my new husband. He’s my “happily ever after” person, and I’m so glad he’s in my life.)

And that’s why I have several half-finished journals in my studio, along with half-finished art projects. I love the product when it’s finished, but the process of journaling is more important to me.

The Journal I Threw Away

Then, when the ink was barely dry on the divorce papers, I made a big mistake.

I agreed to teach at an arts event. I’d taught there in the past, and it had been tremendous fun. Besides, I needed to get back to a normal routine.

So, as usual, I started a new journal about it – preparing for the event, what happened during it, the cross-country trip home, and so on.

But then, at the event, I was betrayed by a fellow artist whose career I’d salvaged, years earlier.

On the heels of my divorce, the emotional pain of this was devastating. So, I poured my bewilderment and rage onto the pages of my event journal.

Journaling helped me gain a better perspective on what had happened, not just to me, but others she targeted at the same event.

Eventually, my inner turmoil subsided. I decided nobody – including me – needed to revisit the pain of that time.

So, I threw out that journal. It’s in a landfill, somewhere in New Hampshire.

(No, I don’t usually throw out art, but honestly, this was truly awful stuff, beyond redemption. I have no regrets about throwing it out.)

Here’s How I Start Most of My Journals

Generally, I start with standard sketchbooks. You know, the spiral-bound kind that they sell at Michael’s, and other art supply shops. I like the 5″x8″ size. (For the following illustrations, I’m using my “Hogwarts” journal I’d mentioned, earlier.)

First, I gesso & paint and then collage the cover. (Gesso keeps the paint from seeping into the paper.) I use whatever gesso is cheap & available in bulk.

Recently, I added a hemp/string & button closure to this journal, because the pages are too irregular for it to stay closed. I lace the string through two mini-grommets I’ve mounted in the back cover, and I wrap the hemp/string around the antique button loosely sewn on the front. (It’s secured with a smaller antique button on the inside of the front cover.)

But, next in the process, I start the title page, which will evolve as the journal does. This one isn’t finished yet.

Along the way, I’ll alternately write and make art in the journal. (I like the phrase “make art” because it sounds like “make love,” and it’s an equally passionate expression.)

I deliberately gesso ahead a few pages when I’m doing art, to make certain I keep punctuating my journal with art.

A Sample Page

Below is an early page from the “Hogwarts” journal, when I was struggling with the idea of divorce, and feeling very unloved.

A page from my journal, reminding myself that no one is truly alone.

That’s why I wrote this:

“I need someone to hold. Someone who won’t pull back at the first sign of release, and withdraw behind the mask as if the whole thing was a little distasteful. Someone who looks me in the eyes and smiles beyond his lips, with a knowledge of the ages and a sense of comfort like returning home to a place I never really left.”

That collage started with line taken from a magazine: “You’re not alone.”

Before I started gluing down the paper elements, I painted the page – very loosely – with acrylic paint in several colors.

Then, I placed the intended images and colored paper on the page, and rearranged them until I was ready to glue them to the page, permanently. My “glue” is usually Golden Gel Medium (soft gloss) I apply it with a one-inch sponge brush.

Over the typed, text layer, I placed some tissue paper. I glued it in place with the same gel medium. This leaves the tissue transparent enough to read the text through, and adds the sense of layers that I value in my art.

Generally, my elements are:

  • Antique paper (from flea markets)
  • Magazine images & text (favorites include W magazine and Nat’l Geographic)
  • Art & text that I create on the computer, and
  • Acrylic paint, glitter, and sometimes gold leaf.

Surface embellishments include found feathers & other items, antique buttons, freshwater pearls, and… whatever else finds its way into my art supplies!

Here’s another page.

Life -prose or poetry?

And yes, the pages did buckle and bubble beneath the gesso, paint, gel medium, and layers.

That’s why I use a string-and-button closure. And no, I don’t mind that it’s such an irregular and funky design. I’m very process oriented, and if the pages buckle and warp… so be it.

In this case, the pages looked an uneven as my life was, at the time.

So anyway, that’s today’s art blurb. I hope it helps!