Paper is one of the most versatile and easy mixed media art supplies you can use. If you’ve ever cut magazines up to make a collage, you are ready to experiment with paper in your mixed media art pieces.
Surprisingly, (however) it’s not as simple as cutting up some paper and gluing it to a surface. I mean – it is, if you’re just messing around, or experimenting. But I think you get my drift: just like everything else in art . . . there’s an art to it.
And if you’re anything like I was when I first started doing mixed media art, you have questions. Questions like:
What types of paper can I use?
What do I use for glue?
How do I know where to put the papers?
Can I paint or ink over the papers? Under the papers?
How do I hide paper edges I don’t want seen?
Can I paint a subject on top of my collage papers?
You may be thinking at this point that I am going to answer these questions. You may be right.
What Types of Paper to Use in Mixed Media Art
In short, you can use pretty much any paper.
The trick is how you use it/apply it. Some papers are very delicate, some are very thick, and some have a treated surface that may make other layers adhere weird. My best advice if you’re unsure is to test out your paper before actually using it on a piece of art (especially one that you’ve already started and have parts you don’t want changed or messed up).
Paper test: Glue your paper to a surface (a regular piece of paper is fine). Use a large enough piece so you can test out various materials on it. After the glue has dried, apply other mediums to see what happens: do they bead up and run off? Are they streaky? Do they rub off or flake after they dry? Does the paper get wrinkled or torn easily? These are all important things to note before you apply paper to your art and have to do damage control.
In the past, I’ve used scrapbook paper, vintage letters and forms, postcards, writing paper, tissue paper, vellum, cardstock, old book pages, sheet music, and more. The sky’s the limit, really, as long as you remember each paper will adhere and react differently. For example, vellum will wrinkle no matter how flat you scrape it, and old vintage pages might tear because they are very thin and – depending on where they were kept – they might be really dry (almost crumbly!)
What do I Use for Glue?
I recommend Mod Podge for gluing down papers. For a lot more detail on that, check out my post My Favorite Mixed Media Art Glue is . . . If you have another adhesive or glue, by all means use that! Just be sure it doesn’t wrinkle the paper as it dries. Also, check to see what type of surface the glue leaves for layers on top of it. If at all possible, you don’t want the glue to resist your next layers of media (unless, of course, that’s the effect you’re going for!)
My reasoning for choosing Mod Podge over other glues is this: Mod Podge will pull the paper flat to the surface. This means no wrinkles! There’s nothing worse than having your glued paper dry and realizing it has bunched and wrinkled and now you’re stuck having to fix it.
How Do I Know Where to Put the Papers?
In short, it all comes down to artistic preference . . . YOU are the artist after all! There is no “wrong way” to do this!
With that being said, there are also some tips and guidelines that can help you figure out what will look best.
Composition means how you place or arrange the elements of your artwork. This is important whether you are making a portrait or doing an abstract work. Why? Because at the end of the day, you work is meant to be viewed, and you want your viewer to react to your work! (How they react depends on you and what you’re trying to convey with your art).
There are some known and tested “rules” to composition that have been used for hundreds of years because they work. When we look at a piece of art, our brain immediately starts trying to make sense of it, and composition is one way to help your viewers’ brains make sense of your work.
Common composition rules include:
- Rule of Thirds – Divide your art into three parts horizontally and vertically. Placing elements at the intersections of those dividing lines is more pleasing for viewers.
- Odd Numbers – Having an odd number of subjects or focal points is more interesting to viewers.
- Negative Space or open space – Areas of open space allow the viewers eye to rest and brings them back to the more important parts of your artwork.
- Movement – How the eye travels around your art is important. If you place an important element near the edge of the page and the viewer’s eye wanders away from the painting, the may have a hard time coming back to it and move on to something else. You always want to place things so that the viewer keeps looking within your art.
All of this is to say, think about the composition and the viewer when you are deciding where to place the elements in your mixed media artwork. Even though paper in mixed media art is often covered up by paint, ink or other elements, how you chose to show or cover it up is important!
Try to balance your artwork in a way that is appealing to viewers. For example, if you use a paper on your mixed media piece that has heavily stamped numbers that are very attention grabbing and you place them willy-nilly on the canvas or paper, viewers could get confused because they don’t know where to look. One well placed paper with a large number balanced by a few others that have a smaller number, or a number slightly covered up by paint or other materials will make that larger number the important one and help balance out the painting.
(Of course, as with all things in art, this rule can be taken with a grain of salt because if you want to create a feeling of confusion in your viewer, making the painting feel unbalanced is a great way to do that). Ultimately, the point is to do that purposefully, not accidentally!
A helpful tip for placing your papers is something I do every time I work on a painting where I glue down papers: arrange them first, before gluing anything down. Here is the process I use.
- Go through my paper stash and pick out all the papers I *think* I’ll use. I often look for papers that match what I have in mind for my art piece, whether it be similar colors, or specific words, etc.
- Lay out papers on my canvas. Sometimes I have to tear or cut, depending on what type of artwork I am doing. If I don’t like the way certain papers look or if I need to add or change papers, now is the time!
- Once I get the papers how I want them, I take a photo with my phone. Then, I can take papers off, apply glue, etc. but still stay with the composition that I liked. (What can I say? I’m forgetful and easily distracted sometimes!) Before I did the photo trick, I used to get frustrated because I would take the papers off and not remember where to glue them.
Can I Paint or Ink Over (or Under) the Papers?
I know, so very helpful, right? But honestly, the answer to this question depends on what you are doing. Certain papers have a coating that might resist ink or paint, so you will have to test first if it is an unusual paper.
Most of the time, you are really free to do whatever you like! Lay ink and paint down, let it dry, glue papers over it. Lay out papers, glue down, and then ink or paint. It all depends on your process and how you want your artwork to look.
If you are going for more of a cut paper design, you may want to do your painting and inking (or other materials) first so you don’t obscure the paper shapes.
If you like the look of a background that has parts of the underneath layers peeking through, you probably want to glue the papers first and then apply paint.
The best advice I have is to experiment! See what works for you.
Also one last tip: remember if you are gluing paper on top of other things, beware of bumps and wrinkles. If the underneath paint or material isn’t smooth, it will cause your paper to bunch or wrinkle up when you glue it down. It all depends! Do you want a smooth texture, or do you prefer heavily textured with 3D elements?
How Do I Hide Paper Edges I Don’t Want Seen?
Unless you are going for a “collaged” look, you may not like how the edges of your glued paper looks. There are several ways to disguise edges so they are not distracting.
- You can tear the papers so there is a thinner, torn edge. This works well if you’re going for a distressed or grungy look.
- Cover some or all paper edges with a thick medium (or a specialty medium like crackle or sand) or paint. Be careful not to “outline” the edges because this can create odd areas of texture around each paper and nowhere else.
- Use a scraper (or old gift card) to drag paint or medium over paper edges, giving it a nice distressed look.
- Use stencils to cover some edges. Dab the stencil with thick paint or medium.
- Use 3D objects to glue over some paper edges.
You can also place the paper edges where they create a design or pattern so you don’t need to hide them.
Can I Paint a Subject On Top Of My Collage Papers?
The answer is yes, of course!
But you may want to think about a few things to make sure you’re okay with how it will look. Check where papers edge and overlap and make sure this won’t create a weird area in your painting. It may not look right to have a cut paper edge in the middle of the eye of your portrait.
Make sure you’re not using a material that will rub off if you go over it with other materials. All materials you use will react with each other in different ways. If you use paper, glue, ink, paint and then ink, make sure your top materials don’t pull the other layers underneath away. It’s happened to me and it’s frustrating! You may need to let all layers dry (or even use a workable fixative on parts of your art) before going ahead with new layers.
I hope you found this post helpful as you work on your own mixed media art. Working with paper is a lot of fun and can become almost relaxing/zen! But you do have to keep certain “rules” or tips in mind in order to create the best artwork possible. If I missed any thing or if you had a question about using paper in mixed media art I didn’t answer here, please let me know in the comments below!
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