My Analog Collage Gluing Technique

Back in December 2017, I entered a coffee cup decorating contest at a local coffee shop. I don’t have much in the way of painting or drawing skills, so I decided to do a collage design. I got out a pair of scissors, some magazines, and a can of spray adhesive, and I was quite pleased with how my cup turned out. (I did not win the contest.)

In March 2018, I decided to take a collage class offered at our local arts center. I can’t now recall or find the teaching artist’s name. What I do recall from the class was the “intuitive” image-gathering technique (you just go through magazines and clip/tear whatever speaks to you), the different techniques for tearing paper to produce a white edge (or not), and that we used a paste called “yes”.

Here’s the piece I started in the class and finished 2 1/2 years later (because I can rarely finish this kind of work in class – too much perfectionism): “Fire & Ice: Climate Change”.

I loved how it felt to make collage, how it felt when images “clicked” for me, but I didn’t pursue it beyond the class.

Then in October 2020 (oh, 2020!), I started another collage project as the result of an assignment in “The Artist’s Way” book, which I was undertaking as a writer. I remembered the paste brand I’d used in my collage class, but couldn’t remember the application technique. I turned to the Internet, and I cobbled together a technique, which I have been refining as my interest in collage work has increased.

I wanted to share here what I have learned about gluing, in case someone else is interested in working with analog collage but didn’t know how to get started.

My tools:

  • a tub of “YES!” paste
  • an old credit card or similar bit of stiff plastic with a straight edge
  • a damp microfiber cloth and a dry washcloth
  • “neatness mats”
  • a small, pointed wooden dowel and an x-acto knife

My process:

Step 1: arrange images how I want them on my collage board, then carefully start picking up the topmost layer of images and setting them aside in a pile, so the topmost / last images to be placed end up on the bottom of the set-side pile. Use pencil or marker to note where the edges of the pieces should go.

Step 2: use credit card to put a glob of YES! paste on the neatness mat, and mix the paste around a bit. I have found that the paste spreads better when it’s worked a little. Also, sometimes the paste in the jar is too dry, and I’ll add a sprinkle of water to the jar at the end of a work session, so it’s a bit more workable the next time I go to use it. I try to remember to keep the lid on the jar as I’m working, too.

Step 3: place an image face down on the neatness mat. While holding it in place with one hand, use the credit card to spread a thin layer of paste on the image in the direction opposite of where you are holding – paying particular attention to getting paste out to the edges. Be careful not to let the image shift on the mat, or you’ll get paste on the front of it. Reset your holding hand and spread paste in the other direction to finish coating the image. Getting the right thickness of paste can be tricky. You don’t want too thick a layer, or it will bubble the paper and ooze out and make a terrible mess. Too thin a layer, and it either dries out and won’t stick, or it sticks and stays immediately and won’t give you any time to tweak the image placement. The type of paper the image is printed on as well as the material of your substrate will affect the behavior of the paste.

Step 3, tip 1 – have a damp cloth and a dry cloth on hand to wipe your fingers off as you’re placing the glued image. You will inevitably get glue on your fingers. If you wipe them off as you work, you can reduce the amount of cleanup and potential damage to your images. (Tip for pet owners: make sure these cloths are as free of pet hair and lint as possible. Otherwise, that fluff is going to get onto your glue-sticky fingers and then become a part of your artwork.)

Step 3, tip 2 – use your credit card tool to scrape up and re-use paste left behind on the mat.

Step 3, tip 3 – shift to a clean portion of the mat, or use a clean mat / clean side of a mat, for each piece glued, so you don’t get glue on the front of the image or accidentally lose part of the image if it sticks to the glue on the mat.

A note on the piece pictured below – this was very tricky to glue! For long / thin pieces, you always have to apply the glue in the direction of the thinnest piece, along the longest axis, opposite of where you are holding it down. The lady’s shape posed a challenge, because I needed to apply glue towards the top of her head, but her arm hanging down was counter to that flow. I just wound up carefully over-applying the paste as I went over her arm, being careful not to scrape it up in the process. The frame around her was difficult, too. I had to keep shifting my fingers around to be holding the piece opposite from the direction I was pulling the glue.

Step 3, tip 4 – use a brayer if needed to help flatten out the image. Be careful about keeping the brayer clean, though. Glue will ooze out from the edges of an image, get on the brayer, and then get spread all over your piece. The damp/dry cloths for your fingers can be used to clean off the brayer, too.

Step 4 – once all your images are settled in place, turn the piece around in the light so you can see where bits of paste are smudging the surface. Use the damp microfiber cloth to GENTLY dab the paste away, and blot dry with the dry cloth as needed. Use caution when doing this! For lower-quality papers or certain kinds of glossy or absorbent paper, the ink will very easily come off the image and/or smudge. It’s best to avoid getting glue all over in the first place.

Step 5 – other finishing touches. Use an x-acto knife to cut off areas of the image that overhang your substrate. I find this is easiest to do while the glue is still damp. I make sure to pull the knife down, away from the piece, and to wipe the glue off the knife on the damp cloth as I go, to avoid tearing the paper.

You can also test the corners of your images, to make sure they have stuck firmly. If they are peeling up, pop a little bit of paste under there and smooth them down, then clean up the excess glue if necessary.

Final step (other than framing) – After I’m sure there’s no damp glue on the surface of the piece, I will place my completed piece under a piece of cardboard on a flat surface and stack books on top, to press it flat if it started bowing from the moisture in the paste.

Last-last step: take the neatness mats and your credit card tool to a sink and wash off the excess paste. E-Z cleanup!

SPECIAL CASE:

If one of the images you are using is a “fussy cut” with really thin bits, for example, the tealights on the right side of the image below:

You can’t just apply paste to this with a credit card tool. It’ll tear.

Instead, apply a decently thin layer of paste to your neatness mat, with sufficient area to accommodate the image. Gently set the image (face-up) into the paste, and use a small pointed dowel to poke the image to make sure all of it has contacted the glue. Use an x-acto knife to gently pry up an edge until you can grip it and carefully, carefully peel up your now-glued image. Here’s a photo of what the “paste patch” looked like on the neatness mat after I peeled up the image (the paste was actually a bit too thick here):

So there you have it – all my gluing “secrets”.

I’m still super new to this, so if you have tips and techniques to share, I’d love to hear them!

I have jars of gloss DecoArt decoupage and Golden Acrylic Heavy Gel Medium that I haven’t even opened yet.

***

UPDATE 4/5/21

I have now tried the DecoArt gloss decoupage and can give an informed opinion about its usefulness and why I will not be using it regularly. The project I decided to try this on was applying images from poor-quality paper from encyclopedias onto waxy playing cards. This decoupage seemed to work OK for this application.

Benefit 1 – the liquid substance allows easy brushing onto even fussy cuts of paper. I’m still making good use of my “neatness mat” here.

Benefit 2 – this decoupage gloss can be brushed over the front surface of the work as a protectant. It also evens out surface texture differences between different types of paper and makes any “glue smudges” disappear. You can use a dampened brush or applicator sponge to get a smooth surface, but I kind of like the way the brush marks look.

Drawback 1 – this stuff smells really bad, which is a dealbreaker for me. I think it stinks! I can’t use it unless the weather is nice enough for me to open the windows and turn on a vent fan.

Drawback 2 – this decoupage gloss seems to “hold fast” faster than the YES! paste I’m used to, which gets really frustrating with the type of placements I like to do – I can’t tweak the placement for more than a few seconds, depending on the paper and how thick a layer I apply.

Drawback 3 – this stuff is a bit harder to wash off than the YES! paste. It kinds of turns into a plastic-like sheet. Which is good for protecting the paper, I suppose.

Drawback 4 – while the bottle says this stuff is non-tacky, I had a couple of stacked pieces stick together, even after the state minimum cure time of 24 hours. Maybe I just needed to wait a bit longer. Still. I don’t want to make tacky artwork. (Ha!)

Drawback 5 – I am TERRIFIED that I am going to knock over the bottle and gloss my entire workspace!

Copyright 2021 by Katie Bradshaw