Digital collage

Handmade textures in digital mixed-media collage

It doesn't look like much more than a grubby piece of cardboard, but this may be my favorite background texture. I'm pretty sure I've used it in every one of my digital collages so far.

It was a piece of illustration board with a too-heavy coat of gesso that was headed for the trash can when I decided it could still be useful.

The board had warped and the gesso had cracked because I got carried away troweling it on in an effort to create texture.

I had done some pieces previously where I wiped paint over paper that had been coated with acrylic medium for a sort of aged/distressed look, so I decided to try that here.

I glued a regular piece of printer paper on top of the dried gesso and coated it with gel medium, then when it was dry, I used a baby wipe to add a light coat of acrylic craft paint to bring out the texture (I use the cheap stuff - $.33 for a two oz. bottle on sale at Michael's). I like to use a medium gray paint for this type of thing because it makes it very easy to add color in Photoshop.

Once it dried, I scanned it and added adjustment layers (levels and hue/saturation). Now whenever I want to add it to the background of a collage, I just tweak the sliders in my adjustment layers, sometimes adding a layer of color over the top, and almost instantly I've given my collage a handmade look without having to create a brand new background from scratch every time.

A couple of good resources I have in my own library for creating handmade elements that can be incorporated into mixed media pieces (digital or otherwise) are Collage Lab and Print & Stamp Lab. I also like Art At The Speed Of Life for tips on creating somewhat more complex collage backgrounds in batches instead of one at a time so you always have a jumping off point instead of a blank canvas staring at you when you're ready to create.

ArtStudio and mixed-media digital collage on the iPad

Lately, I've been working primarily on my iPad 2 instead of my desktop computer; being able to sit on the sofa and enjoy a movie with my husband and still be productive at the same time is so nice! Far and away, my favorite app is ArtStudio. It's basically a mini Photoshop, with amazing functionality, all for less than the cost of a venti nonfat mocha frappuccino with no whip and chocolate drizzle.

I have absolutely no affiliation with the creators of this app, so forgive me if I sound like an advertisement, but ArtStudio is perfect for the type of work I do and I really can't say enough good things about it.

There's a lot that I want to say about ArtStudio and how I use it, so I'm planning to do a series of posts; in this first post, I'm going to discuss some very basic info about sizing your canvas and importing your digital collage elements.

The maximum canvas size in ArtStudio is 2048 x 2048 pixels. If you want to print your final art at 300 ppi without upsampling, this means your printed image will be 6.82" x 6.82". For my purposes, though, 300 ppi is overkill and I get perfectly lovely results printing at as little as 150 ppi. I like to take advantage of the maximum canvas size available to me, though, so since I want my printed image to be 8 x 10, I set the height of my canvas to the maximum size of 2048 (this gives me 204.8 ppi to work with when I'm ready to print) and my width to 1639 (8" x 204.8 ppi = 1638.4).

An important thing to note about ArtStudio is that if you import an image that is larger than your canvas size, it will be reduced to fit, rather than hanging off the edges of your canvas as it would in Photoshop. For instance, if I import this square image of my background texture at 2048 x 2048 into a 1639 x 2048 document, instead of cropping the width to 1639 prior to importing it, it will be reduced to fit the 1639 pixel width. This leaves me with a 1639 x 1639 square that doesn't fill the entire canvas, like this:

You can scale an image to fill the canvas once you've imported it, but of course this will reduce the quality, so be sure to size your images to fit your canvas before importing them for the best results.

Another important thing to keep in mind is that if you transfer your images from your computer to your iPad by syncing, iTunes will "optimize" your images, i.e., make them smaller. The simplest way around this is to email images to your iPad instead of transferring them by syncing. When you open the email on your iPad, just tap and hold the image and choose "Save Image." The image will be saved in your camera roll at its original size and can now be imported into ArtStudio.

In future posts, I'll discuss more of the creative aspects of ArtStudio, like how to make and save custom tools, using effects, how to work within some of ArtStudio's limitations, and my own process for creating a collage in ArtStudio.

Relief printing in digital collage

Although I love the flexibility of working digitally, I still like my work to retain a handmade feel so I often make elements of my collages using traditional art materials, then scan them and manipulate them digitally. What's especially nice about this is that I can use these elements again and again in as many pieces as I like

One of the things I like to use in my collages is relief printing. I tried making printing blocks in the shapes that I wanted in my collages, like, say, a teddy bear, or a little girl's hair, but I found it was difficult to get things exactly the way I wanted them, and I ended up trying over and over to get the look I wanted. I solved this problem by printing a large area of color and masking out the areas I didn't want in Photoshop.

I made my printing block by cutting out a piece of craft foam about 4" x 6," small enough to fit in my hand, but big enough to give me a substantial printing area, and used a glue stick to attach it to a piece of foamcore. I thought I was buying the self-adhesive type of craft foam, but didn't realize my mistake until it was too late. Fortunately the gluestick works well and is easy to use.


I used inexpensive grey craft paint for my printing (I like to use grey because it's so easy to colorize in Photoshop) and applied it with a cheap foam applicator, like the kind you get at Home Depot, brushing the paint on, then dabbing to get rid of stroke marks. I tried using my brayer, but I had difficulty getting the paint on evenly. I think it was because of the absorbent nature of the craft foam. After the paint was on, I flipped it over and pressed it onto a piece of cold press watercolor paper.


After it dried I scanned it and layered it behind a previously scanned pencil drawing that I had already colorized to a nice sepia tone in Photoshop.






Next, I added a layer mask and painted out everything outside the area of my drawing.






Finally, I added a levels adjustment layer to darken the area that would be brown, plus two hue and saturation adjustment layers, one for the dark brown body and one for yellowish snout. I checked the "colorize" box on both,  moved the sliders around 'til I found colors I liked, then used masks to limit the areas I applied color to, and voila! A teddy bear!



Sometimes I like to mask the printed area so that it doesn't align perfectly with my drawing, as I did here with the hair, giving the effect of a printed piece with imperfect registration. I think this is often more interesting than a perfectly "registered" image and adds to the handmade feel of the piece.



I'll write another post soon about one of my favorite handmade elements; in person it doesn't look like much more than a grubby piece of paper, but I like it so much, I use in nearly every piece I make!