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What Lies Beneath - Paper Collage

Celebrating and preserving the surface history that's created by building a painting in layers, is very much part of my process and an exciting way to work.

I love that the myriad of decisions made along the way are evident in when the painting is finished. It might just be that the edge of a piece of collage is showing through the paint, or the remnants of a charcoal line remain in an unexpected place. Or that I've dry brushed paint in an area which allows the under painting to peek through.

Texture and surface history can either evolve as you go or you can create it with some intention at various stages during the creative process using a variety of artist mediums or collage. Creating my own collage papers and incorporating them into my paintings has become an important part of my process.

If you’re keen to try and build up the surface of your paintings, there are lots of ways to experiment and explore different combinations of mediums and materials. Ideally, spend some time exploring in your sketchbook or on an old canvas to see which combinations produce results that you enjoy.

Let’s take a look at a couple of ways I typically create my own papers for collage and the way I incorporate them into my work.


Gelli plates are a great way to create unique and interesting collage papers that can be used at any stage in your process; either at the very beginning to help you get started or later on when you’re might be ready to add some details or sometimes even just to cover up larger areas of the painting that have become a distraction or you feel aren’t working. Gelli plates enable you to produce great results from a wide variety of textured objects and materials. You can print using black or Paynes Grey and then use glazes to adjust the hue, or use a two-layer method using contrasting colours (which I do mostly). Or you can get really adventurous and create multiple layered prints.

I’m a bit of a Bower Bird and collect a variety of interesting organic and man-made materials as and when I come across them, so I have plenty to choose from when I’m doing monoprint experiments that I can use later for collage.

I have a stash of all these things!

  • Rope, string, wool, ribbons;

  • Small packaging, boxes, used envelopes, corrugated cardboard, glossy packets;

  • Dry grasses and fibrous materials found on the beach or in the garden;

  • Leaves and plant stems, both green and dried;

  • Bottle tops & cardboard tubes;

  • Combs and brushes, including old toothbrushes;

  • Old credit/loyalty cards;

  • Textured fabric remnants such as hessian or upholstery fabric;

  • Old shoes and denim off cuts.

I find that the Gelli plate responds well to papers with a relatively smooth surface, though heavier weight papers that are more textured also produce interesting results. I tend to use standard copy paper or cartridge/ drawing paper as it has less tooth and will allow for finer details to be picked up in the print process.


If you don’t have a Gelli plate you can simply use paper and paints and/or drawing materials to create a stack of instantly interesting visual or physical textures. Play around with different sizes of marks, colours in perhaps just one or two layers, glazes to adjust hue.

Different types of brushes and tools will make different kinds of marks. Try creating papers with a pattern-like qualities employing lines, dots and spots or scrapes. Explore creating contrasting results using thick daubs of paint vs thin washes of colour.

It may take you only an hour or so to make enough material for several pieces of work, particularly if you intend to combine collage and painted areas on your artwork surface.

Remember that using a variety of papers for your experiments will produce more interesting results, as different materials respond in sometimes unusual ways to the surface. You don’t need expensive papers – just try out lots of different off cuts or ‘waste’ papers you may have to hand.

  • Newsprint

  • Cardboard

  • Standard copy paper

  • Old envelopes

  • Packaging

  • Old phone books

  • Magazine pages

  • Paper bags

  • Cereal boxes

  • Paper towel

‘Art paper’ options to try if you have them in the studio:

  • Tissue paper

  • Brown paper

  • Block printing paper

  • Rice paper

  • Watercolour or mixed media paper

  • Standard cartridge or easel paper

The important thing is to try and stay in that ‘play space’ and work intuitively, without feeling like you are creating finished artworks. I mix materials and approach this exercise as a bit of a science lab! Some combinations to try are:

  • Inks and charcoal

  • Thick paint and pencil lines

  • Wide and thin brushes with washes of paint

  • Scrapers and both thick and thin paint

  • Acrylic with watercolour

  • Gesso and ink

Incorporating collage into your artwork will create interesting differences visually and physically through texture.


I have no hard and fast rule when it comes to adding collage, So I’m really of the ‘evolution’ school of thought when it comes to building up surface history.

Making conscious decisions about where and how to create a physically or visually textured surface is the furthest thing from my mind when I start a painting. I don't use textured moulding pastes or very lumpy and obvious collage to kick start my surface history at the beginning, instead I allow the surface to evolve during the creative process as I go, adding collage and over painting, altering papers through glazing and always being open to add more paper when I feel the painting needs an injection of visual texture.

The resulting physical surface retains an accidental feeling about it and often shows that risks were taken and that interesting surprises have happened along the way.

In order to create these kinds of interesting 'final' surfaces, it’s important to remain open to possibilities and stay in a heightened state of awareness about what's unfolding on the canvas, so I can identify and preserve visually exciting parts of the painting as I go. Or opt to cover up areas with larger pieces of collage paper to create some unity!

But it's a bit like looking for buried treasure, the key is that you have to bury the treasures first!

I find the easiest way to do this is to begin every painting with an 'explorer' phase. To fully engage with this important stage, I just focus on playing with materials and elements all over the surface. I experiment with different colours, marks and tools, combining thick paint with thin washes and glazes, scribbles with scratches, alternating between brushes and spatulas, and moving light and dark values around the canvas.

This early part of my process creates space for happy accidents to occur, unexpected surprises to happen and more importantly freely make intuitive decisions in the moment, that will later reveal themselves to be 'mistakes' in the context of gradually defining the composition.

As the painting progresses, I will always find areas that feel like they're the 'wrong' colour or marks that may be in the 'wrong' place and this allows an opportunity for adding collage and/or over painting to happen and this is where the texture of the surface really starts to build.

What guides my decision making in moments such as these, is my Golden Rule.

'You can over paint most of it, but you must allow a piece of the story to stay'

Sometimes the pieces of the story are tiny, no more than a thumbnail in size, or sometimes I make a big change with a broad wash or glaze, so I can still see what's underneath whilst essentially making a drastic visual change to the quality of that particular area of the painting.

Deciding on what feels right and what feels wrong, what's a treasure and worth saving and what's not, will be different in every painting.

I just have to decide how important that 'treasured' area is to the overall painting and whether it deserves to be big or small and whether or not it is the main point of my story or just a small supporting actor.

Offering up pieces of paper collage to the painting is a quick and easy way to visually block out or highlight areas of the composition and I don’t have to commit and stick them down until I’m sure I’ll be happy with the impact it will have on the composition.

And as I work through all these decisions, cause and effect comes into play, one decision leads to another, the story of the painting becomes clearer with each and every treasure I save and every layer I build, the composition begins to reveal itself and find its voice.

By the time I get to a point where I feel the painting is finished, I can visibly see the layers beneath and that time and decision making were invested in the making of the piece and that the surface is rich with a history, unique to that painting.

I’d love to know how you incorporate collage into your artwork! Feel free to share any tips you have on ways in which you create visual or physical texture and surface history in your paintings. And if you'd like a more in depth look at how I make my collage papers, let me know in the comments below!

What Lies Beneath - Paper Collage
What Lies Beneath - Paper Collage

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1 Comment

Julia Marsh
Julia Marsh
Jan 06, 2023

You are so generous with your information and advice. Thank you. I've been creating off and on for some years. My biggest stumbling blocks are (a) trusting the process and (b) composition. I try to work from an inuitive space in my mind (the process) but always end up fighting with the composition. Your blogs and demo's are very insightful. Again, many thanks 😊

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