Saturday, 16 January 2010

Collage Greeting Cards

It's a bit quiet on the 'sales' front at the moment. No doubt many people are still digesting their post-Christmas credit card bills, so that gives me time to work on stocking up my online 'stores'.

I was checking out the Greeting Card Universe website (see RH column) a couple of days ago to see what 'holidays' are upcoming in America, as there seem to be a great many more card-giving occasions there than in the UK. I clicked on the'Major Holiday Greetings' button and had a huge, and very encouraging, surprise! There were thousands of 'holiday greeting cards' displayed in order of popularity, and to my amazement, there, in the number one slot, was my Snow-balling card!

There's a story behind this design! Last November I had been working on designing greeting cards for a year and I was beginning to feel a bit 'stale'. So I took a break and looked into Children's Book Illustration, as that is another thing I've done a bit of in the past, in a totally amateurish way, for the children I was teaching to read (more on that another day!). I found that there was a lot to discover about illustrating children's books professionally and, as usual, I used the internet to find out what I needed to know. I began to prepare some illustrations for a little poem about a frog and a dragonfly that I had written as part of the Synthetic Phonics Reading/Spelling program I had devised for my pupils. But I soon ran into a snag; I wanted my frog to be clear-cut, to stand out sharply again a much more soft-focus watercolour background and I didn't really know how to achieve that.(mostly done in watercolour pencils)

Masking fluid was one option but I don't get on very well with it and it ruins my brushes; the other option I toyed with was to cut out the frog and stick him onto the background - ie collage!

In the course of my meanderings down the highways and byways of the web, I had already discovered that Eric Carle, creator of the famous 40-yr old 'Very Hungry Caterpillar', used collage to make his caterpillar and I had watched the slideshows and videos on his website that show him at work. I was surprised to find that it seems to be quite a popular medium with children's book illustrators

But my biggest discovery was that childrens' author and illustrator, Ezra Jack Keats , also used collage for his illustrations! I had loved his books when my eldest daughter was little enough to have a bedtime story but I hadn't paid much attention to the actual stories (which I've now learned were controversial at the time!) because I was too busy drooling over the wonderfully vibrant images!

I'd never done collage before, never even seriously considered it - apart from a display board in my classroom, more than thirty years ago, when I was using 'Peter and the Wolf' for 'music and movement' with my class of seven-year olds and decided to link it to art lessons. Together we created an enormous tree with the more artistically inclined children painting the duck, the cat and the bird etc, while the less confident children happily painted a collection of leaves in all shades of green and yellow! But that was a long time ago and as far as I remember, the staple gun played a major part in the assembling of this artistic endeavour!

So for practice, I thought I would to try to make a collage Christmas card. I painted my papers in advance, experimenting with tissue paper, layout paper and even newsprint. I tried out gouache and acrylics for the painting and my attic studio was soon festooned with multicoloured sheets of paper, taped to the beams to dry like washing! I spent an evening working on the design and was finally ready to begin making the collage one afternoon, straight after lunch.

I decided to work on my kitchen table instead of in my attic, as I realised I would need plenty of flat surfaces to spread the papers out on (kitchen worktops!) and soon I was almost drowning in my 'papers'! It took me far longer than I had anticipated - it wasn't long before I realised that my design was far too complex and ambitious for a beginner - and the afternoon came and went, it got dark and my snow-scene was far from finished! I began to get hungry but I couldn't stop to eat because my kitchen was in too much of a mess to find any food! And all the excrutiatingly detailed cutting and gluing was making me physically tense and my slightly 'iffy' back was beginning to complain! So much for creative work being, therapeutic, as suggested here!

When I dropped one of the snowman's tiny 'buttons' on the floor, I was tempted to give up! But, amazingly I found the minute piece again so I took it as a good sign and ploughed on to the end.

I was actually surprisingly pleased with the finished result; though when I scanned it and saw it on my computer screen, I realised that in my tiredness and tension towards the end, I'd made a small but rather noticeable mistake. It's not all that easy to rectify a mistake in collage, but with the aid of my very sharp craft-knife, I managed to put it right. And, curious to know whether I would enjoy collage more as I gained experience, I began to work on a series of children's birthday cards with much simpler, more manageable designs -

Then came my decision to sign up with Greeting Card Universe and all creative work went by the by for the time being in favour of endless hours of scanning and uploading my designs. To my astonishment, the struggle that turned into my Snow-balling card was featured on the GCU homepage (I've no idea how it got there!) and it became my best-seller over the Christmas period; encouraged by this, as well as finding it ranked so high on the 'Holiday Greetings' page a few days ago, I've had another go -

I don't think it's worth giving step-by-step instructions for making a collage here - it's basicly just sticking paper (or other materials!) onto a backing surface and what to stick, and where, is down to the individual artist. But I do think it could be a worthwhile medium to explore for anyone who is not very confident about their drawing skills but who has an eye for colour and composition. So here are my answers to some of the questions that are likely to arise if you have never tried collage before -

  • What sort of paper do you use? I've tried using coloured tissue, bought in a pack from the stationers and unpainted. But I found that the effect was very hit and miss where the colours overlapped. Maybe I would have succeeded with more practice, but once I'd seen Eric Carle painting his papers, that seemed a lot more interesting.
  • What do you use to paint the papers? After some experimenting, I found that acrylics gave a tougher finished paper than gouache. It is easier to cut accurately for the detailed shapes that were needed for the Snow-balling picture. I like the semi-transparency of tissue painted with gouache, though, as here -

  • What do you use to cut the paper with? I use two sizes of scissors and a good, sharp craft-knife. The craft-knife is better for the tougher papers but tends to tear the tissue paper. When I did a lot of screenprinting, I owned a clever craft-knife that cuts smooth curves but I can't find it and I remember it being quite expensive. Might invest in one again when I've earned a bit more money!
  • What sort of glue do you use? I began with wallpaper paste - in fact the whole of the Snow-balling design was coated with paste at the end to make sure all the edges stuck down firmly. But for designs with a lot of small detailed pieces, or when I'm using tissue paper, I prefer a craft glue-stick - one that dries clear, of course. I would never attempt to use wallpaper paste for a design where any part of the background is left exposed as the any stray paste would be likely to show up.
  • What kind of support do you use? All sorts of things! It doesn't matter too much as long as it's reasonably sturdy so that the glue/paste doesn't warp it. (If that does happen, you can usually flatten it by placing it under a pile of heavy books when it's almost dry.) Before Christmas I bought several packs of printer card that were on special offer as a multi-pack, hoping to print some of my own Christmas cards. But I found that the coating on the card wasn't good and the colours printed out looking quite faded. So I'm putting this otherwise redundant card to good use now, using if for my collages.
  • Do you prepare your design first? Only if it's a complicated design where it's important that each element is in the correct place (eg if there is a creature or person in the design). With the Valentine Cards, I just sketched them out very roughly, literally on the back of an envelope, and developed the design as I went along. It's not all that easy to move or remove a piece of your collage if it's in the wrong place, but I find that, if I don't stick down the edges until it's all finished, there is usually scope for lifting a piece off with the point of my craft-knife, as long as the glue hasn't entirely dried.
I'll be happy to answer any queries but the main thing is to have fun and experiment. And if at first you get in a sticky mess, just 'keep calm and carry on!'

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