I first started to make collage around 1995. I was living with friends in a shared house in West Cork. A friend of mine was trying to start up a business with his new van, collecting paper from newsagents and other sources and taking it to be recycled. Unfortunately his van broke down in our back garden and never moved again. I had part time work on a fishing boat but in the winter things used to slacken off a bit. When it was raining, I used to go out to the garden with a cup of tea and sit in the van reading the magazines.
At that time, most of our reading matter and music arrived by post. Zines such as Schnews, Re:Search, Sniffing Glue. A lot of our books and music came from catalogues such as AK Press in Edinburgh, the collage artist Freddie Baer used to design their layout. Music and tapes were a constant currency among friends. Often the tapes we gave each other, or received in the post would have photos or drawings pasted on the inlay and it was a short jump for me to get a sheet of glass and a craft knife and start cutting up the magazines to make CD and Tape covers, polemical statements, postcards, birthday cards, presents,... I think one of my first collages was the tattoo design which I still have today.
I think what initially attracted me to collage was that moment of alchemy which occurs when you find the right combination of 2 or maybe 3 images. That, for me, is collage in it's simplest, most powerful form. I was interested in the juxtaposition of imagery, while at the same time trying to extend that moment when the viewer must decide if the image is real or manipulated. When I discovered artists like Gee Vaucher, Hannah Hoch, Linder, Winston Smith, I realised that I had discovered a shared attraction to that alchemical process. Melding together 2 elements to produce something entirely new, be it a juxtaposition or a symbiosis, a new image that is sometimes an equation, sometimes a commentary on itself, sometimes a question.
I think it's interesting how your whole approach to the aesthetic of an art form can be shaped by the practicalities you encounter in the first few hours of learning your craft. I quickly realised that, in practical terms, I needed a background to work on, to cover the white space, and a figure or object which would fit into that background in order to make the collage work in compositional terms. I think that's where my obsession with recreating the depth of photos began. Recreating images by obeying the logical characteristic of photography, or realistic perspective, is a framework I still cling to, it helps me shape my work. Challenging and adapting that framework is what makes my practice a work in progress.
I am sometimes asked why I don't work more in a digital format, and it's difficult to answer. I did eventually study multimedia in 1999 and I love the possibilities that using photoshop gives you. In actual fact I use photoshop quite a bit, but there is something visceral about the feel and smell of paper and glue, the meditative process of cutting intricate shapes and the colour quality of the original print sources, which will always hold an attraction for me. It's how I learned to make collage and it's how I think about composition and process. I still get a big kick out of the fact that most viewers of my work, after initially looking closely, instinctively touch the outline areas of the elements, as if to verify their initial visual impression. I'm becoming increasingly interested in tearing and distressing the paper rather then trying to create clean graphic images. My work is viewed online a lot and I think it is interesting to see that kind of analogue interference on an illuminated digital screen.
Anyway, I think I'm at risk of overcomplicating, or over explaining my process. I intended this page to be a practical guide to Collage as much as a conceptual one:
Collage, in essence, is a process of cutting and pasting. Within that premise there is a lot of scope for variation and innovation. There are no hard and fast rules about what materials you use, what you cut with, what glue you paste with, or what surface you paste onto. As an example I'll include the main tools I use in my day to day studio practice:
Here you can see a variety of cutting tools, but by far the one I use the most is the Swann Norton Scalpel handle with a 10a blade at a basic cost of about €3 for a handle and 5 blades. A close second would be a standard stanley blade, for heavy cutting, which as you can see, can be adapted for a number of tools, including a paint scraper. A cutting mat makes life a lot easier, and a small ruler is useful for cutting straight edges around elements. A good pair of titanium scissors for reducing the size of clippings to a more manageable size. Also nice to have is a circular cutter, there are 3 varieties here. Quite a specific tool, and by no means essential, but fun for more abstract designs.
There's a lot of variations of glue to choose from. I used pritt stick initially, then moved on to PVA. There are quite specific and expensive craft glues for collage and decoupage but I find the Geocel Universal PVA or basic builders PVA, to be strong and cheap. PVA remains water soluble, even when dry and has quite a glossy finish, but it gives a tough veneer and good protection to the surface. I have pieces made 8 years ago with PVA which still show no signs of light damage or fading, unlike my collages made with Pritt Stick. PVA is very quick to dry though. You don't have much time to correct or move images once they are down before it starts to get tacky and stick to your fingers. You need to get air bubbles and wrinkles out as soon as you can after applying the paper.
Wallpaper paste is much more forgiving and it's easy to see why it's such a popular craft tool. Allowing the glue to soak into the back of the paper means that the paper expands, then contracts when it dries, giving a very tight, wrinkle free surface. It is slow drying and can be easily moved to adjust composition and expel air bubbles. I can't give a great report on the durability of the finish as I don't have a great deal of permanent work made with Wallpaper paste. I have used it on its own for several temporary installations with great success though. If I was using it for permanent work I would consider using some kind of water based varnish.
Acrylic Gel Medium is my adhesive of choice these days. Spectrum do a litre for around €27, which goes a long way. Windsor and Newton and Golden are a little more expensive, but stock a wider range with very specific qualities. Acrylics are a science in themselves but in essence the medium behaves a lot like paint while remaining relatively transparent. It can get cloudy if you lay it on too thick, but at the price you would want to use it sparingly. The finish is so much softer than PVA and mixes well with water. I'm quite interested in soaking and distressing papers these days and I find that Gel Medium preserves a lot of the tactile qualities of the paper surface with a matt finish. Preservative qualities remain to be seen but Golden stock a UV resistant matt varnish, which I'm currently testing.
Also pictured is a pot of Clear polyester casting resin, which I've used to make layered collage cubes in the past. Strictly speaking it's an adhesive, providing a 3D variation on the basic premise of cutting and pasting.
Pasting is the tricky part. Getting your composition fixed where you want it, looking how you had it during the composition stage, takes a little practice. It's best to just jump in. As a general rule of thumb I select the size of the paddle based on the size of the piece to be pasted. Some of these tools are built for purpose, while some, such as the gift cards and windscreen wiper are improvised tools.
Your main aim is to get your paper down without trapping any air bubbles or creating wrinkles. Depending on the adhesive, it can be quite useful to apply the adhesive sparingly to the back of your paper first, allow it to soak in and then kind of fold it in place, from one edge to the other, brushing out the bubbles as you go. Dropping it in place will inevitiably trap bubbles underneath. Subsequently I would apply a dab of adhesive to the top of your paper and use this as a lubricant to expel bubbles and excess glue with your chosen pasting tool. The paper can become quite sensitive to pressure once it is soaked so it is about intuitively using the appropriate paddle and the correct amount of pressure at this stage. Some times if the paper is delicate or has an intricate perimeter clipping, you may want to use a brush to smooth out the edges. Having said that, if things start to get a bit messy or tricky, my first impulse is to drop the tools and use my fingers.