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Water based media is normally flat surfaced, two dimensional and textureless. In this article we are going to explore the unpredictable use of collage with watercolor, gouache, ink and gesso.


Establishing a varied texture on our paper, before we start applying paint, encourages all sorts of interesting, unpredictable things to occur.


Selectively using editing and removing these accidental effects produces a surface that is engaging and mysterious. The viewer is never quite sure just how all these marks evolved.

For this demonstration my subject will be this beautiful little village on the edge of Lake Como in Italy.




The first job is to make a plan with a simple thumbnail sketch. This allows me to work out where the focal point will be and to arrange for the strongest tonal contrast to occur in this area. It also gives me a chance to decide where the areas of collage should be.

Thumbnail sketch for watercolor and collage




For the collage, I will use a couple of different Japanese rice papers, a neutral pH glue ( I am using Yes glue) and some gesso to break up the surface of the paper.

Materials for watercolor and collage
Japanese Rice Paper and Gesso on Arches 300gsm medium watercolor paper




Because the subject is mostly geometric shapes I have applied some torn rectangles of rice paper roughly coinciding with the arrangement of the buildings. Over this some rough brush marks of thick watercolor gesso further break up the surface.




When the glue and gesso had dried I drew my composition onto the paper with a charcoal pencil. I made the lines almost line up with the collage rice paper shapes. Leaving the shapes slightly out of alignment gives more interest to the painting.

Drawing over the prepared collage




My first washes were very quick and simple. I kept the colors very tight to harmonize with the color of the rice paper. Subdued mixtures of Quinacridone Gold, Alizarin and a little Ultramarine Blue all applied with a rough 1/2” bristle brush.

First washes over prepared collage.




Next some darks were added with the same three colors, just a darker mixture and still using the 1/2” bristle brush. I like to get these nice loose marks on early in the painting then use a finer brush to add some contrasting detail.

At this point a loose green/gray wash was flooded through the sky.




Changing to a 1/4” flat brush allowed me to add some precise rectangular doors and windows. A few fine rigger lines helped to add definition and tidy up some of the loose shapes. The terracotta roof shapes were added with the 1/4” flat brush and a mixture of Quinacridone Gold and Alizarin.




After everything dried out again, a brush full of gesso was worked across the bottom right hand corner, stirred around and diluted then gently brushed down towards the corner with a dry Hake brush.

Gesso over Collage




The effect of this gesso glaze can be seen here. It compresses the tonal range and softens detail. Once the gesso is thoroughly dry it can be worked over as if it is fresh paper. I put some color washes over this area then subtly reinstated some of the detail. I also added some ink lines with black Chinese Ink.




The final step was to intensify the color. I built up several washes of Phthalo Blue, Cobalt and Aureolin in the sky and water. To add a warm contrast I applied Permanent Rose and Quinacridone Gold to some of the buildings. After all the washes had dried bricks, roof tiles and fine details were added.




This detail shows how the addition of a patch of Japanese rice paper subtly changes the surface and absorbency. Having the paper not coincide exactly with the surrounding building adds to the interest of the building surface.

Collage and watercolor detail




Here, the cut edge of one of the rice paper pieces almost suggests the edge of a building. It adds a nice sharp contrast to the softer less formal lines.




This piece of rice paper, not quiet square and at a slight angle, adds to the random, chaotic appearance of the buildings. These kind of subtle details are not something that can be consciously produced. The loose placement of the rice paper creates the interest.

The use of collage to break up the painting surface is not suitable for all painting subjects. When you want to build up an interesting, layered texture and create that mysterious ”how did that happen” patina it’s a very useful tool.



• Use acid free rice paper and a neutral pH glue and you wont have archival problems

•Torn rice paper blends in better, cut edges stand out – use this to your advantage.

• Lack of precision with the shape and placement of the rice paper produces a more subtle effect.

• Let the rice paper glue dry out before painting over it.

• Keep the arrangement of rice paper balanced and interesting (vary the shapes and sizes)


See Also Mixed Media


Author: John Lovett

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