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  • Writer's pictureJennifer Penick

Collaging in (Altered) Books

Updated: Oct 31, 2023

During my recent long month away I wanted a collage or mixed media project that was easy to take traveling, that would help keep me focused, that wasn't too terribly time-consuming, and that would be manageable in scope. I hit on the idea of making collages in a vintage (upcycled) book of poetry.

This format will feel familiar to many of you. It's certainly not anything new. I got many comments and questions about my process over the weeks, and this blog/news post gives some more information.

I have certainly worked in altered books before, even used them in place of sketchbooks occasionally. This felt different. The book was small enough and slim enough that I could imagine filling it in the course of a month, and I broke each page into two rectangles (that I traced onto each page to start). These small collages were quick to fill with an envelope of collage scraps that I brought with my on vacation. Below are a few tips if you are considering embarking on a similar project. And at the end of the post is a video showing me add a page of collages to my book--taking it from start to finish.

1) The Book

Choose a thin book, unless you want this to be a longer-term project. Since the collages that I added made each page thicker than it was originally, I removed some pages from my book. My book had a sewn binding, so when I tore a page out, I found the corresponding page and took that out too. (Books that have sewn bindings are made from pages that have been folded and then stitched in the middle. If you remove half of that folded page, the other half may fall out, so it is best to remove it.) If your book does not have a sewn binding, you can cut out some pages using a craft knife, but being careful not to cut too close to the center--you can compromise the integrity of the spine.

2) Preparing the Pages

I was often asked if I prepared my pages somehow before adding the collage pieces, and the answer is No. I didn't because my pages were made of nice thick paper, and they also had a nice rough surface. My collages adhered to the pages beautifully. If you will be using a book with slick or shiny pages, I recommend treating them first with gesso (clear if you want the text of your pages to show or white if you want to "mute" the existing text).

3) Getting Started

I like starting with a piece of paper that feels especially interesting: it can be something with an image or with pattern. I usually add a piece of this interesting aper to each of my rectangles, to get things going, and then let those original pieces help set the mood and color palette for the other pieces that I use.

4) Limit Your Materials

This format works really well for both collage and mixed media. I like to make sure that the process feels relaxing for me, and that means keeping myself from feeling overwhelmed by materials. I set aside a tray of collage bits, and then try not to dive back into my bigger stash.

5) Establish a Constant

Again, as a way to limit the choices and to keep this altered book feeling fun and not overwhelming, I used a rectangle cut from watercolor paper and traced it twice onto each page that I worked on. This gives the book a rhythm and gives me parameters.

6) Vary the Color Scheme

Since each rectangular collage didn't require using too many pieces, if was easy to make each page feel different from the others by changing the color palette and the texture of the paper scraps that I chose.

5) Rip and Tear

I did much of my cutting with a plastic hotel key card--ripping or tearing, rather than only relying on scissors. The slightly uneven edge that you get by tearing give the collage greater texture and a funkier, less precise feel that I think suits the nature of scrap collage.

7) Keep it Fun

I think that it helps if you see the collages in your altered book as compositional or creative exercises. Allow yourself to experiment, to have fun, to return to your book time and time again without a sense of worry about each page looking "amazing". The final product -- a trip through your creative mind, through your scrap bag, through your free time productivity -- will be an object on interest and beauty!

The photos above show me tracing the rectangle on a new page, the completed page, and then here below is a video showing me making it all, from start to finish.

I'd love to see your altered book collages, if you care to share them. And you can see all of my photos of my altered book of poetry on Instagram by searching the hashtag #alteredpoetrybook.

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