Facing the blank page—we’ve all done it, but we haven’t always enjoyed it. What helps artists break through all that white space is learning background techniques to spark ideas, develop a palette, and discover the beginnings of an image or two to build on.
These 10 easy mixed-media background techniques from top artists are designed to get your next project off to a swift and successful start, whether you’re experimenting in your art journal or collaging on a canvas. Who’s afraid of the blank page? Not you. Read on.
1. Marbled paper makes a dramatic background, and Jenny Cochran Lee has a technique to create a faux marbled look that you can use on a variety of papers. She showed how easy it is to get this look in Art Lesson Volume 8: Vintage Fade-Out. Crinkle a piece of paper (she used book pages) into a tight ball, making lots of wrinkles. Squeeze some raw umber acrylic paint onto your work surface, smoothing it into a thin layer. Then, roll the paper ball in the paint, coating as much of the surface as possible. Spread the paper flat and let dry. In a small bowl, mix a few drops of acrylic paint and a small amount of water. Using a paintbrush, add color randomly across the page in areas not covered with the raw umber. To blend different colors or lighten a color, spray the surface of the paper with water after painting it, and blot it with a tissue. Let the paper dry flat, and it’s ready to use.
2. Acrylic paint, paper, and an old gift card are all you need to create a stunning layered background that comes together quickly. In the article “Mixed-Media Lotus Mandala” in the Winter 2016 issue of Zen Doodle Workshop magazine, Kathryn Costa shows how to quickly develop a background that she uses for her mandalas, but the technique can be applied to almost anything. Start by putting a small amount of 3 paint colors on palette paper (she used analogous shades of turquoise and citrus green, plus white). Dip a gift card into the paint, and scrape it across the paper (she used Bristol board). Repeat, dipping the card into more paint and scraping it across the paper until it’s covered. Some of the paint may lift off the surface during the process, creating interesting textures. One fun variation is to mist the paper with water before adding paint.
3. Stencils are great tools to use for background techniques, and Dina Wakley shares a fantastic idea in her book Art Journal Courage. To start, gesso a page in your art journal, and let it dry. Lay a stencil down on the page and cover it liberally with ink sprays (she used analogous shades of pink and orange). While keeping the stencil in place, spray water over the bottom of the stencil and allow the ink and water to run down the page. Remove the stencil and blot the page a bit with paper towels if necessary, but don’t remove too much of the ink. Lay the stencil down on another part of the page, and spray over it with white ink spray. Allow the background to dry, move the stencil to another part of the page, and repeat. Bonus tip: Remove the stencil again, but this time flip it over and use it like a stamp, pressing it to the page to transfer the ink still on the stencil.
4. Hate your handwriting? Don’t—use it to create dramatic backgrounds for collage and other pieces. Jennifer Coyne Qudeen explains her techniques in “Text in your Art With Handwriting” in the May/June 2015 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine. “Handwritten words are a great way to begin the creation of a journal,” she says, “and they add visual texture when creating a background.” Jennifer is a fan of asemic writing, or the suggestion of words without content. To create asemic writing, she closes her eyes and imagines a story, and writes it with her non-dominant hand. This removes the temptation to throw in a real letter or word, she says, and creates the imperfections she loves. You can also try writing backward to create the look of text.
5. Mixing paint with alcohol is a foolproof recipe for creating interesting background techniques. In her book Imaginary Characters, Karen O’Brien uses simple supplies to create a blooming effect on paper. Paint watercolor paper with white gesso, which allows the paint to float on the surface. Add acrylic paint to a palette (she used heavy-body paints) and mix in enough water to make the paint loose. Using a large mop-style brush, flick, drip, and dab the wet paint onto the paper. While the paint is wet, fill an eyedropper with isopropyl alcohol and drip it onto the surface. The paint will suddenly bloom, or separate into pools. If the effect doesn’t happen, let the piece dry, reapply paint in a contrasting color, and splash again with alcohol. Bonus tip: Let the piece air dry; don’t use a hair dryer to speed drying, as this will erase the bloom marks.
6. Printing over pre-printed papers results in gorgeous layered designs that can be used as is, in collage, or as backgrounds. The simple technique, shown in “Hand-Painted Papers” by Elizabeth St. Hilaire in the November/December 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, starts with a folded map as a substrate. Brayer a gel monoprinting plate with a light shade of fluid acrylic paint, and press it to the paper. Repeat, adding more shades, until the paper is covered (it’s okay to overlap in spots). Add a darker color of paint and some masking tools to the plate, such as stencils and string. Press the paper firmly to the plate, making sure the paint is transferring. Repeat, creating a second layer of prints over the first. A large map can be cut up to create plenty of colorful backgrounds.
7. Think you need tons of colors to produce artful background techniques? Not so—in her book Art Journal Your Archetypes, Gabrielle Javier-Cerulli shows that two shades of acrylic paint are all you need. Decide on a color scheme, using a color wheel if necessary to choose two complementary colors (opposite on the wheel) or two analogous tones (close on the wheel), and find paints that match. Use a flat brush to apply one color to the left side of a sheet of art paper, or an art journal spread. Use another flat brush to apply the second color to the other side. Blend the two colors in the middle with a sponge roller, and continue to build up layers of colors on both sides. Bonus tip: If you’re working with complementary colors, wait for each layer to dry so you don’t create mud. Mix acrylic paint with Clear Tar Gel or String Gel, dip a palette knife into the mixture, and drizzle it onto your paper. Allow it to dry and harden.
8. Sometimes a single supply can take a plain white page from zero to 60 in just a few swipes of a brush. Jane Davenport discovered that Luminarte Twinkling H2Os, water-based pigments with mica, can be used to create vibrant backgrounds, and shared her background techniques in A Look At in the July/August 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine. The medium, which comes in small pots, is available in more than 200 colors, offering artists lots of opportunities for combining and blending colors. Working with H2Os is as easy as spritzing open jars with water, which Jane says softens the paint, making them ready to use in about 10 to 15 minutes. Just brush them on paper; Jane likes to mix colors on the page, layering them while wet to achieve soft blends. Or, let the layers dry in between applications for a chunkier, streakier look.
9. Nathalie Kalbach combines stencils and stamps with paint, instead of ink, to create vivid dimensional backgrounds for an art journal spread. In “Dress It Up” in the January/February 2016 issue of Cloth Paper Scissors magazine, the technique starts by spreading acrylic paint onto an art journal spread. Use a color that goes with your mood or the theme of your spread (Nathalie used Deep Magenta). Add some white and black paint in areas to create depth. Using a cosmetic wedge and a lighter shade of paint (she used Unbleached Titanium), stencil a background design onto the page. Stencil another layer on top of that, using your original background color. Load a stamp with an analogous paint color, using a cosmetic wedge. Stamp the design on the pages, unifying some of the stenciled images with the background. Bonus tip: Wash stamps right away after using them with acrylic paint, or the paint will dry on the rubber.
10. Fiber paste is a polymer paste that dries with the look of handmade paper, and can be used to create textured backgrounds. Darlene Olivia McElroy revealed how to work with the medium in Art Lesson Volume 11: Adding Dimension with Fiber Paste and Paper Clay. Tape a plastic sheet to your work surface, taping 2 sides. Mix a small amount of acrylic paint into the fiber paste, and spread the paste onto the plastic with a palette knife, slightly covering the tape (the tape makes it easier to remove the paste later). Allow to dry overnight, remove the fiber paste skin from the plastic, and paint it as desired. You can also cut the skin into shapes and then paint the pieces.
Beginning a new mixed-media project is as easy as creating a unique background. Let these resources from the North Light Shop get you started!