Mixed media – fun with backgrounds

One of the first steps in making a letter journal is cutting out square pieces of paper and doing some ‘backgrounds’. But what is a background? And how much should you do?

Well much like the old piece of string and it’s elusive length, backgrounds can vary wildly. Some people like working on blank or nearly blank pages, some like working on highly patterned pages and creating lots of layers. Our backgrounds probably reflect our preferences.

For me, backgrounds can be painted, stamped, collages or doodled – anything to break up the white page and get it started.

Here are some very simple recent backgrounds. They have all been done on paper. No ‘preparation’ of the paper was required (i.e. unlike a canvas there was no priming or initial layer of gesso). You can probably spot that I’ve used magazine pages, old story books, newspaper and old envelopes.

Here are the range of ways I’ve made marks on these pages:

– a thin wash of acrylic paint followed by drawing with a paint pen (see the orange one top left? It was made with matte acrylic, left to dry, and then followed by stamping in black stripes and white spots and then drawing a border in black paint pen)

– a thin wash of two colours of acrylic paint followed by stamping in black to create a border (see the greenish one on the bottom left with hearts on one side and a flower border on the right? It was made by ‘sponging’ orange acrylic, letting it dry and then going over the top with lime green acrylic, then when dry, stamped with a black ink pad using a heart stamp and a flower stamp).

– ‘smooshing’ dryish paint and leaving some white space too

– stencils* and then acrylic wash, followed by a border of washi tape

– stamping in white ink over top of acrylic

– using a page as an underpage when painting and then stamping it with an elliptical shaped stamp pad

General tips

Some general tips for making backgrounds with paint and stamps like the ones above:

  • Try using various papers including paper that is not ‘blank’ – think old diary pages, pages from a book, sheet music, old street directories, the crossword pages from a magazine, newspaper. I would suggest getting a variety and trying similar techniques on different papers.
  • Try making ‘layers’ by doing something to the page (anything really), letting it dry, and then doing something else.
  • Ways that you can get texture from paint include:
    • using a sponge and applying unevenly to the page
    • using a wide thick paintbrush and putting only a teensy bit of paint on it (even wiping some off) so it feels ‘dry’ and letting the ‘scratchy’ brush marks show on the page
    • do you remember in primary school making butterflies by putting blobs of paint on the page and ‘smooshing’ it by folding the paper in half and letting the  pages squish together? When you opened the ‘smooshed’ paint made a butterfly? Well on one of the pages photographed above above I did a wash of water-soluble crayons (scribble randomly in water soluble crayon then brushed it over in water) and let it dry. Then I applied purple/magenta paint through a stencil and let it dry. Then I blobbed some lime green paint (in like little pea sized blobs scattered around) on the page straight from the tube and placed another piece of paper on top and squished them together. I quite like the rough and ‘smooshed’ effect it leaves behind.  Can you see it? Look for lime green – it’s bottom left-ish above.
    • doing very rough ‘stripes’ up the page and then in a similar colour filling the white space with more stripes – letting the stripes overlap (see the green and blue one top left? It was made like this).
  • You don’t need heaps of stamps to make interesting effects. If you look closely above you can see that I have used one very simple (and small) flower stamp in multiple ways. On some pages it is applied in white, in others it is applied in black. On some pages I spread them out, on other pages I stamp them very close together. On some pages I do a bunch of them in a row to create a border… and so on. You don’t need heaps of stuff to make interesting and varied effects.
  • Think outside the box with stamping – one of the stamps above (see if you can spot some thin stripes looking almost like a crinkly potato chip) was made from a piece of an old hot water bottle that had melted and was no longer useful. I simply pressed the rubber onto my stamp pad and used it (I had no idea how it would turn out but hey, it didn’t really matter).
  • Use tape – on two of the pages above I have created a rough border of sorts using ‘washi tape’. on done of them the tape is applied UNDER the paint and on one of them the tape is applied OVER the tape. Can you spot which one is which?
  • Most of all give yourself permission to play and experiment. Who knows what great techniques you will come up with! And after all it’s only paper (preferably reused and recycled paper at that), so if you don’t like the effect let it dry and do something on top.

There are so many ways to do background, these are just some. Have fun!

*A cool stencil from 2014 Sydney Art is You retreat