Let’s Say You Have a Photo and You Want to Make a Collage Image Inspired By It…

I’ve made lots of collages that were based on a photo where I intended the finished image to adhere somewhat faithfully to the photo’s inspiration.

Like these collages below, all made in the early 2000’s from photos I took of actual scenes.

(Painted paper collages, sizes varying from 4″ x 6″ to 18″ x 24″)

Here’s the question this post will answer – if you have an image that requires you to follow a plan, how do you do it?

Here’s how I did it. You need some materials: a photo, pencil, your collage support, tracing paper, a pen.

Tracing Drawing #6 materials 10-192

First step. Using your photo, draw the image on your support. You can do this freehand, or you can use a grid system. In either case, the idea is to make a representation of the masses and shapes of your final collage image. It’s not necessary to fill in details – such as architectural elements or stripes on a person’s shirt. Just stick with the big picture, so to speak.

I often draw the image upside down. It keeps me honest about focusing on shapes and forms rather than drawing what I think I see or what I think might be there.

Tracing Drawing start to draw #1 10-196

Here is your drawing, compared to the photo. I did this one freehand. If it were imperative to have correct proportions, I would have used graph paper or drawn a grid on the paper to follow. Otherwise, I have made editorial decisions here – you can see already what the image will include and what it will not, and that I am not very concerned about perfect scale or perspective. But I do want my finished image to resemble what I have drawn.

Tracing Drawing #2 10-195

Next step. Trace over the lines with a pen. You do this so that you can see the lines very clearly because…

Tracing Drawing #3 ink outline 10-194

the next step is to trace the image on the tracing paper. With the lines on the support outlined in ink, you can see what you are doing very easily.

Tracing Drawing #5 tracing 10-191


Now, let’s think about what we are going to be doing to create this collage image.

  • I will take pieces of paper and glue them down.
  • I will work from the back of the image (the sky) to the front (the porch area at the bottom of the picture).
  • I’m going to use this drawing as my guide to know where to glue the papers.

But…as I glue, I will be covering up the lines that I have drawn on my support. And then how will I know if I am following my image’s outlines, etc.? Because if I don’t, it is very likely that among other things, the picture will “drift” – in other words, I will be a little off, and a little off, and then I get to the end of the picture and…wait, what happened to the porch? I don’t have room for it!

So this is why you do this next thing. Set your support, with its sketch, on your worktable. Tape the tracing paper sketch to it, matching it with the one on the support, so that you can flip the tracing paper layer back and off the support.

Tracing Drawing #4 tape 10-193


To get to work…Flip the tracing paper back off the support layer. Start working on the sky. As you glue, you will eventually reach the roof area. Keep putting down paper for the sky, letting the sky extend a little over the line into the roof area.

It’s not like in mosaic making where you abut the elements; collage allows you to layer and then cover with another layer to create a division between shapes.

Don’t worry, even though you have just obliterated the line that shows you the extent of the roof against the sky because you have glued papers over it.

Just flip the tracing paper layer back over the support, align it as necessary, and you can see exactly where you need to start the the roof-line. Yes! it is right there on your tracing paper guide.

You may glue a roof into place with confidence. See how it works?


You are probably saying- If only I could see the project in process and finished. Well, I cannot show you, because I did not go on to make a collage in this instance. I use this set of materials as a sample for teaching a mixed media class in how to set up a mixed media piece when exactitude is of importance.

Maybe someday I will take this preparation and go on to make a mixed media piece…


What I can show you is what I did with the photo in real life. I used it as the basis for this painting that I did in 2013. Acrylics, 16 x 20 (I think). The original photo was of row houses in Allentown, Pennsylvania.

City Rows, 2013

City Rows, 2013.

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