Kurt Schwitters

Kurt Schwitters

I have looked at a lot of this man’s work over the years. He may have been my original inspiration to do abstract collage. I was surprised to find this piece, one I cannot remember ever seeing, while rummaging through google this past week.

Initially I was just taken in by these blues. Then the drama of so much black. The pale lemony yellow as a complement to the blue… then just a touch of red to set the whole thing off. The blues and black seem to lead us is, the yellow defines a center of activity, and the red is spice. I admire his distribution of these colors, that he is juggling all their weights to get this dynamic balance rather than placing them evenly around his space.

What I admire even more, is that he has created this design almost entirely with rectangles. Straight cut edges. Solid color. It seems we always want to put some curves, some texture, into our compositions to soften this starkness. We want torn edges so that our shapes are not so severe. But he is very restrained with these solutions. Just a hint of curve and torn edge, and quietly so, using low contrast, translucent materials. The contrasts, or opposites, he emphasizes are color and value, scale, but not the character of shapes or edges. The shapes are boring, and very similar.

And yet, the choice to rotate these blocks of color is giving the piece such movement. They seem to be tumbling downward in an arc. The curves of this piece are not in the shapes but are implied through these orientation changes. They are curves of motion.

He begins in the upper left with a solid stack, bottom to top. Moving to the right, as we “read” the page, they begin to topple. I can imagine that he began with a more rectilinear composition and the rotations developed on subsequent layers when he felt it was too static. The strong diagonals that result create a much more dynamic space.

Interestingly, the structure does not completely fall down—- in the middle right he reasserts his foundation, solid blocks with rectilinear alignments. It is as if the storm has passed and we are on an even keel again. Balance has been restored. There is something very reassuring as we come to the end.

These are the possibilities of abstract composition in the hands of a master. You do not need every trick in the book, just focused interactions of your elements, both deliberate and a bit haphazard as well.

Isn’t it fun? Look up this man’s work this week. And if you are feeling adventurous, try a few of these.

To an adventurous week,


Ways to work with Artist’s Block

What is Artist Block, first of all?

Feeling resistance to getting yourself in the studio. Or getting in there and making stuff but getting no traction, not feeling enthusiasm or inspiration. Feeling stuck, nothing is working.

It’s a pretty scary feeling, and sometimes you need to wait it out. Sometimes pushing only digs the hole of despair deeper. But usually there are fun things to do that can get your engine humming again. These are things that have worked for me:

  • find materials that you love
  • timed collage exercises
  • start a daily art journal practice
  • finish old work that is laying around
  • make elements
  • Pinterest

Find Materials You Love

For collage artists of many stripes, their found materials are the engine for their inspiration. Wether that is vintage magazines/catalogs/books/wallpaper, vintage ephemera, signage, album covers, current day magazines/catalogs/books, elements from an interesting process like gelli printing/mark-making/paint-effects, handmade papers, fabrics, etc.

For me, working with books was instantly interesting, and the treasure hunt of finding old books that I liked was super fun. Just sitting at the table, with these materials in front of me, begins to feed me ideas. So this is my strongest recommendation: work with materials that get you jazzed.

Timed Collage Exercises

This is a good warm-up practice for establishing a consistent art practice, or just getting going when you aren’t necessarily feeling it. It’s a great way to get out of your rational, slow, mind (where fear and doubt live) and into your subconscious, fast, mind. 6 minutes, 12 minutes, 18 minutes. Do one of each, each day for a week.

Consider this work as PRACTICE. You are just loosening up, like the timed exercise in life drawing classes. The goal is to raise your momentum, not make a masterpiece. We want to see what your intuitive mind is wanting to explore. At the end of the week look at your work. Do you like more time or less? Do you see a language emerging that you want to follow? Look for ways to make this FUN. Hint: use music.

Start A Daily Art Journal Practice

The times in my life where I kept and art journal are some of my happiest. Like times I was taking a drawing class so I was practicing drawing all the time. I have kept collage journals as well. These are a great place to get out of any hint of perfectionism— the rule is experiment! be fearless! no one is going to see this and experimenting is FUN. Plus, if you do this every day, even for only 20 minutes, after 30 days you will look back on a mountain of work. That’s encouraging. And by then this journaling will be a habit!

Finish Old Work That is Lying Around

Most of my work takes place on paper first. The ones that are headed somewhere get glued to a panel and finished. But I don’t really enjoy this finishing step so I put them in a pile. What I have found over time is that this can be a quiet means of self-discouragement to not take the work all the way to the finish.

So if I am not feeling very motivated in the studio, digging into this pile and getting the work gallery-ready can be a very positive step forward. It requires minimal creativity or decision making so its a nice way to relax a little too.

Make Elements

This is another good thing to do in the studio if you are feeling tired or a uninspired. Making art that is good takes energy, and most of that goes into decisions. Then you get decision-fatigue and you just don’t want to face all the uncertainty for today. If I just had to think of a new idea, no problem. Thats creative. If I have to think of an idea that WORKS, ie a shape/color/size/etc. that fits HERE, then things get very difficult, right?

But making elements is just about possibilities you might use later. You really don’t know what will really work down the road and you don’t need to; you are just creating a stash.

So if you are feeling tired, it’s a great time to pull out the gelli plate and experiment making papers. Or explore painting papers. I love to mix paint to get delicious color. Or maybe you want to make patterns like stripes or dots. Maybe you like watercolor effects, or mark-making with homemade brushes, or stitching paper with the sewing machine. Do this for your whole studio session and make a pile of elements to use in your work. It might be, for collage, just cutting shapes is enough. You have all these book covers, let’s say, and if you cut them into shapes, they become more potent and interesting. This will make the composition process easier and more imaginative.


Sometimes the issue is that you want to make a consistent body of work, and for this you need an idea that you do not yet have. It’s a little daunting to get started because you don’t want to pour a bunch of work into a bummer idea. Ambitions to “take your work to the next level”, while admirable, might end up creating a block in your process.

I have always been very inspired by the work of other artists. When I am looking to start a new phase of work, I look at Pinterest for work that I really like. This can be a deep process. Sometimes I have a real dialogue with myself, once I have assembled a bunch of pieces in my Inspiration folder, to identify what really grabs me and feels like something I want to work with. There is a ton of art I admire that in no way fits my process. I am looking for things that do. Do I want more drawing? more primitive shapes? more color? more monochrome? do I want to just work with typefaces? or just book fabric? is there a strictness I want to embrace? or a looseness? What is speaking to me now?

I would love to know what blocks you guys have experienced or ways you have pushed through them. Please leave a comment below!

Have a great week.


Working with Tissue Paper in Mixed Media Art

Tissue paper can add an interesting dimension to collage, especially dressmaker patterns. We are mostly using opaque shapes in collage, so our work can get blocky. Tissue paper can add some transparency, and connect areas of your composition in a subtle way by overlapping them.

This piece has so much going on, just with color, that is was hard to tie it together. Tissue paper is help to give us more unity with its tan color moving over multiple areas. It is obscuring some elements lightly, making them quieter, and it’s also doing something I really like: introducing lines, graphic elements. The repetition of these lines, and the line of circles, is helping move our eye around and almost giving the piece a structural support.

Working with tissue will be greatly aided by a spray bottle of water! If you glue is down dry it will wrinkle uncontrollably. And you may want that. But in this case I wanted to control the lines and get them glued down straight. So I first spritz a piece of tissue with water. You might blot it lightly with a towel so it is not dripping wet.

My substrate here is a cradled panel and I am using acrylic gloss medium as my adhesive. Every piece I glue down gets a top coat of acrylic as well, so that my surface, at any time, is sealed and waterproof. So I can lay the damp tissue on top of it and not damage anything. It is a great way to preview your placements.

When you find where you want it, put a layer of medium down and set the tissue on top. Damp dressmaker patterns are fairly strong and you can pull them so that you remove wrinkles and get the paper where you want it. You might pull it back up a few times to straighten it, while the medium is still very wet. Give it a try, it works pretty well.

To a creative week,