Using Photoshop to Debug Compositions

I just had a wonderful collage workshop last weekend and I am still thinking about the process of editing your design once you are well into the process. This is, after all, where most of the time is spent. Its usually easy to get started, just start pasting. But then, soon enough, your design gets off track.  How do you pull it back into balance? Its very tricky and, of course, unique to each artist but I thought an illustration of how I might go about “debugging” a composition might be instructive.

I was working in a Three Column structure on the piece below. The last element I put in was in the upper left, the circles over some  “Mrs. Homemaker…” text. I was liking everything but felt like I needed something at the top of the composition. I chose a pretty different and busy piece.

fixer upper
original scan

After looking at it for awhile, I decided two things were bothering me:


  • The circles piece seemed to be leading us over into an empty corner.
  • the middle column lacked strength. Two very similar rectangles of similar value… The line between them was weak and disturbing.

So I scanned this piece and brought it into photoshop to play around with possible solutions.



fixer upper1
version 1 – photoshop

I was sort of in love with the “Mrs Homemaker, The Car, and Travel”, but It turned out this was the biggest problem. Covering it over (in photoshop) suddenly got me back to my original intentions.

Now the color in the three columns modulates in a pattern that I like: The middle column is the tallest, then the left column, then the right. I like this mountain or skyline shape. I also like the variety in the sizes and shapes of the rectangles, the bits of type that act as texture from this distance, and of course the drama of the stripes!

It feels balanced, but I still want to add some emphasis to the yellow rectangle.



fixer upper2
version 2 – photoshop

A simple outline around the yellow gives the middle column much more strength.  Now it is on even par with its neighbors.









fixer upper3
version 3 – photoshop

In the final version I have added more blacks to ground the piece at the bottom, and pull all the light rectangles into a frame.

I think of this as a loose guide to where I want this piece to go. Its easiest in photoshop to make straight lines but I may choose more organic, uneven, shapes when I get this back to the collage table. I will also play with the thickness of these lines but the basic weight of the blacks, and their distribution, is working. For now.

It could easily be that I look at it for a few days and find something else I want to change. But my advice is don’t belabor it too long. Better to make more work than just a few perfect pieces.



I am curious if any of you readers use photoshop in this way, or what your methods of editing your compositions are. Please share with us in the comments below!

Thank You and Happy creating,






When you need an easy day

I have found few things that help my art more than a steady studio practice.  The momentum created by showing up, consistently, according to a schedule I establish, really helps me. Some days, though, I just don’t have the juice for full-on creating. I need an easy day in the studio.  Here are some good choices when you need one too.



Prepare substrates.  I have begun the practice of always preparing my substrate, be it watercolor paper or panel or canvas, with a layer of book pages. Even if this layer gets completely covered up, it is a nice place to start from when you make a collage. I like bare pages or very little text and some arrangement, nothing fussy, that appeals to me. The pieces shown above are 12×9″ on lightweight watercolor paper. I will mount them on thicker paper with a 3″ border after they are done.



Make collage materials. In my world of using books, this means painting book pages. There are some colors I just love and don’t find enough of in my scouring for covers, so painting pages is something I do with increasing frequency. I also like to make patterns like dots and stripes, which I usually do with black ink. I have started to use materials from printmaking as well. I print in a single color (usually black) and then tint the paper with transparent washes.



Organize your materials. This is a good thing to do when you could use a jolt of inspiration. I am always inspired by some of the cool stuff I have found and seeing it again gets me motivated to create.  After awhile of doing this collage thing, you forget all the stuff you really have, so its good to visit your stashes periodically. I organize either by color or by type of material, like: diagrams, maps, illustrations,etc.



Clean your studio. When I am in the thick of a new set of work, I have stuff on every available surface, and a lot of it on the floor.  Sometimes I can work in this environment for days, but then the day comes that I need a clean slate. Sweep the floor, clean the tables, put fresh white paper down, get all the tools in their proper place and materials in their bins. And then, just put stuff AWAY. The sense of order just feels so rejuvenating for that 5 minutes that you are able to maintain it. 🙂



Just photographs. This can be a surprisingly fruitful exercise. Get out all your favorite things and start building compositions on a clean white sheet of paper. Work at whatever size you feel comfortable. Just laying stuff down but not gluing.

Every time you get to something you *think* you like, take a photograph (I use my iPad).  There is no risk here and its all just spontaneous experimentation.  Sometimes you get in that mood where nothing you make looks good to you. You cannot quit second guessing, you cannot feel confident in what to do next.  This is a great time to make lots of photos. You will come back to them later and be amazed at how good your ideas were. This is the equivalent of the  20 second poses in drawing class, you work fast and loose and move on.


These are just a few of the things you can do to keep yourself consistent in your art practice even when your energy is challenged.  What else do you do? Please share your suggestions in the comments below.

Happy creating,