Questionable: Digital Collage

Julie B wrote:
“If you can, at some point, talk about digital collage v. 3-D, I’d be interested to hear what you like about it. ”

First a word about discovery and collage.

As writers, we deal in words. For us, words are work. But a lot of creativity, particularly in the discovery phase of writing, gets shut down by work because we’re trying to make up stuff while trying to think of the right word. So we need a way to access creative story ideas that’s more like play. There’s a ton of research on the important of play in creative thinking, but the key in writing is to find a way that isn’t words/work. Music is great for sparking a mood, for getting the feeling right, for leading to daydreams that lead to story, but so are pictures, seeing things that spark ideas. And that’s where collage comes in. (“Collage” essentially means “gluing a bunch of things together to make one thing.”)

The idea behind collage as discovery is that you find pictures that somehow remind you of the book. You’re not looking for illustrations, you’re looking for things that look like the book to you, that evoke the mood and feeling of the book. My old You Again collage, for example, had a lot of pearls in it. I still don’t know why, but they were important. Tea cups. (I know why they were important now.) Lots of blue. A picture of a chicken. A woman from a Pre-Raphaelite painting. A big staircase. I didn’t have a plan, I just saw those things in magazines and ripped them out because they looked like the book in my head. They all grabbed my attention, and then I paid more attention as I cut them out, sometimes lopping off part of the image if my subconscious said, “Yeah, we don’t need that part.”

BUt the creative part really comes when I starting putting the images together. Meanings (and ideas) change when two things are put next to each other, when one is glued on top of another, when they’re linked by another element in the collage, so the process of collaging often causes new ideas lurking in the soup of your subconscious to rise to the top. And since this collage is not an artwork, you can be as sloppy and as silly as you want. It’s not work, it’s play.

I think scissors-and-glue collage is the most helpful, but it’s definitely not the easiest. Even if you’re not stockpiling magazines and are instead pulling and printing your images off the net, you’ve still got a backing board and scissors and glue and god knows what else. My last physical collage was for Monday Street and I completely lost my grip: the damn thing is huge and made of hardwood. It was also hugely helpful and will continue to be as I work on it, but finding a place to keep it is a PITA. You know what’s easier? Digital collage.

Digital collage is just like scissors-and-glue collage except it’s not messy and you’re not touching anything. “Not messy” is good; “not touching anything” is bad because part of that spurring-creativity thing happens when you touch the pictures and found objects you glue together. Still, sometimes I just can’t, as on the late/final version of Maybe This Time and the now in progress, You Again. In those cases, I go digital.

1. Finding images in digital collage is much more intuitive.
Here’s the great thing about googling images: You type in your key word (any descriptive word that evokes your story for you) and scan down the page until you find an image that feels right; when you select it, a black box opens up with the image in it and then to the right another square that says, “More like this.” You can follow those links down rabbit holes forever, which in real life is a time sink but in digital collage is brainstorming because you’re flipping through hundreds of images, rejecting most of them without thinking, pulling the one or two that your intuition tells you look like your book to your desktop. Doesn’t mean you’ll use all you’ll pull, but you’ve got thousands of images to sprint through, stopping only when your subconscious says, “Wait! That one!” And that search will inspire other searches, on and on, until you have a wonderful, chaotic file of images to play with, a variety that you cannot get searching through paper sources, all of them chosen by instinct. (That’s why I use a digital search these days even for my scissors-and-glue collages, although I think I might be losing something in that process.)

2. It’s much easier to alter images in digital collage.
You’ve found the perfect picture to evoke your protagonist but the woman in the picture has blue sunglasses on and you know the sunglasses in your book are red. You can fix that with just about any image editor (if you’re on a Mac, I recommend Acorn). You can also flip them, make them black and white or sepia, tint them blue, stretch them, and–my personal favorite–make them transparent so you can layer images on top of each other.

3. It’s much easier to move things around in digital collage.
If you want to move a glued image, you have to peel it off and reglue it. That leaves your collage with torn and missing places. I have no problem with that–this is discovery not art–but it’s so much easier to do digitally when you can just select the image and drag it where you want it to go.

4. When I’m finished, I can reproduce that collage in any size I want. My collage-in-progress for You Again is my laptop wallpaper, but I could also take the jpg to Staples and have them print it up in postersize. Meanwhile my Monday Street collage continues to block out the sun in my workroom.

Take for example, the Maybe This Time collage. (MTT was once called Always Kiss Me Goodnight, which explains the title on the digital collage.) As I remember, I worked on them both on and off. The scissors and glue gave me a much better foundation for the story world; the digital collage helped me explore and brainstorm relationships.

Here’s the digital:

AlKMG Collage copy

I could do a lot more with emotion and theme in the digital because I could make images transparent and layer them. Using the images in rectangles as I overlaid them helped, too: they formed a pattern instead of a setting or a framework.

But the scissors and glue collage was deliberately built as a world, a structure, and that’s the one that most looks like the book to me:

MTTCollage copy 2

You can see that it’s a lot more chaotic, but it’s not supposed to be an integrated artwork. That chaos shows all the connections my brain made while I was gluing stuff down, all the details and moments that I needed to know, dredging them up from my subconscious as I carefully cut out salvia plants.

In short, I’ll probably always use both, and the scissors-and-glue version will probably always be the most evocative of the story for me and the most helpful for discovery. But when time and space are short, digital is the way to go.

11 thoughts on “Questionable: Digital Collage

  1. Umm, I was opening pics in new tab and there’s an option ” Use image as theme” … May I? 😀
    The theme folder will be Crusielicious. 😀

  2. Oooh! I just zoomed in on the digital for the collage, and I see the details of the layers. It definitely evokes ghosts.
    I remember seeing the 3D one as you posted while working on the book. Comparing the two is really neat! And, thanks, I will look into Acorn. I don’t really have anything to edit images with anymore. It’s something I need to look into getting.

  3. Thanks for the thought you put into this. You’ve convinced me to at least think about trying digital collage.

    On the other hand, I love the seemingly reckless page flipping/cutting/pasting of 3D collage–which I also learned from you, at a long-ago seminar. My art group loves seeing those collages (though I always wonder what I’m revealing to my friend the art therapist!).

  4. I have no idea how to do any of that stuff on my computer (and it isn’t a Mac, so you can’t help me) but just out of curiosity, how do you make pictures transparent?

    1. I’ve only used Photoshop, but there you’d add each image in its own layer, which you can then vary the opacity of – dial it down from the default 100% to 0%, or total invisibility (although you can also make each layer visible or invisible by tapping its visibility (eye) icon). The layers are stacked on top of each other, so shifting their position up or down within the stack also changes the effect of their varying amounts of translucency. You have to play with this to understand it, really. Then there are the different blend modes, which affect how the layers interact with each other. It’ll fry your brain if you try and grasp it by reading about it: I was reduced to tears several times when I first tried to learn Photoshop from books! But most people are much saner than me, and just have a go. There are plenty of cheap or free image editors around – you’ve probably already got a program that’ll do some of this, although I’m not familiar with Windows, so can’t point you to it.

      1. “But most people are much saner than me, and just have a go.”

        OK, that is hysterical. Also, fabulously freeing. I was chicken about trying the collage, but am now going to “have a go.” Thank you JaneB! Also, I plan on using that phrase in the future when I am chicken about other things, too. In fact, I think I need to print it and post it above my computer…. *wanders off to the printer*

    2. In Curio, you can select a shape, then go to the Shape palette and there’s a slider that takes you from 0% to 100% opacity.
      Acorn has the same thing. Most image programs have an opacity slider somewhere or at least a place where you can enter the percentage of the opacity.

    3. My husband and son have both used GIMP with Windows computers and seemed pleased with the results. That’s a big vote of confidence from my husband, who usually believes his computer is out to kill him.


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