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Collage Offline and Add Color Using Photoshop

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Photoshop expert xtine Burrough shows you how to make a collage with scissors and glue before adding color in Photoshop. An adjustment layer is used to create a sepia tone on the digital file, and the Brush Tool is used in combination with blending modes and a low opacity for an easy application of color to separate layers.
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As a foundations-level communications design educator, I am always trying to come up with new ways to introduce design principles within a software environment for introductory-level students. New students are often attracted to filters, plug-ins, and effects to solve design problems with Adobe programs, instead of relying on juxtaposition, repetition, rhythm, form, and balance[md]tried and true design principles that were established long before software became a central component of the design process.

In this quick lesson, students create a collage offline with familiar materials of early childhood art-making: scissors, paper, and tape or glue. The paper collage is then scanned and color is added using Photoshop. While this lesson does not teach digital collage methods, it does provide an entry point to facilitate discussion before the computer is used in place of scissors and glue.

The Assignment

Because collage is used to convey meaning, I use this process for an editorial illustration assignment. The students are given a magazine article to read and illustrate by way of collage.

Analog Materials

Follow these steps:

  1. Collect photographs and/or drawings to use within the collage. You can take your own photographs, or you may choose to download images from the web. Note: Not all images are free to use. Although using images for educational purposes does fall within the fair use doctrine, I advise students to search for images that are in the public domain or licensed Creative Commons (CC) or GNU. Wikimedia Commons, (use advanced searching options for images licensed CC), and the Library of Congress websites host loads of images.
  2. Print your images in grayscale color mode. I suggest regular copy or bond paper for a black and white laser or inkjet printer.
  3. Make copies or additional prints of your images so that you can create repetitive elements within your collage.
  4. Use a blank sheet of letter-sized paper as the “background,” then cut image elements and use tape or glue to assemble your collage. Imagine the background sheet of paper is your digital Photoshop file. If you were working digitally, each time you cut and paste an image onto the sheet, you would be adding a layer to your Photoshop document. Remember to create a focal point in your collage by way of contrast through value, scale, and form. Use repetition to create lines of continuation throughout the composition.

Let’s Get Digital

  1. Scan the final collage to create a digital file from your scissors and glue handiwork. Because you worked on an 8.5[ts]11-inch sheet of paper, you can scan the collage at a file resolution recommended for printing without concern for scale. If you plan to print the digital file on letter-sized paper using an inkjet or laser printer (for instance, many students purchase prints from commercial service venues such as Kinko’s or Staples), scan your collage at 200 – 300 dots per inch. Be sure to scan in RGB color mode, even though your original image was made in grayscale. Save the file in PSD, TIFF, or JPEG format on your hard drive.
  2. Open your file in Photoshop, and select the Painting workspace from the Application Bar or Window > Workspace. (In CS4, choose the Color and Tone workspace.)
  3. Save the file in native (PSD) format before adding color (see Figure 1).
  4. Figure 1 The original black and white collage appears in this digital file.

Adding Color

  1. If you were to add color to a black and white photograph using traditional darkroom processes, the first step would likely be to create a sepia tone on the photograph, resulting in a warm underlying tone for additional colors to blend into. Use an adjustment layer to create a sepia tone on your digital file. Start by opening the Adjustments panel from the Window menu.
  2. Click the Hue/Saturation button in the Adjustments panel. Then click the Colorize button to apply a monotone to the image. Slide the color slider towards yellow/orange and the saturation slider to the left to desaturate this minor adjustment (see Figure 2). A new adjustment layer will appear in your Layers panel for this color adjustment (see Figure 3).
  3. Figure 2 A view of the Layers panel when an adjustment layer is added to the document.

    Figure 3 A monotone is applied to the original image. This sepia coloring provides a warm base for the new image color palette.

  4. Now you are ready to paint on your digital file. Create a new layer and name it “painting.” (Note: You may find yourself creating several new painting layers within one file.)
  5. Activate the Painting Layer and select the Brush tool. Choose a soft round brush from the Brush Presets panel.
  6. Double-click the Set Foreground Color button at the bottom of the Tools panel to select a color you will paint with using the brush you selected.
  7. Modify your Brush tool and/or Layer settings (see Figure 4). I like to keep the Brush tool set to a low opacity of about 10 – 20 percent. I also advise working with blending modes (see Figure 5). You can set both the Brush tool and the Painting Layer to Color blending mode using the pull-down menus.
  8. Figure 4 The Options bar at the top of your screen provides details about the active or selected tool. When you select the Brush tool, you will see options for your brush such as size, shape, opacity, and blending modes.

    Figure 5 The “painting-trees” layer in this image is set to Color blending mode using the pull-down menu near the top of the Layers panel.

  9. Click and drag over an area of your collage to apply color (see Figure 6). Use Command-Z if the color appears too dense to undo your first application, and modify your opacity settings before adding color again. You can also modify the layer opacity using the slider at the top of the Layers panel.
  10. Figure 6 Apply color in small brush movements, at a low opacity. Build color information within the file to achieve a layered integration of hues and values.

  11. Continue to choose different colors and apply several layers of paint (see Figure 7). Adding layers of similar hues set at different values will create depth in your coloring (see Figure 8). I suggest creating a new painting layer for each area of your collage. Note: The keyboard shortcuts for increasing and decreasing the paintbrush size while you are working are the open and close brackets.
  12. Figure 7 I created many painting layers in this image to maintain flexibility within my digital file. Remember, you can always delete a layer or hide it by clicking the eyeball icon on the left side of the Layer panel.

    Figure 8 A view of the final collage with color added in Photoshop.


During the final presentation of student works, I ask students how they may have thought about the collage differently if they were using Adobe Photoshop instead of scissors and glue. Were desired effects or illusions abandoned for the complexity that accompanies the analog process? Were the students tempted to add elements aside from color once they viewed the digital version of the collage? Starting this dialog about collage as an analog process has helped me to focus students’ attention on design principles rather than special effects.

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