Inspired by the lush vegetation and vibrant colors in a rainforest, I created a project for my Junior Apprentice class that would focus on one large size canvas for the duration of the 6-week session. Each artist was challenged to focus on one layer or area of the rainforest to depict: The forest floor, understory, canopy, or emergent layer. The majority thought the canopy had the most interesting plants and animals, so that is where we put our focus.
The substrate I chose for the project was a 24"x24" piece of hardboard. I knew we would be collaging a variety of materials onto the boards, so it would be important to use a substrate that would resist warping. After applying three coats of gesso to each board were were ready to paint the background. We used acrylic paints in a variety of blues, greens, and white to cover the boards.
Next, we turned our attention to the plants and animals that live in the canopy of a rainforest. Each artist was given drawing handouts and several photo references to help them draw their own versions from observation. The animals were drawn on white cardstock, traced with Sharpie Markers and then painted before they were cut out. Sometimes, drawings were first practiced in our sketchbooks to ease the fear of making a mistake, then colored, painted, and cut out. I do not teach this age group with a directed drawing approach because I believe that their own personal mark-making and intuitive ways of illustrating things will help them develop their own style with lots of practice. At this age I think it's important to encourage what they do, and put more emphasis on the practice of really seeing their reference image or object. After all, good artists are great at noticing the details, contours, and values in what they are trying to render.The more they do that the more skilled they will become.
For the plant life we mixed things up a bit. I wanted the artists to have a great deal of variety and color in their plant life, so we painted papers and spent time printmaking on Gelli plates to add texture and color to their masterpieces. They were encouraged to consider colors, either realistic or idealized. Each hand-drawn piece was painted with vivid colors. In this stage of the process the artists were told to draw and print as many pieces as they could fit in our time slot together. When collaging the pieces onto the boards, it's helpful to have an ample amount of paper cutouts to pick and choose from. Not every piece will be incorporated into the final composition. However, through trial and error, artists discover that they like some pieces more than others, which is a very important aspect of collaging. Having a pile to choose from makes a nice full composition with a great deal of variety.
The last stage of the project is to decide where everything will go. I encourage my students to take their time exploring what they want to do with their layout, and instruct them to avoid committing to anything too soon. I think it's very important to move pieces around, to play with the composition, and really see how a layout changes by swapping different cutouts before permanently committing to a layout with glue adhesives.
The final step is to apply the glue adhesive. This is a bit complicated, depending on the type and weight of paper you use, and what type of substrate you are adhering everything to. Elizabeth St. Hilaire is a contemporary collage artists, whose work I have admired for years. She has in-depth videos on her blog at www.paperpaintings.com on her collage process and which adhesives are best to use, and when. For my students, I chose Liquitex Matte Gel Medium and YES! Paste. Gel Medium is made from 100% acrylic polymer emulsion, and forms a durable film when dry. Gel mediums are used by professional painters to extend the life of heavy body paint, to create impasto, relief, sculptural or a variety of other unique effects in the paint. YES! Paste is an all purpose stick-flat glue that has a stronger bond that school glue. Both can be purchased at dickblick.com (best price) or on amazon.com .
There you have it! Large format jungle collages were the result of this process. Please let me know if you have any questions. If you decide to make something similar, please tag me on Instagram @arthouselab or Facebook. I'd love to see what you create!