Use this guide to create a wild, colorful digital collage, full of retro-futuristic whimsy. We break the techniques down simply to help you bring your weirdest ideas to life.
Digital collages are a great way to introduce some fun and colorful chaos to a layout. Whether you’re making a zine, a corporate report, gig poster, personal letterhead, or you name the project, digital collages let you add a very personal style ranging from conservative to surreal.
We introduced the wild world of zines, which are a key genre and great influence for collage art. This guide is a direct line to creating a hand-made look on the computer, for use in digital zines. These techniques adhere to that genre’s ultra-wide scope of styles, without too much handholding.
We’ll also reference the 2019 Creative Trends, which covers a lot of the trends in zine design, plus a few other hot and current creative styles. For my dime, chaos is just as valid a design principle as balance or unity. It’s a weird ride, so set your own pace, or just floor it and go wild.
Let’s jump right in with thinking about how your collage will be set up. Before computers, when collages were done with cutout pieces of paper — or various other media — the pieces were stacked and had a natural 3D appearance. To make your collage look like a collage, and not just pieces of different files stuck together, we’ll employ techniques to create depth.
This simple, but important, planning step ensures your parts are in order, to look realistically stacked. Keep in mind that supporting pieces go on the bottom of the layer order, and the points of interest go on top. Feel free to move them around to make sense of things.
The main goal is to keep parts together that may not come from the same place. Instead, they are meant to work together in the component they are to embody. Grouping and naming the layers will further help ensure you stay sane, during a project like this.
Tight Drop Shadows
Wherever you stand on the usage of drop shadows (when used with finesse), they are indispensable for adding depth. Use them in collage work — in small, tight dosages — to subtly create major depth, elevating your design off the page/screen, without making it look stupid.
By easing back on the opacity, distance, and spread, you can witness how just a little drop shadow takes your pieces into a 3rd dimension, while staying out of the way of your design’s color and texture schemes.
Mix the Media
We’re working with computers, so “mixed media” is a bit of a misnomer, but I mean to mix photographic images with vector illustrations. It’s a great way to shake things up, or to have little fun surprises pop up. This is put to great use in graphics for the 2019 Creative Trends site. Take advantage of any opportunity to use trash-food like hot dogs and pizza.
Image via Shutterstock.com
Now we’ll get into specific techniques for style work. Your edges define how DIY your design looks. By DIY, I mean hastily ripped and torn pieces of paper, from magazines or books, pasted onto the collage to create that urgent message tone. Or, instead of looking like a rabid punk screaming excerpts from a manifesto, neatly cut out the pieces with a pair of nice scissors. Or, explore a billion points in-between.
In order to mimic the look of tearing pictures from pages, we can use a couple different techniques. Use this guide to learn about techniques for making selections using various tools.
- Use the Lasso, or Polygonal Lasso Tool, erratically.
- Use a grungy brush to mask out the layer with fuzzy edges.
For the first technique, it means you are working small with angles, and not too worried about making the edges look exactly like there are paper fibers fraying out. It’s simply a jaggedly-detailed edge.
Do this by zooming in considerably and making a selection without curves. With the Lasso Tool, you can free-hand draw, easily making the selection as you go. Just click and drag. Find the Lasso Tool by hitting L on the keyboard, or in the Tools window.
Use the Polygonal Lasso for doing a quick and angular cut-out look. Hold Shift while hitting L to cycle through the Lasso tools.
Using a grungy scraggly brush to create a mask is a great technique, as well. Add a mask to the layer by clicking the Add Layer Mask button at the bottom of the Layers Window. Choose a grungy brush, set the Foreground color to Black, and hit the edges with the brush — varying sizes and angles as you go — to hide those parts of the layer. This creates the tearing and paper fibers look.
Not everything has to look torn from a magazine. Making accurate selections is worth the work — if you want to be precise. This will make the pieces look carefully cut out. When using a mix of these techniques, you can highlight the opposing styles by their juxtaposition. This will only add tension or areas of interest, in addition to the colors and textures below.
The Pen Tool is excellent for this, as you can control how the Bezier Curves handle on each point, for pixel-level accuracy.
Using textures on your imagery is perhaps the most effective way of adding interest and transformative character. Need textures? We have 35 of them right here for free.
Overlay them on individual pieces, or use them on layer groups. Use them at the edges for character, or on the whole image for a unified, distressed piece of damage. Use different Blend Modes for enhanced depth.
Zine Style Photocopies
Use textures from the link above (or watch this) to add a dirty photocopied look to clean images. When used with Grayscale (tips below), you can make your images look like black and white copies, after several generations of copied copies.
Here, I used “weathered-metal.jpg” from the 35 Free Textures download, made a rough-cut mask with the Polygonal Lasso, and used a grunge brush to mask out the texture to the edges.
Halftone patterns sort of exist between Color and Textures. They are the re-creation of the way printers used to work, by spraying tiny dots of individual Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, and Black ink. When layered and varied onto paper very small, they create the color mixes that our eyes blend into solid colors.
In the computer, we can blow the dots up and use them as textures. These create really cool, single layer patterns, and when used in layers, moire patterns.
Find the Halftone effect under Filter > Pixelate > Color Halftone. From there, the Max Radius is the focus, as it determines the size of the dots, relative to the image’s resolution.
The bigger the image’s dimensions + resolution, the bigger the number will be. You don’t have to be exact here, just try a number. If you don’t like it, undo and try another number until you get the look you like.
Image via Tatiana Liubimova
Contrasting color palettes are a signature way to show the beauty of collage chaos. In collage art, the anything-goes aesthetic creates its own design philosophy that works in the space, where it can be too jarring in other styles of art.
Think of how yellow and magenta become stronger by occupying opposing places on the color wheel, instead of fighting to the death for the viewer’s attention. Ever get an optical-focus void/movement illusion from using bright blue next to a bright orange? That’s actually what you want here.
Go nuts for once. The more you explore rules to break, and harmonies to challenge, the more combinations you’ll find that create positive tension for extreme focal points.
Converse to using crazy bright color palettes, you can turn components of your art into Grayscale — where you can work with Brightness and Contrast to create stark black and white images from less contrasty ones. Upping the drama rarely hurts a collage composition.
Monotones & Duotones
Using the Duotone effect turns a multi-toned image into a two-toned image. It’s sort of like Grayscale, but you can choose a specific color, instead of the black or white in an image. What were once Grayscale tones blended between black and white, are now blends of the two colors. Go to Image > Mode > Grayscale to convert your image.
Use a single color to create a Monotone image, which is the default choice when you open the Duotone window. To use Duotone, you must first convert the image to Grayscale. Then Image > Mode > Duotone to enter the Duotone options window.
🎶Monotone make my goldfish bluuuue. 🎶
After that you can add textures and cutout edges to complete the look.
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