Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Fearless Art Journaling, Part 3: Backgrounds.

Last time, I touched on overcoming the blank page, and today's post goes in line with that. I'm going to give you some easy ways to create interesting backgrounds for your journal pages. Having these techniques at your disposal helps to overcome the fear of knowing where to begin.

I encourage you to search the web or seek out books on art for more techniques. Pick a medium and learn all you can about different ways to use and alter it. There's so much out there, and these are only a few, and only some of my personal favorites. The following techniques can be applied to all kinds of art, not just art journals, and in fact are taken from other sources, like crafts and fine arts.

For these techniques, I'm working on 140 lb. watercolor paper, cut to 3"x5", but of course, you can create these backgrounds directly onto your journal pages. If you decide you want to experiment first on swatches instead of your journal, add the technique info and instructions on the back. These will act as a quick how-to reference, complete with a visual example. If you punch a small hole on the same corner of each swatch, you can join them together with a ring. You could also put them in a file box for easy reference. Do the same with future experiments of your own, and you will soon have a plethora of ideas at the ready, plus you'll have a record of not only what worked, but what didn't.

The first background technique I want to show you is glazing with acrylic paint. This is really easy and yields fantastic results. It's one I use often. 

  • Acrylic paint. Any two (or more) colors (more detail on this below). Any brand; can be craft, student or artist quality paint. I used Liquitex Basics for these samples.
  • Water.
  • Paint brush.
  • Paper towels.
Optional supplies:
  • Gesso. (I did use gesso for this sample.)
  • Acrylic medium. Any brand, matte or glossy.
  • Baby wipes.

If you're not using gesso, begin by brushing your base coat onto the surface. For this first color, it's best to go with a lighter shade, and choose graduating darker colors for the next couple of layers. (You can go dark to light, it just gives a different look, and the top layers of color might get lost in the base color.) Brush on 2 coats of your base color, allowing to dry between coats.

If you're using gesso, begin by brushing it onto your surface. I often like to brush mine going in one direction first, and after letting it dry, brushing in the opposite direction for the second coat. This gives a bit more texture, and mimics the look of canvas. Allow to dry, then brush on 1 coat of your base color.

Once the base coat is completely dry, choose a color for glazing. You want a color that's darker than your base; it can be a color in the same family as your base, or even a contrasting color. Squeeze out a small amount of paint, add a few drops of water and mix. The more water you add, the more easily the paint is wiped off and the less gets left on the page. Depending on the effect I'm going for, I tweak the ratios, but generally, I prefer the consistency of heavy cream. After you do this a few times, you'll be able to compare the differences when using less vs. more water. Paint this mixture onto your surface.

Now take a paper towel and begin wiping off the second coat. Some of the areas may have already begun to dry, as acrylics dry quickly. Wipe away as much or as little as you want. Either dampen the paper towel just a bit or use a baby wipe to remove even more paint. Let dry.

You can add more layers of color if you want, or just stop here. Already, in a few simple steps, you have some interest going on. There's detail and a little texture.

Optional tips:
  • Better quality paints do have more pigment vs. filler, so they maintain their vibrancy and color better craft paints when watered down. Craft paints will work just fine, though.
  • Try adding a little fluid acrylic medium to the second coat water/paint mixture for a thicker glaze. More paint will adhere to the page, and by using either matte or glossy medium, you can change the surface's sheen.

For the second background technique, I want to show you one way to apply paint without using a brush. This results in a grungy look and is also easily accomplished.

  • Acrylic paint. Any brand, quality or color.
  • Old credit/plastic card. If you don't have an old plastic card laying around, you could also use a piece of cardboard, chip board or similar.
Optional supplies:
  • Gesso. (Again, I used gesso before applying the paint.)
Squeeze out a small amount of paint. Dip the edge of your card into the paint a couple of times, then drag across your surface. Experiment with more or less paint on your card. Make lines by tapping on paint using the card's edge, or scrape lines into the paint. Allow to dry.

Squeeze out a second color of paint and apply in the same way. This time I picked up less paint with the card.

You can, of course, add more colors or stop at one or two. Remember, no rules!

Here are a few other quick and easy ways to do backgrounds:

Acrylic paint mixed with a little water, then painted onto a gessoed surface. While the paint is still wet, add drops of or spray rubbing alcohol. The wetter the paint, the more the paint wicks away. Since alcohol and paint don't mix, you can create some interesting effects.

Torn book pages were glued onto a gessoed surface, allowed to dry, then painted over with a light wash of white acrylic paint and left to dry. For the final step, I glazed on a wash of acrylic paint and wiped with a paper towel. Experiment with using different papers, like tissue paper, handmade paper or scrapbook paper.

Green and blue watercolors painted onto the surface. While the paint is wet, sprinkle on salt. Experiment with different kinds of salt, from table salt (finer granules) to kosher salt (coarse granules) to rock salt (very coarse granules and small chunks). Allow to dry completely before wiping away the salt.

Watercolor pencils were used to draw basic shapes onto the surface, then water was painted over the entire thing with a brush.

Blue and green soft pastels were colored onto the surface, then blended with a finger. Be sure to apply fixative or sealer before adding more layers or when the page is complete. You can also paint over the surface with fluid acrylic medium. It will blend the colors more as well as add a protective seal.  

A rubber stamp was inked with Distress Inks by Ranger, spritzed with water, then stamped onto the surface. By spritzing with water before stamping, it adds a watercolor effect.

These are just some of the many techniques out there for use in creating interesting backgrounds. A good background is a foundation for you to add to, or even to use alone with only some journaling added on top. Try using a combination of these techniques in the same background. Don't be afraid to experiment with your supplies to create new effects! You may discover lots of techniques to add to your arsenal. After all, if your experiments don't work, they can always be covered up, and you're learning what works and what doesn't.

I hope this has helped give you a good place to start. In the next installment, I'll share prompts to get your juices flowing and the ideas brewing, as well as give your page some direction.

As always, share any of your favorite ideas for backgrounds in the comments section. I am always happy to answer questions, too!


  1. ooh! You're making me want to pull out my paints and brushes! Thanks for this Jessica!!!

  2. Oh, good! Then I have succeeded! I think you should get out your paints and brushes, then post the results on your blog so I can see. :) Thanks for reading, Lisa!

  3. I just started art journaling and I needed some ideas so thank you so much for that. But I have two questions for you. What do you put in your art journal? Do you write about your day,draw, or just decorate pages. I've looked online and it seems different people use there art journals differently. Another question I have is did you write a article about what you put in your art journal or something similar? Thanks so much!


  4. Thanks for reading, Leanne!

    To answer your questions, most anything is fair game to go into my journal, excepting extremely bulky items. I write, paint, draw...some days I journal quite a bit,writing whatever is on my mind or recording events, and some days I just add visual elements. My journal is my diary, my playground, my record keeper, my many things. And I have not written a post specifically talking about what I put in my journals, but I think I will do so in the future during this series. Hope that helps!

  5. The salt technique is certainly something different that I'd like to try! Thanks for the variety of background painting methods, I'm definitely keeping an eye on your blog for further technique and inspiration!

    ~ Jen (daydrifter @Swap-bot)

  6. I'm so glad you stopped by, Jen! Thanks for reading, and I'm happy you found something new to try! :)

  7. Another good article!

    You can get a similar effect to the salt just spraying or dripping water onto the damp acrylic paint, though the effect isn't as marked.

    Also, if you blot the page once the paint is dry but while the sprayed or dripped water is still wet, some of the paint under the water will come away with it, which gives a nice effect. It works best if the page was gessoed before painting. Here are a couple of my pages using it:

  8. Thanks for reading, spinjenny!

    I like to use water, too, and you're right, the effect isn't as marked as the salt. I'm also big on blotting (I should take stock in paper towels maybe).

    Thank you for sharing your pages! They're lovely! I am always excited by the effects one can make with paint, no matter how many times I do it.

  9. Hi, Im new to your lovely blog and am also just getting into art journalling. Thanks for all the great background ideas, its the one thing i struggle with, making a background im happy with.

    all the best
    Gill x

  10. Hi!

    I came across your blog via google, I was looking for techniques using watercolor and salt. Thanks for sharing!

    Christine Barker