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  • Writer's pictureKaaren Poole

A Favorite Background

When deciding what to create for my next art journal spread, I determined from the beginning to use one of my favorite background techniques‒one I haven’t used in a while. And I also thought I’d like to include a toad. I’ve seen several of them in the garden lately and am beginning to view them as my garden friends.


I don’t know how this project will play out, but I at least know how to start. I was going to make a masa paper and watercolor background. Once I’d gathered my materials, though, I had a second thought. Rather than cover the whole background with the special paper, I decided to make a border of writing. After all, writing is a key component of art journaling which I seldom use. So, today would be the day!


I decided to used pencil handwriting as a frame for the rest of the background, so began writing about toads. I started at the edge and wrote around and around the outside of the pages and when I finished one round, I’d start another within the first. When I started, I didn’t think I had much to write about, but I found the words just flowed. I could probably have covered the whole page, but didn’t see the point, as most of it would be covered.


By the way, some journalers intend for their writing to be hidden, or unreadable in other ways. As far as writing being hidden-under collage, for instance-it’s a useful technique for expressing a desire or revealing a secret or simply working things through in private. The idea is that even though the writing can’t be seen by others, you, the artist and author, will always know it’s there and it will add meaning to the spread, at least for you.


As far as writing being visible but unreadable, I think such writing adds a sense of mystery to the spread. I’ve used pages from foreign or ancient language books, or have written words or phrases in those languages. Or I've used other alphabets, such as Theban script or runes, to express my thoughts. Writing in these alphabets is simply a matter of transliteration: using the script’s symbol for “a” for a, it’s symbol for “b” for b, and so on. The script is likely unfamiliar to the viewer, but once decoded, the writing is in English (or whatever language you want to write in).


I should have taken a photo once the script was finished, but I went further before I took this one. I’m including it here just to point out the script border although it also shows the masa paper and the first two dabs of watercolor.

Next was the background, for which I used masa paper. Masa paper is a strong, affordable Japanese paper which is exceptional for water techniques. It’s made from sulphite pulp which is almost pure cellulose fiber made from wood chips. The paper has one smooth side and one side with a tooth which feels very soft, almost like a velvet with a very short nap. I use the soft side for this technique. I also used PVA glue.


I began by tearing a piece of masa paper a little larger than the finished size I was aiming for. It’s important to make a tiny pencil mark in one corner of the side I want to work on because once the paper is wet, it’s very hard to tell one side from the other.


Next, I ran it under water until it was thoroughly wet, then squeezed as much water out as I could. I unwrinkled the damp paper and placed it, right side down, on a piece of waxed paper.


I poured some PVA glue in a small cup, adding a little water to thin the glue, and stirred well. Using an inexpensive chip brush, I brushed a layer of the thinned glue over the part of my spread which I wanted the masa paper to cover. Then I brushed a layer of thinned glue over the wrong side of the masa paper.


At this point, I washed my hands to be sure I had no glue on them. It’s very important to keep any glue off of the right side of the masa paper. The glue would effectively seal the paper, which I didn’t want because then I couldn’t work watercolor over it. Very carefully, I picked up the masa paper by two corners and placed it glue side down on the art journal spread. I washed my hands again, as I no doubt got some glue on them when I picked up the masa paper. After smoothing the masa paper in place, I carefully worked any air bubbles I could see under the masa paper by gently pushing the bubbles towards the edge. Sometimes a fingertip works well for this, and other times a crumpled paper towel works better. By the way, you won't be able to smooth all the wrinkles out, not would you want to or there'd be no point in crumpling the paper in the first place.


I wish I'd gotten the masa paper straighter on the paper, but it's trickly to move it around at all once it makes contact. The PVA glue provides a very quick bond.

While the paper was still wet, I applied watercolor, keeping in mind as I placed my colors where the toad would live on the page. Painting with watercolor while the paper is wet obviously makes sharp edges impossible. But also, it seems the watercolor settles more in the wrinkles in the paper. If I paint when the masa paper is dry, the wrinkles will still show, but not as strongly.


The piece was very wet at this point, so I let it dry overnight before I continued.


Masa paper is easy to find and also inexpensive. I encourage you to give it a try if you haven't already!

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