How to be Inspired by Paul Klee – and Don’t Steal Other People’s Ideas

Collage artists typically work with appropriated images (on-line and print).

I recently wrote about ON LINE: Drawing Through the 20th Century at the Museum of Modern Art (the show closed Feb 7, 2011) – and talked about Paul Klee’s reverse drawings in the exhibition. I make reverse drawings and understand the process.

I was so inspired by all the lines, I immediately made a collage with line drawings. But I didn’t make the lines.

The drawings are small, appropriated papers – reproductions from periodicals like Artforum Magazine. I found the papers and put them together. I like the lines. Everything is very graphic. But they aren’t my lines, and I can do my own.

All collage artists are concerned with copyright infringement, what they can take and how they can use it.  Some things are too easy and you shouldn’t use other peoples images.

I tell students in my collage workshops to add papers and paint and embellish found papers to make the images their own (and advise them to take their own photos in related setups if they want to work with photocollage).

Some artists make it a point to use appropriated images. That’s their niche.

Read about the claims and counterclaims of two hot recent copyright infringement headliners –  Shepard Fairey and the AP, and Richard Prince and Gagosian Gallery.

Nancy Nikkal, Drawing the Line

The image above shows a section of a grid with papers, and lines that are straight, curve, criss-cross, and scribble. Can you see any famous artist’s work?

I put the blocks together, and added 2 or 3 smaller papers to modify each block, then put everything on a painted green background (substrate). The individual blocks very in size from 2 1/2  x  3  inches to 3  x  3 1/2 inches.

I like the variety, but decided I don’t like the idea that the lines aren’t mine.

Paul Klee did reverse drawings. Two were included in the MoMA exhibition and both are in the MoMA collection.

The first drawing is titled The Angler (1921) It’s oil transfer, watercolor and ink on paper with watercolor and ink borders on board and is 19 7/8 x 12 ½ inches.

The second drawing (see it nearby) is titled Twittering Machine (1922). It’s oil transfer, watercolor and ink on paper with gouache and ink borders on board and is 25 ¼ x 19 inches.

Paul Klee, Twittering Machine


You can do a reverse drawing and nobody will know it’s a drawing because the drawing is on the back of the paper. The front (the reverse) looks like an etching. You’ll get a very interesting line.

Materials are basic: You’ll need paper, oil paint (or oil-based printing ink), a disposable paper palette, a metal palette knife, a print brayer and some mark-making tools like pencils, a ballpoint pen, and a wooden spoon.

The media has to be oil, not acrylic or water-based inks because only oil will stay moist long enough to do the transfer drawing.

Other materials you will need: drawing or printmaking papers cut to the size you want.

To start, squeeze a small amount of paint or ink on the disposable palette and spread it across the palette in a simple line. Work with the print brayer to create a smooth film of paint or ink over a large area of the paper palette (or spread the media with the palette knife).

Use any color oil paint or oil-based ink you want. I like brown, black and green.

After the color is spread on the palette, lay a clean piece of paper carefully on top. Don’t press it down. Don’t touch it or your fingerprints will show on the reverse side.

Your paper can be smaller than the paper palette and smaller than the ink or paint you’ve spread, or it can be as large as the paper palette (or even hang beyond it).

Have fun drawing with a pencil, pen or another mark-making tool. See how gently or how hard you need to press down to get the line transfer you want. The image will be in reverse. You may even like the image backward.

Some of your reverse drawings will be winners, and like Paul Klee you can add watercolor paint, ink crayons or pastel. Some of your reverse drawings will be less than perfect, but ideal papers for collage.

Try to write backwards in your reverse drawings. Try to do the drawing without a pen or pencil so you don’t see the lines as you are making them. Surprise yourself.

If you want to write text you can read, write it backwards,  so it will read forward on the reverse side. Or write your words on tracing paper first and flip the paper over, then look at it in reverse as you do the reverse drawing.

You can look at a drawings when you do the reverse drawing if you want to draw from something in front of you.

See my reverse drawing faces at my website. I did variations of a single drawing by changing the speed and direction of the lines I made. I also changed the amount of oil paint on the paper palette (some thicker, some thinner), and changed the pencil or pen.


I just made reverse drawings of lines on small pieces of printmaking paper for a new collage. I placed the drawings in a grid of 3 across and 4 down, then reorganized them into a larger grid.

When the grid was enlarged, almost all the pieces needed to be adjusted.

Some of the drawings were too bold. Some were too busy. As individuals they were good, but in a group they were competitive and had to be toned down. So I added layers of oil paint to some to make a few lighter and others darker.

I added a little yellow to warm up the white and black. It made grey green. Then I needed to add a vibrant green to add punch.

Nancy Nikkal, Reverse Drawings for Collage

I put the pieces on a large beautiful sheet of printmaking paper – ready to collage. It’s not yet glued down. So it might change before it’s finished.


In collage, things move (even a little) as you lift them up, turn them over, coat them with glue, lift them back up, and, finally, place then down on the substrate. I call it serendipity.

Are you ready to draw?

Please let me know if you need more information about reverse drawing. Thanks for sharing your comments.

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