I had a conversation recently with an artist friend who has a studio across the hall from me at Media Loft in New Rochelle, NY. She told me she was disappointed in the art journals that her students kept this summer in the study-abroad program she led in Rome, Italy.

She said what they produced was like a scrapbook.  She asked me if I had any suggestions.

We had a long conversation about how they could step it up a notch.

My comment:  Becoming an artist is all about learning to see, and understanding how you see.

If you want to be an artist you must learn to look.

It’s like exercise. The more you do it, the better you are able to do it.


Everyone has the potential to be an artist and everyone has the capacity to be creative. It starts with learning to see.

Look at art. Go to museums and galleries. Learn how to look at the art you make.

What do you see?


Understand what you like and understand why you like it.

At my collage workshops I tell my students to create a “swipe” file. It’s an excellent way to collect images for ideas for projects.

Start with delightful images that attract you. Collect images that puzzle and challenge you. Try to understand how the artist made the image work  Find newspapers and magazines with images you like.

I am inspired by art periodicals, art catalogs, fashion, food and home magazines. Many people love nature magazines.


When you find images you like, cut the image out (or photocopy the image) and paste it down on a clean page in a notebook that will become an art journal.

Add more images to the page if you want. Add your comments on what attracted you to the image (and add why).

You can work with pencil, pen, or marker and embellish the image with watercolor, decorative paper and fabric. Build your ideas with color. Emphasize the new and important ideas with underlines, bright colors and bold letters (in collage).


Add comments on how you can change the image. Make drawings and plans.

When I collect images, I make drawings to help me understand the structure of the image.

Sometimes I make 10 or 15 photocopies of the image and then paint and collage into the photocopies. Sometimes I cut the photocopy into several pieces and reorganize the pieces into a different composition and add and embellish to change the image again.

Explore ideas for images via MIND MAPPING or LIST MAKING.

How to use MIND MAPPING to develop an image:

Place the image in the center of the page. It’s the central idea (or the main topic) in your Mind Map.

Analyze the image. Branch out from the main image with lines directed to words, doodles, diagrams, drawings and colors as you develop and represent new ideas.

There are many resources to learn about Mind Mapping. Read more

How to use LIST MAKING to collect and illustrate ideas:

Place the image at the top or side of the page and expand with more images, words, numbers, doodles, and drawings. Your list can grow into more than a single page.

See the current exhibition LISTS: To dos, Illustrated Inventories, Collected Thoughts, and Other Artist’s Enumerations from the Smithsonian’s Archives of American Art (June 3-October 2, 2011) at the Morgan Library & Museum, 225 Madison Avenue at 36 Street, NY, NY. The exhibition includes more than 70 different works.

Read more…

I have the exhibition catalog. It’s excellent. You can order the book online.


Recently I led 2 mini workshops at the Newark Museum that were all about how to see (but I didn’t tell the participants the workshop was about how to see).

The plan was: Make a collage in the style of Jean Dubuffet.

The project had to be short so the collage could be completed in a short time.

Jean Dubuffet

Notice the image above. It’s titled “Sylvain.” The work is tiny (10×6 inches) and made with insect wings.

I made color copies of this work by Dubuffet and gave each student a copy so they could look at the image as they made their collage.

I told them the image was a face (a profile). I asked if they could see that Dubuffet’s media included insect wings. I asked: Can you see the eye and mouth?

I gave everyone an outline drawing of a face in profile. Some cut out the drawing and pasted the profile down on the substrate paper. Some made their own profile drawing.

Everyone got colored papers for the collage background. The Museum supplied magazines, and some students cut images from the magazines into shapes like tiny insect wings.

I asked the students to notice the patterns and the narrow range of light and dark tones and colors Dubuffet used (see the image above).

I asked: What size will you cut the pieces for your collage? How many papers will you use? How few? How will you place and glue the papers?  Will you make the papers flat or leave edges projecting? I asked them to think about the space around the profile. Dubuffet placed the profile very close to the left edge of the paper.

I did a demonstration on how to apply white PVA glue with a brush, and how to use a plastic squeegee and wallpaper seam roller to get pieces collaged down.

That’s a lot to cover in a one-hour workshop. But they did a great job. Each person chose how to proceed and what magazine images, papers and colors to include.


mini workshop collage

One student commented: it was a good workshop and added: What we did was learn how to see.

BACK TO The Swipe File idea – it’s not copying. It’s collecting images for inspiration and dialogue for future ideas – a bouncing off point for making more art.

Unless you create a mechanical reproduction, what you create is not a copy. You can’t copy when you draw, paint or make it by hand. You are interpreting what you see.

Read more about Dubuffet and the mini workshop I led at the Newark Museum in Newark, NJ.

QUESTIONS FOR YOU:  What do you like to see? What inspires you? What colors do you like? How do you collect ideas?

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s