Create cool collage illustrations

Collage of politicians including Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn

I’ve been working as a freelance illustrator and collage maker for nearly five years. At university I flapped around, unsure of my visual language and how to adopt a style that suited me and what I wanted to say. I discovered paper art at the end of my second year of study, after realising that my love of film photography and the aesthetic of the prints could be incorporated into my illustration.

Ever since then it’s been a case of refining and reflecting in equal measure. I’ve made a lot of mistakes, learnt a lot of lessons and become more confident in the way that I work.

My process has twisted and changed over time. It’s essential for me to work quickly and efficiently, particularly when it comes to working on a fast turnaround for editorial clients – sometimes you’ve got five hours from brief to final. Time really is money, so I’ve found ways to ensure I can deliver quality artwork on time. 

For more tips on collage making, see our post on how to make a photo collage in Photoshop.

Finding photos

My priority initially is to make sure I can source relevant material for the brief. I use copyright-safe archives and free stock image sites as a first port of call. The material can really dictate the direction of the illustration – it does mean I have slightly less control, but equally gives space for happy accidents and experimentation to take place.

Clients also provide me with source material they’d like me to include and I also take or use my own photos, bringing us back round full circle to why I fell in love with this style in the first place.

Collage of three women leaping over a hurdle

Eleanor Shakespeare used an original photo of women jumping over hurdles to create a self-initiated piece on the theme of International Women’s Day.

The contextual integrity of the source material can really matter. When creating the illustrations for my book Stormy Seas, I worked closely with the publisher to make sure the images I was using were historically and contextually accurate. When creating non-commissioned work, I am much more free in what I use.

Last year, I was producing a self-initiated piece of work in response to International Women’s Day, and was looking for material to inspire me. I came across an old photo of three women jumping over a hurdle, and it summed up exactly what I wanted to convey. The images I find can have so much power on their own, and it’s really exciting to enhance and breathe new life into them.

The collage process

Once I’ve gathered my images, I cut them out in Photoshop using a Wacom tablet. I use the Eraser tool and cut round the object. I find this method most closely represents the process of physical cut and stick collage.

A collage of a woman on a beach with a signal icon instead of a head

A work in progress cut out of the central image for a commission for BBC World Histories (art directed by Susanne Frank), plus the final image (right).

It’s then a case of layering, dragging, resizing and playing with the composition and colours. I have archives of handmade textures that I’ve collected and produced over time, as well as found material which I then use to make my work distinctive and bring depth to the illustration.

Sometimes I just use one key photograph, and find a concept to hang the image on. Other times, it’s about stitching together a whole range of different material. Either way, I find that a limited colour palette and rich, inky textures and found ephemera make my work unique.

From rough to final

I’ve worked on hundreds of editorial jobs and the experience differs hugely depending on factors such as client, deadline, budget and topic. Ultimately, I have to remember I’m working for other people, so must find a balance: creating artwork that I’m happy with, but that also satisfies the brief and client.

A pair of collages of political leaders, including Theresa May and Jeremy Corbyn

Some of the elements, textures and colours changed as this piece for the Guardian (art directed by Chris Clarke) developed

Although I am usually working exclusively with the art director, they are serving as the go-between for me and the editor, designers, their client, sometimes the writer too, so it is vital that I stay flexible and open-minded. Simultaneously, I am a professional image maker, so it’s okay for me to push my ideas and make suggestions.

Illustrations develop naturally from roughs to finals and my job is most enjoyable when my vision is in line with the vision of the art director. I don’t tend to draw sketches because my work is so dependent on found imagery, so I loosely put together a rough of what I imagine the final to look like, using materials I plan to use.

Achieving cohesion

One factor that can define how an image will take shape is the layout and composition of the page. With both editorial and books I try to consider how the page will look as a whole, and I love it when there is flexibility with the layout.

Guardian collage illustration

The final layout included spot illustrations

In a recent illustration for the Guardian, I created the main image – there was no time for roughs – and then we used spots to bring cohesion to the whole spread. Occasionally, clients will have specific colour palettes they’d like me to use, which can be because of other illustrations featuring in the publication or because of the tone of the article.

I’m also often restricted by the dimensions given to fit the illustration into. All of these challenges help keep my portfolio diverse and me engaged and excited about what I do. It’s great to see an illustration unfold with the guidance and support of talented art directors.

Finding balance

This particular Guardian commission was for publication in the launch week of its new tabloid format, so I wasn’t willing to turn it down. At the time, though, I was stranded in New York, meaning there was a five-hour time difference on an already tight six-hour deadline, not to mention that I was simultaneously negotiating flights home and fighting fatigue.

My tendency is to say yes to a commission and figure out how to do it afterwards (caffeine!), because once I’ve agreed to a job I have to do it. There are certainly a few tips I’ve learnt along the way to make the fast-paced nature of this career more manageable. I read and reply to emails as soon as I can, more than three icons on my desktop make me feel sick and there are always lists, notes and Post-Its.

I’ve learnt that this level of organisation categorically makes my working life easier, but maintaining work-life balance is important too. The flip-side is that I am working with amazing clients on a wide variety of really exciting projects and that makes any moments of stress totally worth it.

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Eleanor is an illustrator and designer working in South London. She is best known for her photomontage style, which has featured in leading newspapers and magazines both in the UK and abroad, including the Guardian, The Pool and The Washington Post. She has also had three books published, and teaches part-time at a secondary school.