How to Make Kombucha in 6 Steps :: Anatomy of a runaway infographic

I’ve been a serious Kombucha drinker for some years now and started making my own in 2013, partly to save money as store bought Kombucha runs about $3-4$ per 12 oz. bottle, as opposed to around $.50/gallon to make it yourself, but also because it’s just big nerdy fun to make a bunch of tea, stick a gelatinous frisbee thing in it and end up with some weird, fizzy lifting drink that Genghis Khan drank and that might have alien origins.

So because I love translating stuff I’m excited about into fun and practical infographics for my Foolish Fire readers, I began executing the one below so anyone interested in how to make this wonderful elixir of life would not just have another cute piece of hand-executed artwork but an honest to goodness at-a-glance reference, kinda like the Egg Guide and Fruit Sticker infographic. But then…

…the project got away from me. I really thought “6 steps” would end up being a manageable size for an infographic, after all infographics are typically long, but I’m afraid this one, when all was said and hand-lettered, weighs in at 73 inches deep x 8 inches wide!! Taller than me, truth be told. When the high-res version was finally finished, I went to generate the web version and checked the Image Size in Photoshop and almost fell out of my Herman Miller onto the floor laughing.

So I apologize to anyone who now has to figure out how to actually use this thing. In a web browser, I should provide complimentary bandaids to protect index fingers from scroll wheel overuse, cuz damn, it really takes five minutes to get to the bottom. I tried reducing the width but legibility quickly went south.

In print form, it requires 8 sheets of letter-sized paper that will have to be stitched together (maybe I should have included a ruler grid along the sidebar so it can double as growth chart for your kids.)

If this thing doesn’t break Pinterest I’ll be curious to see if anyone re-pins it. The Egg and Fruit sticker graphic have done quite well but a) I’m not enough people really know or care about Kombucha to bother reading it, and b) it’ll look like a piece of moldy fettuccine in the feed. Muolto estupido.

To any aspiring DIY Kombucha makers…there are some vastly more practical ebook format, PDF guides on and

To any aspiring graphic designers, consider the usability of your projects before executing.

To any aspiring illustrators with a bug up your butt idea you just have to share with the world, a few pens and a lot of paper, what the hell…onward and downward!


It’s Summer dammit!

I like inclement weather. The closer I physically get to the fog-shrouded coast the more chipper becomes my demeanor. But this is nuts. It’s frickin’ May, it’s flippin’ California and it hasn’t gotten above 68 for weeks. My cats are velcroed to the bed. I’m wearing a sweater as we speak. I know this qualifies as a heat wave in god-forsaken zip codes like Minnesota but we Cali types prefer we stow our sweatshirts sometime around tax day and retrieve them around Halloween.

So just in the nick, a client needed an illustration for a concert extolling the virtues of Summer. Might be over the top. But I’m cold dammit.


Mercury, dirty dishes and how I survived WalMart and lived to tell about it—a skeptic’s journal.

Mercury in Retrograde :: A Skeptic's Journal

I don’t believe in astrology because I try to be a rational, reasonable person. That said, I swear I can predict when Mercury has gone retrograde.

For you uninitiated who may not be familiar, the term “Mercury going retrograde” refers to a celestial phenomenon wherein 3 or 4 times a year the planet Mercury appears to “catch-up” to the Earth’s orbit and appears to be moving in an opposite, or retrograde orbital direction in relation to Earth. It’s really just an optical illusion. That’s the science part. The rest of it, like the disasters that inevitable follow,  is just astrological clap trap. Suffice to say Mercury went “retro” on January 21 and will probably be a pain in my ass until around February 11.

As mentioned, I don’t believe in astrology, or past lives, tarot cards, or most of the other crap theories you’ll find in the New Age/Occult aisle of Barnes and Noble. I am however on the fence about the Mercury thing. And here’s just one more example why…

I woke up last Saturday morning to a broken dishwasher—admittedly a first-world problem and I feel slightly embarrassed about even calling it a problem. But, as I do a lot of cooking and it’s an appliance I rely on every day,  let’s call it a ‘serious inconvenience’. Less of a thing maybe than a tree falling through your roof but more of a thing than say, a crack in your car windshield.

Like any responsible DIY homeowner on a Saturday faced with a broken appliance, Plan A is always to try to fix it myself. In other words I started pushing the same combination of buttons over and over hoping for a different result. No joy. I deep-Google the problem. No joy. So like most DIY homeowners I give up on Plan A within a few minutes and proceed straight to Plan B—call an appliance repairman/woman on Monday•.

*I’m careful to say “repairman/woman because I recently called a plumbing company to send someone out to unclog a sewer line and they sent a female plumber, which was both a reminder that I lived in the SF Bay Area and, made me wish my grandfather were alive just to see how long it would take him to ask her, “so when is the plumber coming?” What can I say? it was a different era. For the record, honestly, given a choice, I prefer female plumbers. But I digress…

Having accepted that I would be manually washing dishes for a while, I set about to attack the pile I assumed had been cleaned by my otherwise reliable German-made dishwasher 24-hours prior but in fact had just been sitting there in a steamy metal cabinet culturing strains of god-knows-what kind of lethal pathogen.

So fearing for my family’s health and safety, I grabbed the stopper device from under the sink and started to fill it up with hot water. At that moment the sink stopper contraption came apart in three pieces in my hand. At this point I would normally just chuckle benignly and chalk this up to coincidence but whenever something breaks—then something else breaks right afterward, I get a little nervous. A little back story may explain why…

Me and Merc go way back

A few years ago during a Mercury retrograde cycle, within a period of two days—and this is not just true but all too typical—my watch bezel broke, then my office phone, then my internet connection went down while uploading a clients’ website files, then I went completly blank on my ATM PIN number while at the Trader Joe’s checkout stand with 10 people in line behind me. These are not disasters—clearly—just a little chaos in a short amount of time. But wait there’s more…

Mi cepillo con muerte (my brush with death)

During a retrograde cycle that same year..and again, true story…while on an up-and-back hike with my sister in a local state park—on the “up” leg , minding my own business, just walking side by side along a hot dusty fire road, talking away, I stepped on a rattlesnake as it was crossing the trail in front of us. Never even saw it until my sister let out a screech that dislodged pine cones from the trees as I simultaneously stepped on the snake and executed a Cirque du Soleil-quality-never-before-seen bit of spastic maneuvering to avoid being bitten, as it slithered away, annoyed but unharmed. I, on the other hand, was traumatized, embarrassed, and already wondering what legal remedies I might seek to enjoin my sister from ever describing the dance I’d just done to any other living human. But it gets better…

On the way “back” up the trail, just when my adrenaline had reached close to normal levels, I was again, minding my own business, albeit more conscious of “moving sticks” ahead on the trail, discussing my previous near-brush with death, when I stepped squarely, precisely and pretty fucking perfectly, on another rattlesnake in the middle of the trail. Again…screech, bizarre dance moves like Jagger grabbing a downed power line, heart rate reaching hummingbird-on-espresso levels. But, we both live to tell about it (me and Snake #2, not my sister, who may choose to “tell about it” but not live long after that).

And just when you think that was all the deadly reptile one person deserves in one day….when I got home, and even before I could tell my wife the tale of my twin brushes with death…the gardner I had hired to clear some brush from the backyard called me over. He was clearly agitated and as his English was limited, employed dramatic hand gestures to aid the following story; apparently while weeding the back yard he had spooked “un grande serpiente” ,(at this he spread his arms and leaned back a little like he was about to hug a side-by-side refrigerator) and then he grabbed his pinky with his thumb and forefinger and wiggled it back and forth while making a “chickachickachicka” sound. I knew exactly what he was describing. It was Mercury in retrograde.

The bottom line is, since then my Merc radar is pretty much always set to sensitive and Saturday, as I surveyed the pile of fetid, bacteria-laden, unwashed dishes sitting on my kitchen counter, and the sink stopper in three pieces, little pings were starting to go off.

Two disasters do not a Merc-ing make

I repaired the sink stopper well enough to prevent drainage and went to squirt some dish soap into the sink from the sink-mounted soap dispenser. It was empty. When you have a fully functioning automatic German dishwasher, you don’t need a lot of dish soap, hence I don’t check it that often, hence it ran dry. But, not to worry. I have a bottomless, drum-sized, emergency bottle of Dawn I bought at Costco during the Clinton administration that I keep in my pantry closet. It was gone. The Dawn was, say it with me…gone.

Sense of humor still in tact there was no cursing or throwing dish towels at the cat. I simply informed my wife I was going down to CVS to buy some dish washing supplies before our kitchen became a Superfund site. Done and done. 

So let’s review (bear in mind I don’t know for certain at this point that Mercury is in retrograde but the evidence is mounting). First, a fairly new, top quality German engineered dishwasher breaks suddenly. b) sink stopper falls apart,  c) giant bottle of dish soap just vanishes. A flurry of admittedly pretty minor league problems, but this is exactly what Merc likes to do. Oh yes, I could smell a planetary plot unfolding. 

So I prepare to execute suburban homeowner Plan C— Step 1: go to CVS for dish soap and a drying rack (also missing), Step 2: rent a RedBox movie while there. Step 3: come home, cook a lovely garlic-dill salmon dinner, do dishes by hand (no problem), watch a movie, call repair person on Monday. It’s simple, it’s quick, it involves lots of no snakes.

I go down to the garage, get in the car and immediately notice a 12” crack in the windshield—and not just the little spidery, quarter-sized crack from a piece of random highway shrapnel but a crack traveling left to right in real time in a gentle downward arc. Spelling out in cursive, “you now need a new windshield—Love, Merc”.

Now I’m pissed. I pick up my phone.

“Siri…call Sara”.

“Calling Sara, James.”

“Hi, hon’.” my wife answers. 

“Hi…hey…what’s up with this crack in the windshield?” I’m on speaker while backing out of the garage.

“Oh right…I noticed that yesterday. Bummer, huh? “

‘Soooo you don’t remember how it happened?” I ask, partially aware that this may be a useless and potentially hazardous line of questioning.

“Well, no. Not really.” I could sense her blame radar was fully engaged but in that special way where even if I stupidly accused her of some kind of negligence, she would find it more amusing than insulting, knowing that the phrase “shit happens” was invented for exactly this type of event.

“Oh, okay. Geezus. Crazy, right? First the dishwasher, now we suddenly need a new windshield. Holy crap…you don’t think…”

“Hon…just breathe.” She senses my increasing agitation.

“Right, sure. Okay, I’m good. One thing at a time. Shit happens. Off to CVS. Back in a flash.”

Hardware. A guy thing.

On the way to CVS I remind myself that even a full windshield replacement is a first-world problem and nothing I can’t handle. Insurance will probably cover all or part of it anyway. It’s not life or death. No harm, no foul. And the dishwasher repair—okay maybe $100-200, plus a new windshield…I continue to take long, slow breaths as previously instructed.

I get to CVS. I buy a small, temporary replacement bottle of dish soap. But CVS has no sink stopper thingy, no drying rack. I go to the RedBox, rent a “feel good” movie, for obvious reasons. I still need dishwashing supplies so I go to the Home Depot about a mile away.

Entering the Home Depot I reflexively assume the  “don’t ask for help because you’re a guy in  a hardware store” posture, especially since I’m looking for a dish drying rack, which is just short of admitting I have no testosterone. I’m wishing I had a more masculine hardware need, like if a tree had fallen through my roof and I needed chainsaw oil and 200 board feet of rough “2-by’s” or really anything requiring an arcane knowledge of tools and several bags of cement.

Finally, I must have looked pathetic and lost enough to attract a Home Depot employee who asks me if I need help. With a hint of a southern drawl that seems to only emerge in hardware and auto repair establishments, I say, “yeah…my dishwasher broke and I need a dryin’ rack until I can fix it…do you have those?” I try awkwardly to mime “drying rack” but it comes out more like “me make sandwich”.

The Home Depot guy looks bemused. “No-o-o-o…I…don’t…think…we…carry…those.” he says, injecting enough ellipses between words to augment his over-the-top incredulity. “You might try Walmart for that”. He smiles a half smile. I think…”pretty smug for a guy named Bryce wearing an orange apron.” 

No please…not Walmart

“Oh sure, okay.” I reply.  “I’m trying to avoid Walmart, but thanks.” Which is actually true. I’ve never shopped there. Ever. I’m a good liberal progressive and I don’t like WalMart. I don’t support their business model which is centered around the false premise that cheap is good. Not to mention how they exploit their workers. I could go on. Bryce says, “I know what you mean. I quit WalMart in October. I hated it there. How about Target? They must have dish racks.”

Instantly Bryce becomes more likable. We probably hate Walmart for different reasons, but he’s now an ally in my quest to find manual dish washing equipment. I make some offhanded crack about not being able to “swipe your card at Target “ but he’s already disengaged and moving on to assist more qualified customers with their more pressing and manly, first-world problems.

So now I’m standing outside Home Depot on the horns of a real consumer dilemma wrapped up in a crisis of conscience and stuffed inside an unfolding cosmic clusterfuck. I can suck it up and go across the parking lot to WalMart, compromise my principles but probably buy a dish rack, or drive 10 miles down the freeway to Target and risk having my dinner at 10 p.m. and my personal data compromised.

And damn if this isn’t just the kind of chaotic conundrum that means Mercury must be in full, unabashed, retro-freakin-grade. I look skyward into the heavens, shake a fist at Mercury (later I learned the actual planet Mercury was actually 180 degrees behind me) and begrudgingly, and sheepishly, start walking across the parking lot, toward WalMart.

“Welcome to Walmart”

As I prepare to enter Walmart for the first time. Ever. I am chagrined but resolute. I immediately pass one of the infamous, elderly greeters sitting on a stool near the shopping carts who looks like he’s been there since I bought that mega bottle of Dawn dish soap. He says in a scratchy monotone, “Welcome to WalMart”  for the 16,000th time that day, no doubt. I return a scowly but sympathetic, “Thanks, man”.

The first thing I notice about WalMart is that it smells like a freshly unwrapped, plastic outdoor table cloth with just a hint of gym bag. The lighting is fluorescent on steroids, slightly chartreuse and a lot brighter than natural daylight, which added to the soft-rock soundtrack being piped in from my dead Aunt’s hi-fi in heaven, explains the overall sense that we may be in Kansas or some other flat, expansive, hellish netherworld. 

I head for the giant sign that says “Household” in Helvetica Bold. The aisles are stacked head-height on both sides, they’re maze-like, disorderly but containing a surprising mix of top brands along with obvious knock-offs. But, I know my kitchen tools and frankly, I’m a little impressed.

“Focus”, I mutter under my breath. “Dish rack. Sink stopper. Scrubber thingy. Back across the parking lot. Get in windshield-crack car. Hope nothing else breaks on way home. First, swallow pride, ask for help cuz not finding dish racks. Also losing articles and conjunctions at alarming rate.”

I spy an older Walmart employee milling about with a yellow cart full of “go backs”. I ask, “Excuse me, where can I find dish drying racks?” He drops his head, tilts it to one side, an eye skewed in my direction. He speaks very little English.

“Who…dish pack?”.

“No, Dish…rack. For drying dishes?” I enunciate but not too much. I’m careful not to insult. It’s a liberal thing—“show no impatience with ESL speakers”.

Finally, he understands and scuttles off ahead of me flicking his finger to follow. Success. I arrive at a loosely organized wall of all things “kitchen sink”.

There is a woman blocking my access and muttering to herself, “Damn. Should have measured first.” She’s obviously seeking similar quarry. She adds to the 3 or 4 dish racks in various sizes, colors and quality levels nested in her cart and realizes I have a similar objective by the antsy vibe I must be giving off. She sheepishly backs off as I pluck the first likely, stainless steel wire dish rack from the lower shelf and check the price tag.

Holy freakin’ crap…so cheap!

To a seasoned “WalMartian”, the reaction that followed is probably considered a normal  thing for a WalVirgin. I’m talking about the incredulous, gobsmacked “What the hell? Only $insert lowlow price?. Seriously?!” always uttered out loud, involuntarily, as the light of reason slowly fades from our eyes and we go a little dead inside.

With newborn fascination I return to the disheveled display of kitchen accoutrements to see what else I could score for almost no money. Two dish scrubbers for $1.67. A sink supper thingy for $1.19. A rubber mat for under the dish rack for $.99. I could pay for all of this with the lost meter change between my car seats, with what I spent yesterday at Starbucks! I find myself at a crossroads staring into Sam Walton’s big blue-eyed, American “Always Low Prices” abyss, mixing metaphors uncontrollably.

I look around at the carts of my fellow shoppers—14 cans of Stagg’s chile, a floor mop and a pressboard shelf unit. Another cart …2 cases of Red Bull on the bottom level, a dozen jars of sauerkraut on a bed of  polyester pajamas the color of an irradiated flamingo, and a blister pack of screwdrivers in the kid carrier. No rhyme, no reason. It’s so cheap. It must be good. Cheap is good. Is cheap good? Cheap IS good. I feel a flood of dopamine release in my brain. No wonder people shop here. Then a voice from deep down said…

“Run, you fool!”

After my self-inflicted dope slap, I lose no time choosing the closest of 82 register lines and anxiously await my turn, ATM card out of wallet and poised to swipe. A woman ahead of me in line and dressed in sweats and 50’s glasses is accusing the checker of charging her twice for a bottle of water. She clearly has two bottles of water on the bagging table, which is pointed out matter-of-factly by the emotionless Walmart checker (or Guest Services Attendant, or whatever). I nervously tap my ATM card on the conveyor belt as the terse transaction ahead eats up precious seconds I could be NOT spending in this place where consumers go to blissfully die, having spent their kid’s inheritance on crap they don’t need but might need so they buy ten of them because it’s sooooo cheap…it must be good.

“Get out of my head,” I almost say aloud. 

It’s finally my turn. I swipe. I pay. The checker is careful to ask, or declare (I’m not sure which) “You don’t need a bag, do you.” in accord with the new California plastic bag law that went into effect just days before. I reply “Nopethanks” and move my body in one smooth motion toward the exit. When for a moment…I experience what is at first a mere flutter, then a murmur of self-doubt, followed by a feral, maniacal, gravitational pull toward that vortex of “SaveMoneyLiveBetter” material euphoria. “Should I get a few more things since I’m already here and everything is soooooo cheap?” I suddenly realize I’m the grip of a power greater than myself, namely Sam Walton and the planet Mercury, together in an unholy alliance.

I dodge the gaze of the elderly Greeter on the way out the double doors as he utters a mechanical, “Thank you for shopping at Walmart”, on cue, like a tripped garage door sensor.

I retrace my steps, get in my car, cracked windshield refracting parking lot lights, and re-focus on the task ahead. “First, install new dish rack, then re-fill dish soap squirt thingy, replace sink stopper, wash fetid pile of disgusting dishes, make salmon if still edible (stop, reverse those…cook salmon then clean fetid dishes), watch “feel food” movie, call dishwasher repair person on Monday, mobile windshield repair person right after that. First-world problems.” All that matters now is that I had once again barely escaped a death of a different kind, sidestepped another species of venomous serpent and eluded the gravitational pull of Mercury…and Walmart, at least for now. Or until around February 11. 

Update on Mercury in Retrograde – Day 7

Here’s the thing about Mercury in retrograde that isn’t often discussed and I often neglect to mention. It’s now been a week since my dishwasher broke and I haven’t called a repair person. My wife and I now have a little ritual whereby we finish watching TV, I give the cats a massage  and a salmon treat on the little carpet by the front door (I know…I’ll explain the cat thing in another post), and we both go into the kitchen, sometimes without a word, start filling up the sink with hot water, she washes, I dry. We’re side by side, we talk about the day. It’s kinda freakin’ lovely.

Warning: Political Art Object Ahead.

When I launched FF back in 2007 I envisioned it as a personal playground, a sketchbook, a sandbox and a refuge from my daily graphic design job, which can become more “production” than “creativity” on any given day. Not complaining—I’m lucky to be paid for what I love to do—but every job has it’s drudgery. So FF was created as a place devoid of clients, art directors or deadlines. And as my little no-stress corner of the blogosphere, where I rarely post “troll bait” subject matter, I’ve been able to make it pretty “flame proof”, or at least “flame retardant” (I do occasionally get a critical comment but more about technique than subject matter).

So it isn’t often that I post politically sensitive content in this space. Instead, I try to adhere to the original mission for Foolish Fire which simply put is to make it more “Foolish” than “Fire”. But news events of late, namely the situation in Ferguson, MO and elsewhere, have awakened my inner rabble-rouser, so I’ve used words and pictures (besides voting…my favorite tools) to make a statement here, in the form of the graphic below, titled “Dear White People”.

If you’re a subscriber to Foolish Fire, first, thank you—I appreciate that you’ve seen something on FF you like well enough to open up your inbox to the occasional email. You may want to close it after this piece, or after future pieces that aren’t just about hand lettering and inspirational quotes. And that’s fine. I get it. I’m always editing my newsletter list.

I still intend to keep this space more playground than political forum, but as I get older and gain the perspective (and orneriness) that brings, I’ll be honest, I’m not sure I can remain silent, even here. Especially here. There are simply too many issues in this world that demand my participation and I recognize that as an artist I don’t just have a calling but a responsibility, so sometimes that requires a brief foray into the political realm. Don’t mean to wax all lofty but there you go.

So as always, take what you like and leave the rest…and have a nice day.


Flow Magazine is the finest publication in the world…


And not just because they commissioned and published an illustration from this blogger, but I won’t lie, it does go a long way. Would I have so passionately recommended Portable Restroom Operator magazine (a real publication…I Googled it) if they’d bought an illustration? Not likely. Okay maybe. But seriously, Flow is the real deal.

If you’re not familiar, Flow is a Dutch publication directed mainly toward women seeking to “simplify their lives, feel connected and live mindfully.” Hey, aren’t we all? And the great thing is that Flow is available in honest-to-god 3D, meat world, glorious paper (as well as in pixels on iTunes). You can order all formats from their website. English versions are available.

So call me androgynous, call me a metrosexual..I am completely sans uterus and I loved this magazine anyway. Clever knows no gender.

Be the Hero of Your Own Story

I wrote this line but it’s probably not original—don’t care, didn’t check. It felt authentic in the moment. I’d created the little flying dude a while ago after looking at a book of primitive African motifs. He represents some kind of hybrid bat/man in African mythology.

So… bat + man = Batman = hero = hero myth = Joseph Campbell = follow your passion = be the hero in your own narrative. And that’s the way that particular rabbit hole happened.

Fooolish Fire :: Be the Hero in Your Own Story




The Best of Foolish Fire Readers’ Chalkboards

In past chalkboard-related posts I’ve put it out there that I’d love to see what chalkboard background buyers/downloaders are making with these files. On occasion I hear back…

So thanks, Marilyn Curtright. Great job, and I’m glad the backgrounds came in handy. With the popularity of chalkboards still on the rise there are more and more free fonts and resources for chalkboard artists who want to create a chalkboard effect without inhaling dust or even adding hand-lettered and scanned text.

Marilyn describes in meticulous detail how she created the poster below In Photoshop, even down to the fonts and hex colors.

Foolish Fire :: Reader's Chalkboards

Thought I’d let Marilyn describes the process in her own words:

“Hi James,

I belong to the Art Journal Caravan for 2014, a year-long “workshop” held by Tangie Baxter over at For week 10, back in March, one of the prompts suggested to make a layout using a chalkboard effect. So with your chalkboard background as a base, some nice chalk fonts and dingbats, and a great quote, I put together my piece.

Chalkboard background from, fonts include Bergamot Ornaments – dingbats, Kraft Nine, Handy George, Return to Sender, Chalk-hand-lettering, Clementine Sketch, Square Chalk, DeLouisvilleSmallCaps

Font color: #d1d5d3 (lightish gray). I didn’t want it to be stark white.

For each text layer, I added a pattern overlay to my text, just something that looked a bit like crumpled paper. This was set to NORMAL at about 50% opacity to give the wording some texture.

When I was done with my design, I created a composite of all my layers. At the top of the layer stack, Ctrl-Alt-Shift-E.

On the composite, I created a layer mask, with low opacity, used the same font color as above and with random brushes, I lightly brushed over all creating the smudged chalky effect.

I did use as a resource a tutorial by Courtney Odell, found on the web.

Hope this helps.




A Foolish Fire Tutorial :: How to Make a Collage in Photoshop

A Foolish Fire Tutorial :: How to Make a Collage in Photoshop

I’ve been making collages in one form or another since I was old enough to wield scissors and paste, which turned into long hours during the summer and after school stuffed into a poorly ventilated darkroom combining cut-up Kodalith sheet negatives and printing large-scale BW contact prints, which turned into Photoshop 3.0 and a Mac FX, which turned into..well faster and better “scissors and paste” and a permanent “buh bye” to smelly rooms full of chemicals.

There is something magical about the process of starting with a collection of unrelated images and seeing hidden relationships appear— a hundred tiny acts of discovery..

The medium of collage is a huge part of the message and for me serious serious fun. So in keeping with the purpose of this site; if I do it, I’m happy to share it.

Here’s the finished piece I’ll be using as a case study. It’s called “Autodidact”, which means self-taught (news to me). The collage began as a much smaller piece, inspired by “Brazil”, the Terry Gilliam opus and grew in complexity as I thought about how many influencers and levels of inspiration actually contribute to our “self-teaching” as we grow and mature.  Anyway…

A Foolish Fire Tutorial :: How to create a collage in Photoshop

Photoshop allows the artist to assemble a collage in pretty much real time with a few basic skills, a scanner and/or some image files that already exist on your hard drive. While this tutorial is really aimed at the intermediate Photoshop user, anyone familiar with PS basics can make interesting and satisfying work while keeping the learning curve frustration to a minimum. We hope.

My collage subjects have always tended to be a bit on the dark side. Heavily influenced by Bosch, Magritte, Dali, Uelsmann and dare I say it, Monty Python in my formative years it’s no wonder, but with collage, the sky is literally the limit. If you’re drawn to unicorns and daisies, go for it!

So in lieu of an Xacto knife or scissors, digital collage requires only a mouse and a lasso tool. The Photoshop layers palette contains all the bits and pieces you would have carefully cut out and readied to glue on to some sort of background—so we’ll start there. But first, here’s what you’ll need:

  1. A copy of Adobe Photoshop 4.0 or above or Photoshop Elements.
  2. A flatbed scanner or scanner app to convert hard copy (real paper) source files and ephemera (items of collectible memorabilia) to digital files.
  3. Hard copy or digital ephemera or source files.
  4. A sketchbook, pencil and eraser.
  5. An hyperactive imagination tempered with a sense of restraint.

Step 1: Create your canvas (background) .PSD file

Foolish Fire :: How to make a collage in Photoshop

Start with a standard, printable size. You can always adjust your canvas size as your collage takes shape.

First, decide what the output medium and final size (dimensionally) will be; print or web or both? if you ever want to be able to print your work, set up your base file at 150-300 dpi. It means your .psd may be pretty beefy by the time you’re finished, but worth it to ensure decent print quality. If you only want to display your work on a website or blog, create the base file at 72 dpi, it’ll make the whole process faster by not hogging as much bandwidth.

Rule of Thumb: when working with bitmapped (pixel-based) files, you can always “Save As” lo-res files from hi-res files, but not the other way around without severe quality loss. Hedge your bets by starting off at 300 dpi if you even remotely think you might print out your work at some point.

Step 2: Gather your source material

This is probably the step with the most wiggle room. There are so many ways collages come together; sometimes an interesting relationship happens between two or three objects, or you may have an entire narrative in mind which then becomes about locating the right imagery. 

I often start with a concept or theme in mind, then scour my ephemera and photography folders for likely collage candidates. I’ve been collecting “scrap” from old magazines, found art, discarded photos, parts of old manuals and postcards for years, so I have a lot to choose from on my hard drive. Antique stores, flea markets and second hand stores are great sources for old print material, magazines, manuals, postcards and discarded scrap books full of photos. Sites like Retronaut or Time Tales are great places to start to downloading copyright free material. 

Rule of Thumb: An image you pulled off a web site will be 72-96 dpi by default. If you’re making a collage for print at 300 dpi, that image may be tiny when you paste into your base .psd file. Enlarging it to fit will generally NOT produce the result you want, although if you don’t mind the “crunchiness”, sometimes you can Unsharp Mask the *@#+ out of it and may get acceptable results. 

I browse my scrap folders with Adobe Bridge so I can see lots of thumbnail previews at once, but there are other options for folder browsing including Preview and iPhoto or other freeware options. Just Google “image browsers mac/windows”. 

Foolish Fire :: How to make a collage in Photoshop

I use Adobe Bridge to browse folders full of “scrap” but any browser app will work that allows you to open a file directly into Photoshop.

As source images start to speak to you, open them in individual windows in Photoshop. You’ll be working with .jpgs for the most part—which is fine, .gifs or .pngs work as well but be conscious of the resolution of your source files. 

Rule of thumb: Beware of copyright restrictions for anything you might use off the web. Even vintage materials are subject to copyright if they’re part of a collection. Check your sources for permissions. You’re generally safe using older/vintage material in the public domain as long it’s not for a profit-making enterprise but copyright law is not an exact science. Archive sites like, and are wonderful one-stop sources of collage material but often hold copyright on their material and may limit use to non-commercial purposes only.

Always scan hard copy scrap at the same resolution (or higher but not lower) as your base .psd. 

Step 3: Get organized, but not too organized

This step is about setting up your file so you can start playing with your layers.

In Photoshop (and Illustrator and InDesign for that matter) there is a thing called “good layer hygiene”. It means that whenever you work with a layered document, proper naming of those layers is a best practice from the beginning because as you’ll learn, layers tend to multiply like bunny rabbits. Collage is such an organic, make-it-up-as-you-go art form, to save yourself a ton of grief, label those layers!

Foolish Fire :: How to make a collage in Photoshop

A well organized layers palette actually makes spontaneity more possible.

That said, don’t get too hung up on the fussy workflow advice. Spontaneity is key, so as a compromise, I usually stop after I’ve created five or six new layers and do some housecleaning i.e. delete any inactive layers I’m sure I won’t be using, name any unnamed layers, put logical layers into folders. If you tidy as you go, you’ll also reduce bandwidth drag by getting rid of unnecessary layers.

In a collage, you’ll be building something of a pyramid structure, with the base layer and background files occupying the entire real estate of the piece and a much of edited and/or masked images or fragments of images stacked on top. 

I usually add a background texture at this point but most often end up changing it once my artwork is in place. The layer right above your background layer should be the Background Texture. 

There are multiple sources online for obtaining digital background textures including my personal fave Creative Market. They have plenty of freebies as well as affordable collections. I also keep an eye out in the real world for interesting walls, pavement patches, sides of buildings, graffiti and random and interesting paint textures.

Step 4: Cutting and pasting

This is where a bit of expertise in using PS selection tools can be useful. Pick one of your open source files and either select the area you want to use with the lasso tool or Select All and copy the entire file. If I’m using the lasso tool I generally don’t try to be too precious with the selection at this point—instead I’ll draw my selection 10 pixels or so wider than what I really want. I’d generally rather do the final edge cleanup on the placed layer. 

Go to your base file and paste the selection. You’ll note a new layer has just been created. Name that layer and proceed repeat the process of copying and pasting source material into your base file, creating more layers as you go. Give each layer a name.

Step 5: Layer Masking

Foolish Fire :: How to make a collage in Photoshop

A layer mask allows you to use only the parts of an image you want without permanently erasing pixels. This is the TV image I used in the top of the example collage with the mask on.

Foolish Fire :: How to make a collage in Photoshop

This is the orginal image with the mask disabled.

Layer masks are almost mandatory with this kind of iterative process. Snapshots and Adjustment Layers also come in handy but in the interest of simplicity and my short attention span, I use masks on almost every layer. If you’re not familiar with masks in PS, they allow you to edit the content of a layer without committing to the edit. Simply select what you want to keep with the lasso tool or magic wand and click the mask icon at the bottom of the layers panel. When the layer icon is elected, you can subtract pixels with any brush tool given a black foreground color, or with a white brush to add back the original image. This is an intermediate level tutorial so I won’t go into much more detail about masks—trust me though, they’ll make your life a lot easier when creating a collage. 

Step 6: Blending Modes: the way layers interact

Blending modes can make or break the look and feel of a piece. They are not an exact science and for me is a matter of feel rather than trying to predict what a layers will look like with a particular mode applied. I do a lot of reversing (Command-I) and using Screen mode on BW line art to eliminate backgrounds and pop out of dark backgrounds, and Color Burn with photographs is a favorite as well, but overall I recommend trial and error. You’ll know when it looks right. 

Step 7: Image adjustments

In order to get layers to play nicely, adjust them individually for levels, opacity, contrast, hue and saturation, etc. I usually do this toward the end when composition has been more or less decided. This is all part of the fine tuning process along with zooming in to be able to clean up unmasked pieces of layers with the brush tools. 

Step 8: A word about composition

Design schools teach that every work of art succeeds or fails based on composition. Even fine execution takes a back seat to the creative placement of elements. Some rules apply here but as your collage takes form, reduce the window size so you can evaluate the piece from a distance. Or better yet use an old photographer’s trick and look at it upside down (or just ask an old photographer). Your collage should make compositional “sense’. Think “rule of thirds”, eye tracking, point of entry, hotspots, border integrity, it all matters and separates the clip art projects from the fine art. 

I often move elements around in groups (which is why creating layer groups is important) in order to solve compositional problems. It’s one of the benefits of working in Photoshop as opposed to scissors and paste. 

Step 9: Working with text 

A lot of my pieces contain some form of text, either drawn or placed as images. I rarely use fonts but that’s a subjective choice. Text can help illuminate or enhance the theme of a piece, which may not always be obvious to the viewer. I personally don’t mind if a viewer has to work a bit at deciphering the symbology of a piece, just as I don’t mind it when viewing other artists’ work. Collage is by nature symbolic and multiple interpretations are inevitable. In fact it’s one reason why I love the medium so much. Bits of text can be signposts, however, providing literal or poetic clues for the viewer. That said, I often find deciding how to use text to be the biggest challenge. 

Step 10: Knowing when to stop noodling

Sometimes the process of collage making can be so engaging it’s hard to stop. Like editing my own writing, I have a tendency to start out overly complicated and simplify, simplify.

The best collages may be comprised of hundreds of individual images but still look cohesive and “legible”. Restraint can be applied not just to the judicious use of imagery but to your color palette as well. You’ll note in the “Autodidact” piece, there are really only two colors. Economy in one aspect of the work can balance excess in another.

A Foolish Fire Tutorial :: How to Make a Collage in Photoshop

Every image on the perimeter was used in some way to create the final collage.

More collagiality

These are pieces created using the processes above. Many were created around Illustration Friday weekly themes. Starting with a one-word topic is a great way to keep the creative muscles toned.

A Foolish Fire Tutorial :: How to Make a Collage in Photoshop

Evolution Take 3

Foolish Fire :: Collage Portfolio

Beginner’s Mind

Foolish Fire :: Collage Portfolio


Foolish Fire :: Collage Portfolio

The Drink Takes the Man

Foolish Fire :: Collage Portfolio

Cowbird Blueboy (animated GIF)

Foolish Fire :: How to create a collage in Photoshop

Stay (animated GIF)

Foolish Fire :: Collage Portfolio


Foolish Fire :: Collage Portfolio

A Memory of Shadows

Foolish Fire :: Collage Portfolio

Fountain of Youth

Foolish Fire :: Collage Portfolio

A Little to the Left

Foolish Fire :: Collage Portfolio