Art Journaling 101 – Background Techniques

Art Journaling 101 - a FREE e-course designed to gently introduce beginners to the basics of art journaling so you can find your way with more ease and less fearThis article is part of my FREE e-course Art Journaling 101 – which has been designed to gently introduce beginners to the basics of art journaling so you can find your way with more ease and less fear. If you’re curious about art journaling or overwhelmed with how to begin, sign up for the full free course HERE.

Today I want to share with you a couple of my favorite background techniques for art journaling. They’re all super simple and fun to do. When you find yourself stuck and not knowing where to begin you can always start prepping your pages with these and many other background techniques!

This first technique can be applied in so many ways. Gel medium acts as a resist, so you can stencil, stamp, and paint with it on your surface, then go over it with a wash of paint to reveal the resist. Here, I stenciled on some circles using gloss gel medium and a hand cut stencil that I made.

The gel medium is clear, so it’s a bit hard to see where and how well you’re working, you kinda have to watch it at an angle. Once dry, paint over it with watercolors or slightly watered down acrylics. If the paint is sticking to your gel medium, you can lightly dab it with a paper towel and it should come right up. On this page, I used a lot of water with acrylics, then lifted the book to let it drip. So fun!

You may remember this next technique from grade school. Wash your page with 1-3 colors of watercolor, sprinkle with some table salt, and then watch the magic happen! If you aren’t using watercolor paper, you may want to put a base coat of Absorbent Ground like I did, so that the watercolor flows better on your page. Absorbent Ground helps the paper act more like watercolor paper, making it easier to spread wet mediums.

One of the easiest and fastest ways to create a background is to simply squirt some paint onto your page then move it around with an old credit card or key card. With this technique your paint will dry super quick, you waste little to no paint, and it creates a neat printmaking effect! Scrape the paint up and down, then scrape side to side, letting the colors mix slightly.

When dry, you can add another layer of color like I did here with the black.

One of my absolute favorite ways to add dimension, texture, and interest is to first collage some paper onto the page. You can use just about anything such as old dictionary pages, pages from a phone book, scrapbook papers, magazine clippings, and more. Here, I ripped up pieces of an old dictionary and glued them down with soft gel medium. Once it was dry, I painted over it with watered down blue acrylic paint. I dabbed the page with a paper towel here and there to create a mottled effect, then once it was dry I painted another layer in the same way with purple.

This last technique is super fun, but it takes a long time to do. Squirt a generous amount of gesso onto your page (I like to use Liquitex Basics Gesso), then spread it around with an old credit card or key card.

You want a nice thick layer, almost like spreading spackle. You’ll get a nice texture just by spreading it around, but to take it further you can draw into it with the back of a paint brush, stamp in it (a thick, deep etched stamp works best), scratch it, and more to add texture. With my page, I wrote the word “love” with the back of a paint brush, and stamped into it with a circle stamp.

Then comes the hard part… letting it dry! With such a thick layer, you’ll probably have to leave it out overnight to dry. It will take hours! Once its finally dry, add a wash of color. Here, I used red and orange acrylic paint thinned with water. Before the paint dries, wipe off some of the excess paint with a paper towel. You’ll see how the recessed areas stay darker, and the raised areas get lighter showing off your beautiful texture! With mine, I added a little more paint around the edges to finish it off nicely.

Playing around with different techniques will usually lead to a “happy mistake” or two. Below is an image of one of my happy mistakes trying to do the gel medium resist technique. I put a layer of gold on the page first, then stenciled some small circles with the gel medium. I then did a wash of blue over the top… but the gold paint must not have been dry enough because my blue wash started to turn an ugly green color and got the page all messy. So, I sprayed it with water and rubbed with a paper towel. This lifted most of the paint off the paper, even the gold layer underneath. But, it left the gold circles in tact because they were protected by the gel medium!

Many weeks ago I discovered another way to create texture on the page using gesso. I had just finished prepping my page with a layer of gesso, when I accidentally turned the page. Of course, with the gesso being still wet, the pages stuck together. I was horrified! But after peeling the pages apart, I got excited to see such a neat texture form from the pages pulling apart.

There are infinite amounts of techniques and ways to start adding color and texture to your page. Heck, you don’t even have to start with color and texture… maybe you want to work on a white background! Just play around, experiment, and keep an open mind as you follow your heart. Sometimes, a technique you learn online or in a book will never work out for you, but perhaps you will stumble upon a “happy mistake” of your own! 

Bonus Tip: Having a separate journal like I do for experimenting and practicing techniques is a fun way to collect everything you’ve learned and discovered.

Now get out your paints and go play!


  1. Great post, Kristal! This really helps me to have a place to start – Thank you!

  2. Such wonderful ideas, Kristal! Can’t wait to try them! Thank you!

  3. You’re welcome girls! Have fun with it! :)

  4. Enjoyed seeing this! Great ideas and looks!

  5. Oh I need to try these. :)

  6. Hi,
    Such great background ideas!
    I’ve just finished reading all of your AJ 101 posts! Thank you so much for these! I’ll be watching eagerly for more.
    i’m a virgin Art Journaller and I also suck at all things arty/crafty, but I am determined to give it a good go.
    Thanks for posting!

  7. Kristal, thanks for this wonderful display of background ideas. I love how you describe the process (or mistakes ;) for each one. I love how what might be thought of as mistakes is instead so unique and beautiful. Saving this link as I continue to play and explore with art journaling. I already have the credit card one figured out, now on to the others. :)

  8. Kristal,
    So glad to have found your posts here on Art Journaling. I too love to paint in my journal although I usually am just a plain old watercolor and ink journaler. I’m excited to try out some of these techniques too. You’ve done a great job in describing them and with your videos!

  9. Thank you for these! I can’t wait to try them.

  10. Janelle says:

    This was awesome – I am so excited to get started… I have two questions I would like to ask you.
    1. On the dictionary page, what did you use when you came back with the colors to apply it?
    2. An friend of mine that has been painting for years so I asked her what gesso was, she replied just get a can of white latex paint. So that is what I have been using. How different is real gesso from this?
    Thank you so much.

    • Hi Janelle! For the dictionary background, I painted over it with Golden liquid acrylic paint mixed with a little bit of water using a wide paint brush.

      As far as using house paint in place of gesso, I personally would never do it. They were created with a different chemical formula for different specific uses. Gesso is made to last many lifetimes, whereas latex will degrade over time and may or may not be archival. Furthermore, latex dries too stiff for paper or canvas which needs some flexibility; so there is increased chance of your artwork cracking.

  11. Barbara says:

    These are all great inspirational ideas. I especially liked your last “mistake”.

  12. Im so glad I found you. It’s all starting to come together!

  13. sarah hluchy says:

    My current favorite background method is to use oil pastels. I cover the page with the oil pastel color, letting some of the paper color show through. Then I might add another pastel color. It ends up looking like some of the backgrounds I’ve seen you come up with–but less messy than acrylic paint! Lol. I do have to spray some sealant on the page eventually, the pastels can mess up other pages.

    A word on spray sealant vs mod podge…. where I live, mod lodge is sticky. Mod podge brand spray sealant is not. But there must be some reaction between the podge and the sealant because spraying sealant over the mod podge makes the stickiness worse. I hope my exasperation ends up helping somebody make their decision.

  14. rubi rogers says:

    I want to Thank You Kristal. I fell in love w mixed media art after seeing the artists on Etsy. Looked for art classes in my area, but times didn’t fit my schedule.
    Then I found your classes. I could not be happier or more inspired to create. Iam still in the process of gathering supplies.But I just wanted you to know how much I love your classes, thank you.

  15. Thank you Kristal! This lesson was awesome! So many interesting ways to make a beautiful background!

  16. Kristol,
    I thank you for all the inspiration and beauty.
    You’re very kind and very creative!. Please let me know how you made those circle stencils out of the old Greeting card?.
    Thank you very much :*)

  17. Awesome! Great tios and techniques never thought about wiping it off! Genius thank you for everything its truky been a blessing! ((Hugs)) – christine

  18. I too have a 2nd smaller art journal that I create things and journal how I did the technique. Kind of like having your own reference book. Great post!

  19. I just love these. I don’t know if I will do anything like this but having a journal to play in sounds like fun. These are some great pages.

  20. Kristal, I’m so happy and glad I signed up for your e-course. After gathering supplies for a few months and trying out some colours on just a bit of paper, you’ve given me the courage to finally start in my journal. These background ideas are so helpful. I’m a perfectionist which isn’t helpful and I even annoy myself sometimes, so I thought my pages had to be ‘perfect’ – finally being able to let go of that aspect has been great. I’ve got as far as adhering two pages together as the paper is so thin and they went really ‘crinkly’ but I realise it just adds to the texture on the page. I’ve also coloured those pages with sprays and used some texture paste. Thank you so much for making all these ideas available to us. You have helped me so much. So looking forward to your next emails.

  21. Lisa Goddard says:

    Great ideas kristal, I have never come across using gel medium as a resist and can’t wait to try it out!

  22. I’m new to art journaling and thankful that I found your site. I’m getting confused on the different mediums I guess you would call them. Gesso (thick or thin), gel medium (used to glue papers and a resist?). What type of ink needs to be used if you want to stamp on top of gel medium or gesso? Is that India ink or will a regular dye ink (like distress do the trick). I’m enjoying my new adventure and since I’m a card maker, it allows me to experiment with different techniques I can use on my cards.

  23. Kristal, you’ve made art journaling come alive for me. Thank you. Love today’s tips and will definitely try them as the days progress? I’ve been very unsure of what to do and now I can.

  24. Marjorie McGuire says:

    I got a lot out of your last post. So far I’ve just used ink and stencils and you gave me courage to start the next step. Thank you for this great series.

  25. This lesson was definitely needed! It gave me a lot of new ideas to try. Thank you for all that you are sharing with us.

  26. yollandae says:

    i am so excited , cant wait to try them out ….

  27. These techniques for creating backgrounds for journal pages are so cool. I really look forward to some good, clean fun creating these beautiful pages. I started out making journal pages that were more like collages. I love the ‘art pages’ mixed in with everything else.

  28. Thank you Kristal for the techniques. I am going to experiment.

  29. thank you. i often find more inspiration by learning of new techniques than from seeing completed work. thank you for being a muse!

  30. LittleMouse says:

    Love your art! I also love this technique! I have this altered book I have been working on, and I used this technique on the front and back cover. Once I applied a thick layer of gesso, I used the plastic tip of a thin paintbrush to ‘draw’ vertical (slightly wavy) lines. Once it was painted brown, I was amazed at how realistic the effect I was going for turned out! It looked like I had cut this book right out of a tree! I love gesso!!

  31. Does anyone else have, let’s just say, more than one journal going at a time. I am impatient and will work on two or three at a time to let a layer dry. Last night I spent my me time gessoing pages in my journal(s) so I can have a prepped page to start a page when I have a minute or two to work.

    Thank you for these lessons. Although I have been dabbling for a while, I have gotten a good kick in the butt to move forward and do more actual work than crusin Pinterest

    • I definitely have more than one journal going on at once… although that’s because they each serve their own sort of purpose. :)

      Have you tried using wax paper in between the pages while they dry?

  32. omgosh fantastic post kristal i learnt quite abit. I cant believe how well the gesso spreads when you use a card before now I had used so much gesso painting it on this is certainly a saving using a card this be a technique I will use here on out and wow amazing what the gel medium does when you stencil it on and put watercolors over the top my page looks really amazing. thank you for the tips i am looking forward to the next part of the course.

  33. Debbie H says:

    I have not heard of using the gel medium as a stencil medium. Can’t wait to try it out. Thanks

  34. Great ideas! I’m really enjoying AJ-101. I’m 51 yrs old this year and finally realized I want to be an artist when I grow up!!! Thought art journaling would be a good way to find myself.

    Than you!

  35. Anuradha Kurup says:

    Great refresher . Thanku

  36. Des fonds magnifiques et inspirants ! Je vais vaincre ma peur de ne pas réussir et m’y mettre. Cela me rend très heureuse. Merci Kristal


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