The Perfect Glue–A Sticky Question

Glue is the stuff that holds your life together. Well, at least your collages and art journal pages. Glue isn’t that complicated–after all, it all sticks one thing to another. But there are three elements of glue that make a huge difference to you as an artist.

Water in glue causes paper to wrinkle

1. How much water is in the glue? Paste has less water, glue has more. The more water you put on your paper, the more it soaks up. The more water soaks into your artwork, the more it wrinkles. The more it wrinkles, the more likely it is to stay warped after it dries.

Acrylic medium, which many paper artists use as glue,  is simply acrylic paint without any color added. It’s a type of plastic that prevents paint–and your efforts to glue–from drying quickly. Live in a dry climate? This is a useful glue. I don’t like it as a sealant, but that’s another blog. Read more on gel medium.

Glue sticks are glue or paste in a solid format that you rub on one side and glue to the other. Portable, easy to use. Work for light to medium-weight projects. Personally, I’m not a fan. They dry out fast, the glue doesn’t seem to hold, and the right amount is hard to get to the edges.

Methyl cellulose is a plant product that won’t rot or attract  bugs like wheat paste, dries matte in thin applications, and forms a weak bond that is long-lasting and can be dissolved if you change your mind. Use it on light-weight to medium-weight papers. Benefits from having a weight placed on it till dry.

PVA is polyvinyl acetate, commonly known as white glue. There is very little difference between different brands. It is meant to hold together porous surfaces (paper, wood, but not glass or metal) and can’t fill gaps. It’s not poisonous (unless you ingest it). Use the acid-free kind for longest, best use. With clamping, will hold almost any kind of paper or cloth. Not meant to be used with cloth that will be washed.

Rubber Cement was once hugely popular. It binds quickly and has solvents instead of water, so it warps papers less. It breaks down quickly, however, so don’t use it for anything you plan on keeping held together for more than three months.

Spray adhesive disperses tiny droplets with a spray. The material in the spray may be toxic, so it is best used in a well-ventilated place and in a container to avoid contaminating everything around it. If you use it outside, and there is a breeze, spray will drift, and get on anything around it. The small drops keep paper from warping and usually works on many different kinds of paper.

2. What kind of paper are you using? Papers use different amounts of sizing–a coating that prevents water from soaking in. The more size, the less water soaks in.

Some papers are thicker than others. If the paper is unsized, and can absorb more water, and it is thin, the water doesn’t have a lot of places to go–and you get wrinkles.

Thin paper (like tissue or lightweight copy paper) warps more easily than thick paper (like watercolor paper.) Watercolor paper comes with different amounts of sizing to control the rate that water is absorbed.

Calendered paper (paper that has passed through hot, heavy rollers) has a harder, slicker surface and won’t absorb water as fast as soft, non-calendered paper.

Paper made with short cotton fibers absorbs paper into the short fibers, which get fat. Paper with long cotton fibers sucks up water quickly and distributes it along the length of the fiber by capillary action, spreading the water out further.

3. The humidity. The more humid it is, the more water the paper already has in it, the slower the water will evaporate, and the more it will soak in and warp the paper.

Tips to avoid warping: Apply a spray of water (in a bottle mister) to both sides of the paper. When the paper relaxes from curling, you can use the glue with less warping.

Use a glue palette. Don’t dip your brush into the big bottle. Pour a puddle onto a piece of plastic–a yogurt container lid, a piece of plastic wrap–and use that to avoid contamination of the big bottle. In a dry climate, the big bottle dries out faster, too. Use only distilled water to re-wet the glue. Minerals mixing with the glue from tap water can stain your work.

Brush from the center to the edge. Do not puddle glue in the middle of the project, use a brush and brush toward the edge. Less chance of ripping the paper.

Use a thin coat of glue, like acrylic medium, on both sides of the sheet before you start working. Let it dry thoroughly. You can then use more glue without wrinkling the paper.
More practical tips on how to glue.
A great site called This to That, that suggests glues for various products you want to stick together.

Quinn McDonald is a writer, coach and artist. Her book, Raw Art Journaling: Making Meaning, Making Art will be published in 2011 by North Light Books.

Making Glue Work for You

Whether you use PVA glue, acrylic medium, or methyl cellulose, wet glues have their own problems and their own great uses. If you want to find out a lot about gel medium, a previous post may be useful.

I always wanted to use glue sticks, but I just don’t have luck with them. They aren’t precise enough, and for some reason, they don’t hold well over time. If they work for you, great.

So, here’s what I’ve found out about using wet glues.
Buy them in big bottles and transfer them to smaller squeeze bottles. Label them by writing on a piece of tape and putting the tape on the bottle. Wipe the rim of the big bottle carefully with a wet cloth so you can open it again.methyl cellulose

Invest in parchment paper. The kind cooks use in the kitchen. Not waxed paper, not plastic wrap, or freezer paper. Not parchment from an art store. Kitchen parchment paper. I bought a giant stack and use it in pieces about 5 inches x 8 inches, or, if I am working on larger pieces, enough to leave a one-inch margin around the piece I’m working on. I tear up an entire stack, and work on top of the stack. More on that in a minute.

The trouble with glue is. . .well, it’s wet and sticks to everything. Including your clothes and skin. Wear an apron, and have a wet cloth handy. Once most glue gets on your clothing, you’ve got a piece of work clothing. If you jump up and wet down the clothing right away, you might save it, but it’s a hell of a way to spend an afternoon. Wipe your hands on the wet cloth frequently. Pulling glue off your skin is painful, wrecks a manicure, and may not come off in one piece. Walking around looking like a leprosy victim is not priceless, it’s creepy.

acrylic mediumPVA, acrylic mediums, and methyl cellulose can be thinned with water. I use distilled water in a spray bottle. Rather than thinning the whole bottle, I thin small amounts–about as much as I’ll use in 10 minutes.

Use the parchment paper as a glue palette. I squeeze a puddle of glue about the size of a quarter on a small piece of parchment. To thin it, I spray distilled water on it. I quit using tap water when I sprayed the water into the glue and a week later, there was mold on the glue. I quit using boiled water when I lived in hard water areas and the minerals in the water streaked the medium and showed when it dried. Distilled water avoids all sorts of problems.

images6.jpegDon’t scrimp on parchment. I use a 1-inch brush to cover a large area, and run the brush over the edges to get a good seal or to serve as a base coat on paper. I do one side, and pick up the parchment and move it aside. Most paper won’t stick to parchment and you can let it dry. Do NOT try to pick up the paper you are working on and use the parchment again. Wait till both are dry. You can re-use the parchment then. But while it’s wet, you will just transfer glue to the wrong wide, smear your work or mess up your surface. I’ve read the tip about using a phone book, but phone book ink smears and transfers, almost always on my hands, which I then accidentally touch to the page I’m working on and smear. ARRGHH!

Most lighter papers will curl if you apply glue to one side. Particularly if the grain is running long. Use acrylic medium on one side, let it dry, then flatten it with your hands and coat the other side. After that, you can use watercolors, acrylics, and more glue and the paper won’t curl and ruin your project.

Acrylic mediums can be used as a base coat, a top coat, an isolator (coat the piece to be glued down on both sides, let it dry, then glue down), and a glue. You can coat isolated areas in matte and others in gloss for wonderful effects. If you want a gloss finish, don’t apply gloss over matte. You can apply matte over gloss to take the shine down.

If you are a collage artist, and have windows in the image, coat the glass part of the window image with gloss medium, then use matte or satin on the back for glue. The glass in the windows will shine, giving it a real effect.

–Quinn McDonald is an artist and writer. See her work at (c) 2007-10. All rights reserved. Images: parchment paper, Glues,