Friday, October 2, 2020

Collage Cairns with Dar James

Hello! I’m Dar James, a painter and GOLDEN Artist Educator, living in eastern PA. Today I’m sharing what I hope you find to be a relaxing, “zen-like” project that celebrates cairns, or rock stacks. Cairns are human-made piles or stacks of rocks that have had navigational, spiritual, religious, cultural and decorative significance since ancient times. One of the things I like best about cairns is that, when I encounter one in the world, I think of another human making it for the enjoyment and delight of a stranger, and this fills me with a sweet kind of hope.

I’m also going to show you to something really cool that you can do with stencils that have a CIRCLE theme and go along so well with the idea of collage cairns…stenciling acrylic skins! Acrylic skins can be created with either Heavy Body or Fluid acrylic paints, as well as a wide array of acrylic mediums and gels. Once dry, they are fabulous to cut into shapes and use in a variety of collage and mixed media work.

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To get started, you will need page protectors, acrylic paints and a palette knife. The page protectors will allow the skins to be peeled off once they are dry. Other kinds of plastic do not work as well.
I like to insert a piece of paper inside my page protector, with the “recipe” I am using written underneath the area it will be spread. You can be very inventive with colors, mediums and various specialty gels and pastes when creating skins. Experiment and see what happens!
For my Heavy Body skin, here, I am using GOLDEN’s Light Violet. For the Fluid skin, I am using GOLDEN’s Cobalt Blue with a bit of Titanium White. Squeeze or spread the paint onto the page protector and use enough of it to get a nice, thick application. If you make the layer too thin, it may tear when taking it off after drying. Depending on the thickness of your paint, temperature and humidity, skins can take 24+ hours to fully dry. Let them dry completely in a place where they will not be disturbed. Make several, using different colors and different thicknesses. Try things like not mixing your paints completely to have subtle swirls or adding paint to mediums to get more translucent effects. The sky is really the limit on these!
Once they are completely dry, carefully peel them off the page protectors and place onto a work surface. Then, use stencils to create pattern, texture and color on your skins!
Here I am using cut outs from Stone and Pebble Tilings with light blue fluid acrylic on a dark blue skin applied with a make-up sponge.
This is orange heavy body acrylic on a green skin with a slanted stencil brush, again with a section from Stone and Pebble Tilings.
This is metallic acrylic spray paint on a black skin with a lovely, delicate design called Puddles.
And, here, is magenta spray paint on an orange skin with a stencil called Organized Chaos.
You can also use mediums with color to create raised, acrylic patterns on your skins. For this mixture, I’ve used Soft Gel Gloss with Heavy Body Micaceous Iron Oxide. (If you have not experimented with MIO, it is some of the coolest paint ever!) Press your stencil onto a dry acrylic skin and then, with a palette knife, spread the mixture carefully and gently over the top. Scrape off any extra (which you can use to create another skin!) so that you do not have big blobs of paint. This design is Organic Zen Circles.
Carefully peel up the stencil to reveal the pattern in relief! Set aside to dry fully.
Once your skins are completely dry, you can use them for collage and mixed media work. Be sure to store your skins so that they don’t touch each other or fold onto themselves. They will stick and be very hard to separate. Parchment or “deli” paper works well between them, or leave them on their page protectors and stack separately.
Use Pinterest to explore different cairn designs and configurations. Get out the skins and papers that inspire you for this project and lay them out around your substrate. Here I am using a 4x8” Cradled Birch panel by DaVinci, but you could use any kind of substrate that strikes your fancy—paper, canvas, even a wood round would be interesting. I have taped off the edges with blue, painter’s tape because I like them clean, but you could leave them open and paint them as well if you prefer. The panel is primed with black gesso because I love the way that black peeks out beneath just about any color, but you can prime with white too.
I’m using a variety of whites and off-whites to create a dry-brush background that is “quiet.” Because the skins and paper I am using are patterned, I want a background that is less busy so that it doesn’t compete with my design. Also added is a tiny bit of GOLDEN’s Iridescent Pearl with Starlight Mini. Whenever you use iridescent or iridescent colors within your layers, they add luminescence and light to your work! Pearl is one of my favorites because it can be used as-is, diluted, or tinted with any color for amazing shine and glimmer.
Last, but not least, I’m adding an ethereal bit of detail with and GOLDEN’s Titan Green Pale. GOLDEN makes a line of “pales” that are absolutely wonderful for subtle color hints on whites and neutrals—or just about any color, really.
You can work from a photo to create a design that resonates with you, or make up your own. Jump in and begin cutting your rock shapes! Think about what color, size and shape arrangements reveal your own personal sense of balance. Avoid adhering anything just yet and know that if something doesn’t look quite right, you can remove it and save it for another project. You can even work on more than one at a time and create a series.
When you have a design you are happy with, use Soft Gel Gloss or Matte to adhere your pieces by brushing some down beneath the shape, placing the shape and then brushing more on top. Finish the piece with dots and detail if you’d like and, when that is dry, add another coat of soft gel—a palette knife can be helpful to make it even and smooth.
I used a gloss gel to adhere, but my final layer was a matte finish. Details were done with fluid acrylics and “nail art” dot tools.
Square substrates offer different ways of designing your cairns.
Cool and warm colors have different vibes!
One of my favorite ways to finish these is with a coat of shiny, resin. (ArtResin)

Wouldn’t these collage cairns be fabulous in a collection or as a soothing gift for someone special? I hope you have fun with this project and share your results on Instagram by tagging me! @indarsworld

This lesson comes from my upcoming Online Course, “Circle Celebration,” a three-module course that is a playful, open-ended exploration of technique and materials that informs our personal preferences and styles. Join my mailing list at  to be notified of specially priced, early registration which will be available on November 2, 2020.

Each module is three weeks long and contains nine exercises and three projects, a total of 12 videos, accompanying downloadable pdf files, and eight bonus mini-lessons on specific types of acrylic materials. The three modules will be available separately as well as a bundle. A private Facebook group will be where we will all interact and share our work, brainstorm and inspire each other.

The course will begin on December 7, and came very much from being an artist in quarantine, as well as from a deep searching in my own artist’s heart and soul. New things come from pushing ourselves out of routine, from trying new tools, from slowing down and focusing on very small but poignant moments. I have concerns about the hyped up type of art courses that promise unattainable creative outcomes without addressing the foundational experiences that allow us to understand our own preferences for such simple things like line, color and medium before we even attempt technique. My hope is that, through this course and the small moments within, participants will be able to slow down and notice what they love about art supplies, making marks and their own feelings and preferences about things like color, texture and shape. 
Dar James


  1. This is absolutely genius and beautiful! I definitely will try this! Thanks so much for sharing!
    Claudia x

  2. Beautiful project - love seeing how you've done it. Thanks!

  3. this. You create the coolest projects...and I love taking your workshops. I will definitely sign up for the 12/7 one. You are so generous with your knowledge, love that you are a Golden expert and such a great instructor. Thank you!!!

  4. Dar this is great! And fun. New course sounds wonderful too.

  5. Very interesting. I want to try. I have skins left from previous pours and I'm wondering if I could use that?

  6. I love cairns too and this project is awesome! Thanks...

  7. These cairns reminds me of inukshuks, they are stacks of rocks in the Arctic and are markers of dangers, memorials and other things.


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