You don’t need a knack for drawing or the eye of a photographer to express yourself through visual art. With decoupage, all that’s required is a little inspiration, a blank canvas or object, and a lot of glue. 

Known best as a medium for colorful collages, decoupage can transform a dull, everyday notebook into an on-the-go mood board, shouting out your favorite hobby, a dream vacation, or your greatest style muses with a one-of-a-kind cover. It’s ideal for larger projects, too, whether you’re personalizing a side table for your new bedroom or lacquering posters on the wall for DIY wallpaper. And you don’t need much to get started. Here, we’ll touch on the history of decoupage, the necessary materials, and step-by-step instructions for your first project. 

Jonathan Van Ness decoupages his self-care planner in his brand new Skillshare Original, “The Ultimate Self-Care Playbook.”

What Is Decoupage? 

Decoupage is an art form that uses a special kind of glue to adhere paper, fabric, or tissue paper to a surface before sealing it in with a smooth finish. The phrase is taken from the French word découpeur, which means “to carve” or “to cut out”—an association that continues to fit the practice today, as decoupage projects commonly involve artists snipping photos, magazine images, or bits of fabric and assembling them into a single collage. Use decoupage to add personality to larger objects, like wooden chests and pieces of furniture, as well as smaller items such as journals. The practice works on many different kinds of surfaces and can be a great way to express yourself: No drawing or painting skills are required.

Decoupage vs. ModPodge 

Many makers use the term ModPodge interchangeably with decoupage, but it’s similar to the way people might use the term “Kleenex” for facial tissue or “Google” for any kind of search engine. ModPodge is simply one of the best-known brands of decoupage glue. Created by antique shop owner Jan Whetstone in the 1960s, ModPodge is short for “modern decoupage.” Its quick-dry, no-sanding-required formula makes it a top choice for decoupage projects of any size, and at about $5 per eight-ounce container, it won’t break the bank, either. 

Decoupage Materials: What You Need 

To begin a decoupage project, start by choosing the object you’d like to personalize, be it a journal, a table, or even a shoebox. You’ll also need: 

  • Decoupage Glue: ModPodge is a favorite for seasoned crafters and comes in many finishes, from matte to gloss. But other brands, such as DecoArt, can get the job done, too. You can also make homemade decoupage glue with one part water and one part white glue. 
  • Paper or Fabric to Cut and Paste: Collect magazines with colors and photos that fit your style, or look for eye-catching wrapping paper. You can also stash cloth scraps from t-shirts or sewing projects for your decoupage projects or use tissue paper for a wrinkled look.
  • Paintbrush or Sponge: For the best results, use these materials to apply the decoupage glue before and after adhering your paper or fabric to the surface. 
  • Scissors: Cutting out your favorite images can be half the fun of a decoupage project! 
  • Pencil, Ruler, and/or Craft Knife: If you’re going for an exact design, use these tools to measure, mark, and cut your paper or fabric before applying any decoupage glue. 
JVN decoupaged his playbook with images of the iconic Michelle Kwan, a rainbow, hair styling tools, and more.

How to Decoupage: 6 Steps 

1. Prepare your surface.

Before you break out the glue, make sure you’re starting with a clean, smooth surface. Any dust, bumps, or grain in the wood will be emphasized once your decoupage dries, so be sure to wipe the surface clean and sand or prime it if needed. 

2. Cut out any decorative elements.

How you trim the elements you want to assemble is completely up to you. Some folks like to rip out photos or strips of paper or a rougher look, while others carefully cut around the major elements of an image for a tidier aesthetic. There’s no right or wrong way to trim these elements. Just have fun.

3. Measure and arrange your elements.

Before you start applying glue, consider arranging your decorative elements on the surface of the object to get a feel for how the final product will look. This is your opportunity to shift things around before making things permanent (and messy) by applying the glue, so get a little bit wild with it. Pay attention to whether you have enough elements to fill the space (and, likewise, whether you have enough room for all of the cutouts you want to show off). Now is the time to use your ruler, pencil, and/or craft knife to get each element exactly how you want it before pasting. 

4. Adhere each item to your surface.

Apply a generous amount of glue to the surface, and press each cutout into the glue. Keep in mind that you’ll want to apply glue to both sides of the element you’re pasting down. Try to work in small sections, as the glue can behind to dry relatively quickly. Wipe off any excess glue with a sponge, cloth, or brush. 

5. Smooth it out.

Then, smooth it out again. This might be the most important step to ensure that your final product has a neat, polished finish. Use your fingers to flatten out any wrinkles that might appear in your pasted element, and be sure that any edges are firmly pasted down. (Disregard this step, to some extent, if you’re using tissue paper: With any super-thin layers, wrinkles can be an intentional part of the look.) 

6. Apply a protective topcoat. 

Once your cut-outs are placed where you want them and securely glued down, lock in your design with a protective topcoat or varnish. This is where your choice in decoupage glue will make a difference: Those labeled “matte” will dry without shine, while those labeled “gloss” can be quite reflective and shiny. Anything labeled “satin” will likely fall somewhere in between. For extra security, some makers might opt for an acrylic sealant—ModPodge sells one for about $7—but on many projects, you can stick to the same glue you used for the rest of the project. Just be sure to paint the topcoat with even, parallel brush strokes, and let your project dry completely before touching it. 

jvn

Start your Self Care Journey with JVN

Discover stories and strategies from Jonathan Van Ness to help unlock your best self.