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Easy Effortless Printmaking for Children
Not usually a kid's craft
Printmaking is usually a craft reserved for the seasoned artist wanting to create many copies of a single work of art. It has been done using many different mediums. Some believe it was invented by the ancient Chinese but cannot prove this. Albrecht Durer created intricate wood block print plates to be printed on a printing press and accompany the first printings of the Bible in Germany during the Renaissance. Using very sharp knives and gouging tools, he cut away from the wood all the areas he wanted to stay white and left raised only those places he wanted to print black. This takes a little planning, time and thought, because you have to think backwards. The end product will appear in reverse, so any letters or words must be designed and cut backwards to print forewords.
Printmaking has also been done using sandstone plates coated with a thin coat of wax. A sharp tool is used to scratch through the wax and expose the sandstone beneath. When the design is complete, acid is applied. The acid cuts into the exposed sandstone but not the wax. Later the plate is heated to melt away the wax and leave only the etched sandstone. The plate is then inked and the ink adheres to the etched parts and not the raised parts. Still the print will be a mirror image of the original design so again you must think backwards. These etchings were later done on metal like copper plates. The etchings are usually left in black and white although they can be later tinted with color.
As you can see these methods of printmaking are time consuming and take intellectual effort to complete, as well as skill with dangerously sharp tools. This has made printmaking rather unsafe for children for many years. In high school, I got to use linoleum blocks to make block prints but I still had to use some rather sharp gouge tools and managed to cut myself more than once. Even though linoleum is more child-friendly and accessible, it still isn’t advisable for grade school children. That’s why these methods are so welcome.
If you want to expose your child to some fun and different artistic expressions, you have to try this method of block printing. Creative and fun. Also they make great plates for printing on T-shirts and cotton fabric you may want to make into pillows or quilt pieces for later.
Do you love crafts for children?
Styrofoam Block Prints
Styrofoam is cheap and easily accessible today. What is more, it can hold a shape or gouge pressed into it with very little pressure. I have experimented with several Styrofoam sources.
Try presenting this to a classroom or your homeschool after discussion Gutenberg and the invention of the printing press. The days of hand lettering whole books ended with the printing press, but decorating the pages and illumination were too, except for block print illustrations. My favorite is by Albrecht Durer.
Styrofoam plates, take-home box or meat tray
Pencil and paper for design
Bamboo skewer, or knitting needle
Water-based printmakers ink tube, any color desired
Hard rubber brayer
Paper for printing
Newspaper or disposable tablecloth for easy clean up
Step 1. Prepare the blocks
The Styrofoam trays that meat comes in, is sometimes useable but you must make sure that there are no designs already pressed into the foam, like logos and symbols. This makes the trays from the grocery store unusable sometimes. The take-home boxes from restaurants are often perfect for this use because they often have logos pressed into only one side and the bottom side is free from dints and logos. Also the Styrofoam plates you can buy at the grocery stores are a good cheap source of abundant foam. Cut away the formed parts and save only the completely flat portion for your block print. Make sure you have not made any dints or dings with your scissors or fingernails, as these will show up in the final design.
Step 2. Create a design
Have your child or student create a design he/she likes first on a blank piece of paper. Newsprint or printer paper will work fine for this. Use pencil to make your design so that you can erase and make it just right. I like to trace my plate onto the paper so I know exactly the dimensions I have to work with. The foam plates are smaller than the take-home boxes but both fit on a regular piece of paper.
Remember to keep the design simple. Detail will not really show up well with the foam so don’t bother with them. Also remember the finished print will be the mirror image of your design. If you put your name or your initials in your design, make them backwards.
Step 3. Trace onto block
Once you have a design you are happy with, trace it onto the Styrofoam using a pencil or pen and pressing right through your paper. To be sure the paper doesn’t slip or move while tracing, you can tape it down to the backside of the paper. You can stab holes to make dots if you like or just trace lightly. After you remove the design paper, go over the tracing again pressing harder to make a definite dint in the foam. Use a dry ballpoint pen or a knitting needle for this purpose. All the lines you press will print white, so keep that in mind. Once all your lines are created to your specifications, you are ready to ink and print a proof.
Step 4. Roll out the ink
I have seen this done with acrylic paint rather than printmakers ink. To keep the acrylic paint wet long enough to work with (it dries fast, remember) you should mix an equal portion of glazing medium with it. Acrylic is what you would want to use to make permanent designs for cloth or T-shirts. Roll it out the same as with printmakers ink but work a little more quickly and deliberately if possible.
You can use a Styrofoam plate (uncut) or the logo side of a take-home container to squeeze out the printmakers ink and roll it with a brayer until it is smooth. Once the ink has covered the brayer smoothly, roll it over the block carefully. Remember the ink is thick and sticky and will cause the lightweight foam to stick to the brayer, so you have to roll it quickly and firmly. Roll several directions to make sure the ink is even. Now you are ready to print.
Step 5. Print
Get your paper ready. You should have several sheets of photocopy paper laid out so you can print copies of your work without having to leave the workspace. Unlike Linoleum block prints or wood block printing, Styrofoam does not print hundreds of copies with little or no deterioration. Eventually Styrofoam will bend or get a dent that will mar your design. Before this happens you should be able to create dozens of copies if you like. I like creating as many as possible for special handmade greeting cards and homemade book covers.
Because the Styrofoam is so light, it is best to lay the inked foam face down onto the readied paper. Use a wooden spoon, a clean brayer or just your hands and press the foam completely and firmly on the paper or cloth. Once you have decided the paper has received all the ink it can, gently pull the plate off the paper. Try not to bend the foam at all during the lifting or the bend will later print as a line, marring future prints.
Once you have printed the paper, you must re-ink the plate to print another copy. Do this each time for as many prints as you would like. A foam plate can print as many as 25 copies or more before it begins to bend or show signs of loosing the details. If you don’t want to make 25 copies, at least make 5. This gives you enough to keep one and give several away. Try making them with friends and then trading one of yours for one of your friends.
Later, after the ink dries, you can add another color or extra designs to your print. You can add decorative writing too if you would like it to look like fancy French designer paper.
To create a block print using more than one color as some of my students did, you have to cut the piece to be printed a different color completely away from the block. Ink the first color and print it. Then ink the missing piece the separate color and carefully place it onto the paper in the hole created by the design. You have to do this separate inking and printing for each print. It is more time consuming but some of the children found it to be challenging and creatively exciting.
Step 6. Sign your work
Lastly you are ready to sign. ALWAYS sign your work if you are happy with it. The signature means you, the artist, approve of the print you created.
Sign on the bottom right hand side with PENCIL not pen.
To prove it is a limited edition, you want to put the number of the print on the left hand side. This increases the value of the work. If you printed 25 prints and the one you are signing is the 5th print off the block, sign it 5/25. The first copy can be signed as a “proof” and not given a number if you like. This means you want to keep track of each print that comes off the block and have them in order. It also means you have to print all you want before you start signing, so that you know the final total.
You can title your work if you like or if appropriate. Put the title between the edition number and the signature.
I found these to be fun and exciting forms of expression for the children and me. We loved every minute. The process does take time and preparation. There is a little bit of mess involved but I always found that to be the fun part. With newspapers and disposable tablecloths around the work area, mess is kept to a minimum. Enjoy.