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High relief block printing.


My students always enjoyed the printmaking process and had recently explored the possibilities of drawing (incising) on slabs of thin Styrofoam and taking prints from the inked surface. That was an exciting and successful experience. I now wanted to carry it further into the area of high relief printmaking to see just how children would use a very common and freely available material for the making of a block quite different from any they had experienced before.

At my request, the butcher in the local supermarket gave me a stack of large white Styrofoam plates. "No charge," he said. "They're worth next to nothing and we have thousands of them. You're welcome to them, but don't come too often." I thanked him and knew that I had the material for an unusual and hopefully fascinating experience in printmaking.

The idea was to cut shapes from the flat Styrofoam slabs, arrange them into a composition and then glue them to a cardboard base ready for printing. The thickness of the Styrofoam shapes would make the high relief for the block. These shapes would be the only areas to receive the ink.

Before the students came in for the lesson I cut off all the curved edges from the Styrofoam plates and scattered the flat pieces across a center table. The children gathered around with the expected, "What are we going to do today?" and "Are we going to use this stuff?" I reminded them of the recent lesson using Styrofoam slabs and pencils. "Are we going to do that again?" I assured them that they were to explore a new printmaking process using the Styrofoam to make the block.

I showed how easy it was to cut the Styrofoam with scissors into just about any desired shape and to arrange the pieces onto a piece of cardboard to make a composition. I demonstrated the glueing of each piece and emphasized that it was really important to attach the pieces securely to the base and to use only one thickness of Styrofoam. I asked them to come up with their own subjects; to think of either something that was important to them or something they were really interested in.

The children selected a cardboard base, took several pieces of the Styrofoam, a pair of scissors, a container of white glue and away they went to cut, arrange and glue the Styrofoam to the base. The printing of the blocks was to take place the next time they came to class, so this one-hour lesson was taken up with the creation of the block design.

Two additional points were mentioned during this first lesson. First, it is necessary to surround the design with a border of Styrofoam pieces so that the brayer (inked roller) rides along the top of the cut pieces and does not touch the cardboard base. This border can be straight pieces of Styrofoam or sections cut to better surround the composition. Second, when the block is completed, a pencil can be used to draw in (incise) any details that might be needed to add to the interest of the subject (e.g., the eyes of a cat, the markings on a rocket, a pattern on the tree trunks). I reminded the children periodically that in relief printmaking, the prints are in reverse of the block design. The completed high relief Styrofoam blocks were ready for making prints at the next art lesson.


A week later the class returned eager to print their blocks. A glass slab was laid out on each table and with it a brayer (roller of soft rubber) and a tube of water-based printing ink--a different color at each table. Newsprint, white drawing paper, colored construction paper and some sheets of bright colored tissue paper were arranged on the floor along the wall. All of the papers were larger than the blocks to be printed. I felt it was necessary to demonstrate the amount of printing ink to be squeezed onto the glass (this class of experienced printmakers told me when to stop) and the use of the roller for spreading ink to an even, tacky layer ready for transferring to the block. The children watched in silence as I rolled the ink on the block I had made and placed a paper on top. I pressed the paper with the flat of my hand to transfer the ink and slowly pulled it away to reveal a print. The children applauded. We noted the high relief of the printed Styrofoam shapes, the details pressed in with the pencil and the significance of the border pieces surrounding the design.

With some understanding of the high relief block for printmaking the children were eager to print their own blocks. Their enthusiasm was a delight to behold, surely one of the rewards of teaching art. "Ooh...look at mine!" and similar exclamations of delight. Taking turns at the various colors and printing on a range of paper types, each of the children printed a modest series of high relief prints and pinned them to the board to dry for a class display later in the week.

There are many fine tried and true printmaking processes and techniques, but there is always room for one more, especially when the material is new to the children and easy to use. High relief printmaking seems to be rare and has a simplicity, directness and strength that gives it a particular character of its own, one that can be well explored by school children of all ages.

PHOTO : Pulling a print.

PHOTO : Printing the block.

PHOTO : House. (Block below, print above.)

PHOTO : A series of prints.

Michael Foster is a professor in the department of Visual and Performing Arts, The University of British Columbia, Vancouver, B.C., Canada.
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Title Annotation:Printmaking
Author:Foster, Michael
Publication:School Arts
Date:Nov 1, 1989
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