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Three-Color Relief Printing.

Is three-color relief printing too complicated to use in an art classroom with upper elementary and middle school students? Not at all. The availability of soft printing blocks has made three color printing painless and fun.

For this unit on landscape and three-color relief printing, the students began by studying the history, methods, and prints of two artists: Albrecht Durer and Katsushika Hokusai. During the unit they focused on craftsmanship and formalist concerns as their two main criteria for making judgments about their own edition of prints. To judge which print was better, they looked for perfect registration for each color, clean prints with no stray marks, and use of the correct amount of ink. They also wanted the prints to have a sense of three-dimensional space, be unified, have variety, and be well balanced through color and shape. When we finished the unit we discussed an aesthetics question, "Is our work less valuable because we made more than one image?"

Studying Durer and Hokusai

The printing unit began with an examination of Durer's prints and some research on the context for his work. The students soon noticed Dfirer's excruciating attention to detail. Next, they studied the Ukiyo-e tradition and woodcut prints made with several colors by Hokusai.

Durer and Hokusai are a useful combination because Durer attends to the details using only black and white while Hokusai uses much less detail with broad flat patches of color. Both achieve a feeling of three-dimensional space, though Durer's is based on the western European tradition of depicting space while Hokusai's is based on the Japanese Ukiyo-e tradition.

Working in small groups, the students examined a few works by each of the artists, concentrating on how each is organized and discussing how each artist created an illusion of three-dimensional space. The students looked for three different spatial areas in each work: foreground, middleground, and background. When they completed this task, they began to examine the way Durer used shape to balance his prints and Hokusai used color to balance his.

Getting to Know the Materials

Because this was the first printmaking activity for most of these students, they needed to learn about relief printing materials and processes. Each student made a two-inch (5 cm) square drawing of a simple shape that contained smaller shapes. They transferred their drawings to two small printing plates. On one plate, they cut out the area of negative space. On the other, they cut out the area of positive space. For their first experiment with two-color printing, each student made a test print using two different colors on each small plate.

Making Decisions

Next the students made preliminary sketches. Each student chose a photograph of a landscape depicting deep space. Just as they had done with Durer's and Hokuksai's prints, the students worked in small groups to examine the photographs to determine which objects appeared in the foreground, middle ground, and background spaces. Each student made a simplified drawing of their chosen landscape on a 4 x 6" (10 x 15 cm) picture plane, the size of their finished print. This size would allow them to cut a 6 x 12" (15 x 30.5) plate into three 4 x 6" (10 x 15 cm) sections, using one section for each color.

The Printing Process

Students transferred their images onto the three small plates. They made color choices by coloring areas on the original drawing with markers. Using the colored drawing as a guide, they chose, for example, one plate for black, one for green and one for blue. On the blue plate, all areas that were to remain blue in the final print were marked with blue hatching lines. All areas left without hatching lines were cut away. They repeated this color coding system for plates two and three.

Registration and Craftsmanship

When the students finished carving their plates, they began to print a small edition. To be successful at this, they had to be careful about registration. That is, each color had to be printed in exactly the same position on the page working from lighter to darker colors. Small errors at this stage could ruin the prints. To help register prints accurately, each student worked with a partner. Each set of partners had at least one pair of clean hands and two pairs of eyes to help with registration and craftsmanship.

A Successful Conclusion

After the students grasped the concept of printing with multiple colors, they were anxious to try more colors. Many students asked to try making a four or five color print by using both sides of their plates. When the editions were complete, the students discussed their views concerning the aesthetics question as they proudly displayed their prints. In spite of the daunting technical demands of three-color printing, the soft printing block and step-by-step process made this unit an overwhelming success.


Students use art materials and tools in a safe and responsible manner.

Sally A. Myers is a professor of art education at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana. Carol Burt is an art specialist at Sutton Elementary School in Muncie, Indiana.
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Article Details
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Title Annotation:technique
Author:Burt, Carol
Publication:School Arts
Article Type:Brief Article
Date:May 1, 1999
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