Saturday, January 08, 2011

(Real) Printmakers -- Now With An Update Especially For Donna!

We do a lot of printmaking at Woodland Park, or at least printmaking opportunities are often offered to the kids as a sort of end result of an art exploration, such as when we paint with bubbles, make encaustic monoprints, or use foam paint. But for most of the kids, most of the time, the print is so secondary to the process that we often forget to do it. Also, these tend to be one-off print jobs in that the process of taking the print alters the source of the print so much that each print turns out to be a whole new work of art.

This week, however, the 3-5 class did "proper" printmaking in which we created images that could be reproduced over and over again. Several years ago as one of my own artistic explorations I immersed myself in linoleum block printmaking and have been teaching the basic process ever since. There are limits to what tools I'm courageous enough to put into the hands of young children, and the sharp knives needed to carve linoleum blocks are one of them. That's why I'm grateful for Scratch-Foam Board, thin sheets of high grade styrofoam soft enough to carve with the tip of a pen or pencil. It's a bit pricey at around a dollar per 8-1/2 X 11 sheet, which is why I cut ours into quarters. I've tried using regular packing styrofoam because it's free, but it tends to crumble and is very difficult to "draw" on.

The instructions that come with the Scratch-Foam Board suggest just using sponge brushes or rollers to ink up, and I'm sure that would work, but we prefer using rubber brayers which we ink up off squares of lucite in an attempt to get a nice even coating of "ink" (tempera paint) applied to the surface of our foam board, which is necessary for producing reliable prints.

Peter's mom Katherine was our art parent for this project. After demonstrating to her how I would make prints using scratch-foam, brayers, lucite and paint, I suggested that she just get to work making something of her own, narrating as she went, without insisting that the kids necessarily do it her way. 

Some of the children who chose to play at the art table never got around to making prints, many of whom were satisfied with just rolling brayers in the paint on the lucite surface, but the kids who imitated at least part of the process were rewarded. 

Isak, for instance, was so pleased with his work that he would only leave behind a single print of his alphabet artwork for me to photograph (and I think that was an accident) even though I promised he could take all of them home the following day.

He was a little concerned that the letters came out backwards, but not enough to dampen his excitement.

Many of the kids used their foam board for a single print, reflecting what we usually do with printmaking.

Others, however, experimented, creating a series of prints on a single page, frame-able studies in similarity and difference.

And a couple kids, Dennis and Sadie in particular, really got into the full printmaking experience, using their engravings to make print after print, exploring not just the magic of replicating one's own art, but also color, and ink/paint density.

So much of teaching is like this for me: starting with a group of 20 or so kids, many of them taking a few steps down the path I'd prepared for them, with only one or two, sometimes none, really making it through to the place I thought they might want to go. It used to disappoint me, but I've come to understand that this is simply in the nature of a play-based curriculum, where we trust children to "know" what they need to learn from a process, toy or activity. There will be other opportunities to investigate printmaking, especially over the course of 3 years in our program, and I'll admit that it's entirely possible for a child to go on to live a rich, rewarding life without ever experiencing it.

The mind is not a vessel to be filled but a fire to be kindled.  ~Plutarch

I read a lot of early childhood education websites and blogs, many focusing on the creation of arts and crafts, and I steal from them with both hands. At the same time, it gives me pause when I read too many sentences beginning with "Have the children . . ." or "Get your child to . . ." I take it as a warning that the wonderful finished products I'm looking at aren't necessarily signs of a kindled mind. Perhaps we've somehow managed a young person through a set of instructions, and there may well be value in that, but it isn't the same depth of learning that comes when a child has lit out on a path or process of her own accord, pursuing her own curiosities and passions through to an end that is ultimately of her own choosing.

No, rather than be disappointed that only a couple kids grabbed the tools and worked all the way through to a place that I hoped they would find fun and edifying, I'm instead proud that I knew enough to guess that there might be one or two kids who would be kindled enough by the tools and adult role modeling that they would teach themselves how to be printmakers.

It's been brought to my attention that I've not been clear enough about how we actually made our prints and that I threw around some terms with which some of you are not familiar.

The basic process of making a print is to carve a picture into a hard surface, usually wood or linoleum block (made specifically for the purpose of printmaking). In this case we're using thin sheets of styrofoam called Scratch-Foam Board. To apply ink to your carving, one would traditionally squirt some ink onto a piece of lucite or plexiglas (or any other smooth, non-porous surface). A brayer is a type of roller (like a small paint roller) made from rubber. You then roll the brayer in the paint until you have an even coating of ink/paint on the brayer, which you then apply to your carving. We then just flipped our inked carving over onto our paper and pressed down, although if you were using traditional techniques you'd probably position the paper atop the carving, then apply even pressure using a tool called a baren (a round disk with a flat side and a handle). 

Hope that helps.

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Scott said...

I so agree with you, Tom. I would rather see a child fully engaged in exploring his own ideas than faithfully replicating my idea.

Kids help me discover new ways to use materials, ways that I may not have thought of myself. They get results that I would have never predicted.

The classroom becomes a place where we all learn together.

Barbara Zaborowski said...

Have you tried foam meat trays? Here in Arizona, we not allowed to make use of used trays, but most stores are willing to sell us a stack quite reasonably and some stores give them to us. You could also try foam dinner plates and dinner boxes (like "doggie bags" from restaurants) from big box stores.

Play for Life said...

I REALLY like this printing technique Tom however ... scratch-foam, brayers, lucite??? Clearly I need to do my homework as I'm not at all familiar with any of these things although I'm guessing from Barbara's comment maybe I am familiar with scratch-foam?!
Donna :) :)
P.S. Funnily enough when I type 'scratch-foam, brayers, lucite' into google YOU pop up! And that my friend doesn't help me at all!! :)

Play for Life said...

Arr-huh ... NOW I'm with ya!
Thank you from 'Donna-The-Doofus' :)

rachelle | tinkerlab said...

Fabulous post! Since our goal as educators or parents is not to raise a cohort of like-minded individuals, it would be futile to expect each child to embrace all the steps of an activity. Often my audience of one child (my daughter) dismisses my art activities completely and I have to remind myself to follow her cues and interests more closely.

I've also had success with styrofoam dinner plates...cut the raised lip off and you're left with a nice, inexpensive, round piece of foam.

Kara said...

How fun! Like Barbara, I always ask for a few meat trays when I am grocery shopping and the butchers are more than generous, giving them away when they know they are for schools. Sure beats $1 a sheet!

Juliet Robertson said...

Hi Sherry and Donna

I've learned a thing or two as well. My terminology was non-existent. I used to

1) Get a pencil that's not too blunt or too sharp

2) Get my foam - from a craft/art catalogue

3) Buy printing ink from the same place in primary colours to allow for lots of mixing whilst still being a cheapskate and spending the bare minimum

4) Get the cute little rubbery printing rollers that are sold on the same page as the printing ink, trays and foam. These last forever

5) Definitely cut up the foam. It's different to the packing foam. It costs money but one batch would last me about 3 yrs

6) You can wash and reuse the foam (I told you I'm a cheapskate) on the other side. Then you add the used manky bits to the collection of "stuff" used for collage work, or for floating on the water tray - it's an insulator for warm water.

7) You can also cut out the foam and make interesting stencil work too.

Two Pockets said...

Here is a link to some more details on using the scratch-foam for making prints

I love the backwards alphabet that Isak printed.

Unknown said...

Hi Tom,

As i was inspired by your post.... I thought you might want to see what my class in Sydney, Australia did with scratchfoam the other day

Anonymous said...

Can anyone tell me where I can buy scratch foam in australia? I have looked everywhere (even online) and cannot find it.

Anonymous said...

IN NZ we call it foamboard and I just bought some A2 sheets at an art supplies watehouse