Tuesday, February 24, 2009

foam plate-printing: a creative adventure

What stamps like a hand-carved rubber stamp yet is so flat that, if you want, you can run it through a pasta machine? The answer may be sitting in your refrigerator, under that sliced smoked turkey from the deli. (Yum! Save me a slice!)
You may be new to foam-plate printing, or you may have been introduced to it or its cousin (potato-printing) as a child. For me, the doorway to this creative adventure was Annette W. Mitchell’s quick-read book, Foam Is Where the Art Is, which I found and bought on-line.

foam disposable deli trays
scissors to cut off the curved edges, leaving flat sheets of foam
paper towels or rags for finger-cleaning between prints
rubber brayer
a dollar-store plastic cutting board with a somewhat rough surface
Speedball Water Soluble Block Printing Ink in assorted colors
Speedball Water Soluble Ink Extender
a tall stack of scrap papereither a pasta machine or a burnishing tool paper on which to print (sturdy paper like cardstock is ideal)
ballpoint pen
Versa Magic or StazOn ink pad (any other dark color)
a rubber stamp
a Dover book of copyright-free clipart
additional “carving” tools, such as an awl

After cutting off the curved edges of the foam trays, I usually trim the foam plate to a width around 3 inches and a length of roughly 4 inches. This size fits the cover of a greeting card (the traditional size that comes ready-to-use.) Also, it’s the size that will easily pass through the pasta machine, if that’s the tool I plan to use in printmaking.
I’ve created foam-plate designs in 3 ways:
(1.) freehand-drawing directly onto the foam plate.
(2.) making a carbon copy transfer from a Dover book of copyright-free clipart.
(3.) using a rubber stamp (lacking fine detail in its design) with an inkpad containing ink that adheres to any surface Whatever the source of my design, I most often do the “carving” with a ballpoint pen. A pen makes thin lines, which is what I usually want. For a thicker line I use an awl; for really thick, a cocktail stir-stick. To jazz things up, I use all three on one plate -- along with the tongs of a fork or any other tools that leave interesting shapes and textures.
I cover my art table with scrap paper and keep a stack of more scrap paper within reach.
Onto the cutting board, I squeeze small dollops of my chosen colors from tubes of Speedball ink. I often add a little Speedball extender, to give the ink translucency and to keep it moist.
I roll-mix these dollops on the cutting board with my rubber brayer, then continue rolling it back and forth across the board, until I’ve got the right amount of ink coating the roller. When first learning this technique, I experimented with practice prints on scrap paper, to learn what amount of ink on the brayer works best for me.
With my carved foam plate lying face-up on my art table, I roll the inked brayer across the carved design. I use a brayer wide enough to cover the design in one stroke.
Keeping the foam plate face-up, I lightly press my print-paper down onto it. My print paper is usually just a little larger than the foam plate, but small enough to move through the pasta machine.
Next I grab a piece of scrap paper and use it as the “bread” in a “sandwich,” wrapping it around the print paper that’s pressed to the foam plate. This step keeps ink from going places it shouldn’t go!

At this point the sandwich is ready for me to run it through the pasta machine or to use the burnishing tool.I set the pasta machine on its widest setting if my foam plate has come from a deli tray. If using the thinner foam that’s cut from a disposable dinner plate, I either narrow the setting on the pasta machine or add a piece of cardboard to the “sandwich.” As I pass the sandwich through the pasta machine, I use one hand to guide the end that emerges.
If I choose to use a burnishing tool in place of a pasta machine, I keep the sandwich on the art table, securing its position with one hand and using the other hand to run a baren or other burnisher across the sandwich.
Barens and burnishers are available in fine arts supply stores, but I use a homemade baren: I used E6000 to glue together the flat sides of two wooden drawer knobs (from a home improvement store.) This double-knob is a baren on one end and a handle on the other, and the two are interchangeable.
In a pinch, the back of a large serving spoon will do the trick.

The baren printmaking method takes a little longer than the pasta machine method, but either way, the printing is quick and easy.
After the printmaking step, I unwrap the “sandwich,” discard the scrap paper “bread,” and gently peel the print-paper off the foam plate.
Right away, I stick my tools under the faucet to wash them. Speedball blockprinting ink comes off easily with water and paper towels.
Prints dry fast, and are soon ready to be used in collage.

NOTE: Although I used Speedball ink and extender in making prints for the pictured collage (Three Pears), I want to mention the trouble I had in gluing my prints onto the collage. Speedball water-based inks will rehydrate when introduced, however gently, to any kind of moist gluing medium. This happens even after the prints have been sprayed with fixative. So, the next time I do any foam-plate printing, I plan to use acrylic paint and slow-drying gel as my extender. Working this way will require better ventilation than when I was working with the water-based media. But the results won't rehydrate later, when being used with glue in collage-making.

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