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Ceramics? Check. Drawing? Check. Printmaking? That is this week’s deep dive. Andrew and Tim have a long discussion about teaching printmaking–tips and tricks, tools, safety, organization, lessons, budget, it is all on the table. They talk about managing the mess and the best routines for printmaking (3:00), the most important safety concerns and how to keep your kids safe (9:15), and how we move beyond technical concerns to get our kids making meaningful work (18:45). Full episode transcript below.
Welcome to Art Ed Radio, the podcast for art teachers. This show is produced by The Art of Education, and I’m your host, Tim Bogatz.
This week we are talking printmaking. Now, these media-based episodes are always quite a bit of fun to do. We get to focus on a single type of art making and really cover it thoroughly. This started quite a while back with a two part episode on ceramics, and then we followed it up with a drawing episode. It’s been a while now since we’ve done one and it’s time to get back to it.
Andrew and I had talked about where we need to go next and we’re going to do a deep dive into teaching printmaking. Tips and tricks, tools, safety, organization, lessons, budget, it’s all on the table for discussion. And as we always do with these, no time limits on this one. It should be a good time.
We’ve got a lot to cover, so I will bring on Andrew in just a second. But before we get there I want to tell you, if you love this episode and all of the discussion in it, I want to recommend AOE’s student printmaking graduate course. It is a really deep dive into printmaking, how you teach it, and you can come up with so many resources for you classroom as you work with other art teachers throughout the eight week course. And more importantly it gives you a chance to create your own printmaking work, which is an opportunity that we don’t get often enough and something that I think is good for everyone to do.
Now, on the other hand, if you hate the episode, just ignore Andrew and me and sign-up for the course anyway because it is amazing. Go check it out on theartofed.com/courses. All right, it is time to talk to Andrew, so let me bring him on.
Andrew, it is time to talk about printmaking. But first, how are you?
Andrew: Hey, I’m good, man. It’s been a while, it feels like, since I’ve been on with you hosting so I’m excited to be here. I’m excited to be back.
Tim: Yeah, this is going to be good. Love It or Shove It was quite a bit of fun so I think … That’s one that people enjoyed so we may need to recapture that magic again in the future but like I said, right now we need to do a deep dive into printmaking. ‘Cause we’ve talked drawing before, we’ve talked ceramics, and people have seemed to really enjoy that so we just thought to ourselves, “Hey, what else do we need to talk about?” And printmaking seemed to be the answer.
So let me start it off here for you. How do you manage the mess that is printmaking? Because I know a lot of teachers hesitate when it comes to teaching printmaking, because they’re afraid it’s going to be straight chaos, so how do you make it work in your classroom?
Andrew: Well, I think I realized a long time ago that … Let’s say you have 24 kids or 28 kids or 30 kids, let’s be honest, not all of your students are all going to be printing at exactly the same time, so you don’t need 24 brayers and ink stations setup for 24 students. That never happens. You’ll have some students that are carving still, or maybe … We’re assuming that everyone’s doing linoleum block cuts. Maybe they’re doing collographs or monoprints or something, but not everyone’s going to be printing at the same time. So then what it’s a matter of is setting up stations.
Just recently I wrapped up teaching some ninth grade art sections and I had classes of 28, 26, and I don’t think I ever got more than 12 stations going at a time which then boils down to, this is the black station. This is the teal station. This is the silver ink. This is the purple ink, the pink ink. Then kids would go where they wanted, and granted, let’s say no one was really wanting to do the teal. Well then maybe we have two or three stations of traditional black ink. But you kind of have stations and people are where they want to be.
In doing that you try to centralize the mess so it’s all in one spot and then one of the things I do as a final tip is, I make every student who’s going to print lay out a big old sheet of crappy paper and I have them take a marker and write clean on one side and then dirty on the other, like a line down the middle. Then I teach them in my demo, “Everything is on the dirty side except for the paper you’re going to print on. Then the only thing that gravitates between is your block. ‘Cause You want to ink your block on the dirty side but then you want to print it also on the clean side, but your ink, your popsicle sticks, a spoon if you use a spoon, your inking plate, all of that stuff has to go on the dirty side.” And for the most part when the kids get it, you really don’t have a whole lot of mess after that.
Tim: You know, what I’ve always done looks very similar with just separate colors of ink at separate tables and delineating what needs to be where in order to keep things clean. Because like you said, that is the biggest stumbling block for a lot of teachers so I think that’s some good advice.
But If I can follow-up with one thing for you, when you’re done printing, how do you ensure that everything gets cleaned up? So your brayers are clean, your inking plates are clean, making sure that kids aren’t tracking ink all over the room … What kind of systems do you have in place to make sure that stuff stays as clean as it can be?
Andrew: I use this for lots of different things but I actually bought some cheapo dish-drying racks, things that you’d put by your sinks to let your plates air-dry or whatever. So at the end of the time, I have my students clean their block that they were carving and printing with, I have them clean their inking plate, have them clean their brayer. And I actually let them put their rinsed off inking plate and brayer in those dish-drying racks on the side. They don’t have to dry them, they don’t have to put them away because I’ve had multiple classes come in right afterwards that are going to grab those anyway and dry them and then get them prepped and ready to go. That’s worked pretty well for me.
The only thing I think that sometimes gets a little tricky is actually rinsing off your block and then putting that away for then the next day. That’s the one thing I tell the kids, you’re going to want to get the ink off of it, but then you’re also going to want to dry it out and then put it somewhere not next to your good prints. The prints are in the drying rack and you want to put your block somewhere else, off on the counter or in a class slot or drawer or something so that those aren’t contaminating.
I’ll actually say the one thing that I find really frustrating is when you have a lot of sections with a lot of students printing, you better have a big old drying rack because you can fill those bad boys up pretty quickly if you’re making a lot of prints and a lot of kids are going to town. That’s been the one thing that I find almost more frustrating than ink is, here is how you use a drying rack. We always pull down and not up, because if you start lifting everything up, everyone’s prints start slipping and sliding and getting stuck to each other. So I had to really train my students this year, you guys only ever get to pull it down.
And then it’s a little more time consuming for me, the following morning before school starts I would go through and get all the third hour kids and clump them together and return them kind of where they could find them. So I was the only one lifting up the shelves the next day but then you didn’t have that annoyance of some kid lifting up the drying rack, looking for their print from the previous day and screwing up everybody’s prints.
Tim: What I always do is give my kids … Each one of my kids has an 18 by 24 piece of paper, whether it be newsprint or just regular drawing paper that we have a bunch of, or if you’re lacking for budget, newspaper works fine. You just unfold it and put your name on it somewhere, have all the kids just put their name, and then whatever prints they make, 2, 3, 4, 6 of them, whatever, all go on that same large sheet of paper and then that can just be carried over to the drying rack and then each kid just has their own shelf on the drying rack like you talked about with raising and lowering. And then it keeps all their prints together, it’s very simple, they don’t have to dig through everyone’s work to try and find that and that’s kind of eased the process a little bit for me. I think that’s some advice that could work well for people if you want to give that a try.
So I think the other big thing that people worry about and the topic that we definitely need to touch on is safety. So let me just ask you, when you’re working with kids, what do you demo, what do you talk about when it comes to safety and what are some of the essential techniques that kids need to know to do things correctly and to make sure that they’re safe when they’re working with printmaking?
Andrew: Okay, so let’s just kind of assume that we’re all talking linoleum block here, and the big safety concern of course is your linoleum block cutters. To me, it’s very simple and I just ingrain this from day one and then I preach it every day that kids are using linoleum block cutters. Cut away from your hands. Kids will “yeah, yeah, I get it” and they’ll start to cut away from their hands the proper way, and then they’ll kind of round a corner on something that they want to cut and before you know it, it’s like “Hey, you’re about getting ready to cut towards your hand.” And so that’s the one thing. I try to keep it really simple, I show them how to adjust their grip on the linoleum block and kind of move what they’re carving so that they are always cutting kind of over their hand that’s holding it and then away from that hand so that there should never be anything towards their hand remotely.
For the most part, it’s worked really well. I do feel like when we are doing printmaking and there’s a lot of carving going on, I’m extra diligent and walking around at all times and I just tell kids from day one, it’s like “Hey, don’t get all offended if I snap at you and point at you and tell you ‘away from your hand’ because you’re doing it wrong. I would rather have your feelings hurt than have you shove that number five linoleum blade into your fingertip.”
We hit it on day one and we do it every day after that.
Tim: Yeah. And I think that’s vital. I make the safety things as simple as possible for my kids. So I always tell them I don’t want the number five and the number two tips, which everybody uses, I always tell them “I have one student with a V-shaped scar and one student with a U-shaped scar from years ago and we don’t want that to happen to you.” Just from stabbing it in their hands. So I always tell them, I don’t know how many times I repeat this, but I always just say “Carve away. Carve away from your hand, carve away from your body. Never carve toward yourself.”
Hundreds and hundreds of times I’m sure I say that as kids are working, as we’re doing our printmaking. I feel like I’m just running around the room going “Carve away, carve away, carve away!” And eventually they get it. And I went quite a few years without any real harm being done or kids hurting themselves so I think the biggest thing is just being conscious about that.
And I will just throw out one other idea. I know a lot of teachers will get a gardening glove or other thick type gloves so whatever hand is holding the linoleum for the kids, they just get a bunch of gloves and have them wear that glove. So even if the carving tool does hit them in the hand, they’re protected. I’ve always thought that’s a really good idea. I’ve never gone through and followed through with actually getting some of those gloves but I’ve always thought that was a good one.
Andrew: Yeah. That’s a good idea. Hey, I want to follow up on this ’cause I know you asked techniques about safety but there’s a couple other technique ideas that I want to mention that aren’t really related to safety but I think really changed my outlook and my students’ effectiveness in printmaking when I saw them.
There’s this video out there by this guy named Bill Thick. I believe he’s a printmaking professor somewhere down in Tennessee or something. He has a video that you can find online called Anatomy of A Linoleum Cut, I think is what it’s called. One of the things that he does, and it was kind of like a light bulb moment for me is he actually takes battleship gray linoleum, primes it all with white gesso first, paints it all white, and then he draws everything with India ink and a bamboo brush. And you might think “Well why is he doing this?” What you’ll see in the videos, and it’s very easy for him to understand black stays and white goes away. What I have had so many students struggle with is because the linoleum block process is opposite of what they’re used to, I draw with a pencil, it’s a dark line, it’s there.
Andrew: The linoleum carving tool, I carve it away, it’ll be there. No, you actually just made a negative. So I actually make all of my students, the first thing we do is we do a drawing and then we’ll either take bamboo and India ink or we’ll take a fat Sharpie marker, a really extra big one. We’ll actually draw the drawing again in that Sharpie or in that India ink and then it’s very simple. If it’s black, it stays. If it’s white, it’s away. And they kind of get that.
The other thing I’ll mention is I’ve kind of staggered my printmaking to do … Oh gosh, what’s the white stuff? The really soft stuff? I just used it this year and I forgot the name of it. But that’s what I use with my youngest students, so seventh grade or eighth grade. And then I use the gold stuff, I think it’s called golden wonder cut. And then the final thing that I use when students are used to it is the battleship gray, which can be a lot tougher to cut but it holds detail a lot better.
I found that you can actually take a blow dryer to that stuff and heat it up and soften it and then kids were complaining and struggling that it’s too hard to cut. It cuts a lot easier if you heat up an area first with the blow dryer.
Tim: Yeah, I always iron mine, actually. Legit, I got a clothes iron from Goodwill and actually I have three of them and we just plug them in around the room and kids can go low setting and iron it for 20 or 30 seconds. It works pretty well.
So let me ask you this, though. We’ve spent so much time talking about the gray battleship linoleum. Can you talk a little bit more about other alternatives you have besides just carving and printing? Anything with the printmaking process, whether it be materials, ideas, lessons, anything else that moves beyond that.
Andrew: Yeah, so I’ve done some alternative materials printmaking. I’ve done Lego print printing before. It’s a little on the younger side but you can do the same thing with any found object printmaking. Little stamps or stuff like that. Monoprinting is really fun, I’ve done that one before. I’ve done monoprinting on old transparency sheets, when people had the overhead projectors. You can put all sorts of stuff on there.
I want to do a collograph again. The last time I did a collograph, it just turned out horribly and I think I’ve scarred myself from doing collograph. With collographs, the mistake I made was I wanted them to do something more representational and I should have gone purely abstract or stylized or something but I was trying to get them to think about a face broken down into different planes and each plane of the face is a different texture. It was just a hot mess.
Tim: I am confused already, so I can’t even imagine what your middle-schoolers are thinking.
Andrew: This was a long time ago, this was …
Tim: I think you overthought that one.
Andrew: I really did. I was like “This is going to be great!” We drew these self-portraits, it was a self-portrait, which is already a tough sell for some kids. And then it’s like “Hey, take this drawing of yourself that you struggled with and now just add all these ridiculous textures inside of your face.” And it was just a nightmare. It was really bad.
Tim: Yeah. Okay, so, hey, hold that thought for a second. ‘Cause I want to talk about subject matter and stuff but selfishly, I need to talk about me for just a second.
Tim: One thing that I’ve done that is really enjoyable for the kids is we do monoprints just straight up on the table, directly on the student desks or the work tables where they just use masking tape to block out the area that they’re going to print. They roll ink through there and then just draw in there with clay tools or the back of a pencil or their fingers, whatever, to create the designs and then you pull up the tape so you have a really sharp edge, lay down paper on top of that, and transfer the ink to the paper. Sometimes it’s a disaster, sometimes it’s amazing but it is so much fun to do. Kids absolutely love that.
And then second idea, I need to dig through the archives and see if I can put this in the show notes but about two or three years ago, I did an Art Ed Now presentation about all of the different crazy printmaking techniques I’ve done, just talking about even silk screen on ceramics and these huge linoleum prints that are panoramic and all sorts of great ideas. So if I can find that, I’m going to put that up with the show notes at our end. So there’s a couple more alternatives that I think are worthwhile.
Thanks for indulging me there for a second.
Andrew: Oh, no problem.
Tim: We can circle back around though. I feel like when it comes to printmaking, we talk so much about technique and our teaching is so much about technique but how can we move on from that? How do we help our students make their prints or make their work actually meaningful? How do you move beyond technique to creating meaning?
Andrew: I really like that question, I’m glad to hear someone else acknowledge it. ‘Cause I felt like when I was a new teacher, I really struggled in teaching printmaking with that very idea of this is so time intensive, to get them to understand the technique and the steps and if you don’t do this right, this won’t look good, that it seemed like the meaning and the subject matter of the student’s artwork was often secondary at best and completely unthought of and unnecessary at worst. So to hear some other people voice that, I think is nice.
I have a couple strategies and I think I’m still a work in progress on it. Number one I would say is give choices. Why do all of your students have to make, let’s even pick fun of myself here, why did all of my students have to do a self-portrait? Maybe some of them didn’t want to do that. So giving them choices and options, maybe giving them a broad theme and letting them interpret that however they want within the confines of the printmaking discipline would be helpful.
For example, I did a print a couple years ago or a project called Defused Phobias. So it was think of something that you think is scary. Now make it not be scary. We actually looked at a little clip of the Harry Potter movie where … I’m going to screw this up and people who are Harry Potter fans are going to yell at me but there’s the Riddikulus spell that makes whatever you’re scared of look stupid and silly and ridiculous so I kind of tied it in to pop culture a little bit and showed them that idea. And all of my students were then able to come up with some really original takes on it.
I think another thing, like I said, tying it to pop culture but tying into contemporary artists. So just this last year, I did a printmaking project where we looked at Shepard Fairey, the artists and designer behind Andre the Giant Has a Posse and also the Obey clothing line. The great thing is I’d had a number of students in my ninth grade art class who wore Obey clothing who had no idea who Shepard Fairey was or who Andre the Giant was. So I was able to show them the evolution of this artist and then we did a project around it called phenomenon cards. So it’s a card that is a little bit vague in its meaning and no one really knows what it means. And all they had to do was have an icon or an image and some words that were kind of nonsense with it and they turned out pretty cool. But there was a lot of leeway in that project.
Tim: Yeah, I think that’s really cool and I think like you said, giving choices is a big thing that can really help develop it. Because I feel like so many people just … Like you said, people so much worry about the technique that they forget to plan out subject matter. And if I can give advice to people who are teaching printmaking for the first time, like you said, you didn’t have any guidances to how to get there.
I would say plan out the project. Give yourself time to plan and get it right. Because if you’re going to do a drawing project or a painting project, you don’t just say “Okay guys, we’re going to do animals, go for it!” No, you think about zooming in, drawing big, fill the page, let’s create depth, let’s add detail, let’s talk about composition. And all of that gets ignored with printmaking and it doesn’t need to. It’s really easy for you to, again, whatever your subject matter is, whatever choice you’re giving kids, just add on “Also, your composition needs to accomplish these three things. We need this much detail.” And just give them some constraints and plan it out. Don’t just throw your kids out there with a big random subject while you worry so much about the technical aspects of things. Plan it out like you would any good project and make sure you give yourself time to do that, and I think you’ll be good.
If I can just ask you one last question and then I think we’ll get out of here. It’s got to be about budgeting. Printmaking is incredibly expensive. So the big question is, how do you make it work? Do you have some hacks or just some general strategies on how to handle the expense that is teaching printmaking?
Andrew: I can talk about this first-hand. I do not have much in the way of printmaking supplies. I’m actually incredibly limited this past year that I just wrapped up. But one of the things was, my saving grace was I actually kind of just complained loudly enough to anyone that would listen and the high school, our department, at the time I was middle school, they said “Oh, we’ve got a bajillion tubes of ink and we’ve got a million extra brayers that you can borrow.” So I was actually able to borrow from people in my district. Because for a ninth grade class or let’s say someone who’s sixth grade or fourth grade, it’s not like you’re doing printmaking every single day. It’s one or two projects a semester or something. So you could possibly borrow for a brief amount of time, give all the materials back.
There’s always substitutions you can make. So if you can’t afford a big old roll of battleship gray and the linoleum cutters and blades that would of course go with that, maybe you go down to the foam pads and that doesn’t require any special tools. In a lot of ways, you’re still getting at the basic levels of printmaking; that it’s able to make a reproduction, positive, negative, so there are some things you can do with that. There are some things you could possible do with ink substitutions. When I was an elementary teacher, I’ve messed around with printing with tempera paint, acrylic paint … It’s a little trickier and I don’t really like it as much, but it’s a whole lot more cost effective than all those inks.
The last thing I would say is as teacher, to weigh some of the pros and cons of the jars of ink versus the tubes of ink, in theory the jars of ink are really nice ’cause if a student has too much they can always put some back. But what you’re talking about, putting some back, is scraping off the very last coat of ink on an inking plate. Is that really worth it and are the kids going to do it?
And then the thing that’s frustrating with those jars is often times those jars will dry out before you’ve used all the ink. So I’m coming around to being a fan of the tubes that you just squeeze out a little bit of what you need and there isn’t any chance to put any back but at the same time, you’re not wasting half a bottle because you open it and then no one else touched that ink for six months, you know, and it went dry on you.
Tim: Yeah. Honestly, I’d love to add more to that but I don’t know if I can. I feel like that was the most thorough answer of the entire interview so well done, Andrew.
Andrew: Wow. My coffee kicked in, I was drinking some coffee, so …
Tim: I think we’re good. All right, so any closing thoughts before I let you get out of here?
Andrew: Only this; that if there are teachers out there who are a little put off by printmaking because of any numbers of reasons that you said: the safety or the expense … I absolutely love printmaking because you can most directly see students’ thought in this manner come to life. Students are asking themselves all the time “Is this a good one or is this a good one? Or is this one better? Why is this print better than this print?
Because with printmaking, don’t just make them do one. That defeats the whole purpose. But if you say “You need to have an edition of ten, I want to see your ten best”, they’re going to end up printing sixteen and then they have to be their own critic and do their own editing on which ones are the best. And that’s a thing that in art, they don’t do as much of other than in printmaking. And it’s a really important skill that they develop.
Tim: Yeah, very well said. Alright, I feel like you should’ve hosted this episode. We’re good though, so thank you very much for coming on. It’s been good talking to you. Hopefully you’ve left some teachers with some good advice, so thank you.
Andrew: My pleasure, man. Thanks a lot.
Tim: That was a lot of fun to talk to Andrew there. Toward the end of the conversation, he had some great advice there on why you need to teach printmaking and most importantly, he very clearly laid out the benefits that it has for your students.
I hope that he and I gave you a little bit of insight into what it looks like in our classrooms when printmaking is happening. And through the discussion, hopefully you keyed in on a couple ideas, maybe you take those ideas back to your classroom. Because as we always say, try out something new. Try out something different. And if you haven’t taught printmaking before, I’m going to encourage you right now to give it a try this upcoming year. And if you teach it all the time, try and do it in a new way. Try a type of printmaking that you haven’t done before. Or set a goal on how you can do something better. No matter your situation and no matter how you approach it, I promise that you will not regret it.
Art Ed Radio is produced by The Art of Education with audio engineering from Michael Crocker. Remember that you can sign up for our e-mail list at artedradio.com. We always love to hear from you so send us your questions, comments, and anything else you want to share at firstname.lastname@example.org. Thanks for listening.