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Art through the ages—Printmaking with children

Most children’s art is a product of one—a single creation using paint, collage materials, or sculpting clay. Printmaking, however, allows children to make multiple products using one tool or multiple copies from one design.
Introduce children to printmaking using the activities below. The goal, as in all children’s art, is to allow children to explore the materials. Avoid focusing on the finished prints. Talk about the process and their efforts.
Help children learn the concept of printmaking: transferring an image from one surface to another. Encourage children to experiment with different tools and to identify ordinary objects they can make prints from. Help children understand that printmaking is a way to express themselves and be creative.

What is printmaking?
In fine art printmaking, the artist chooses a surface to be a printing plate—foam, metal, wood, cardboard, stone, or linoleum, for example. The artist prepares the plate by cutting, etching, carving, or drawing a design into the plate. The artist then applies ink or paint to the plate, presses paper onto the plate (by hand or a printing press), and pulls the paper with its transferred image from the plate.
The artist can create multiple impressions by re-inking the plate and printing new pieces of paper in the same way. In fine art printing, each impression is numbered and signed by the artist. There are five principal printmaking techniques: relief, intaglio, lithography, screen printing, and monotypes. Each technique produces a distinct appearance; most require professional printing materials and machines.

Relief printing. In this technique, the artist sketches a design on a wood or linoleum block and then cuts away pieces from the surface. This leaves a raised design that is printed. The artist applies ink or paint to the surface and transfers the image to paper. The resulting print is a mirror image of the original plate. Since there is no ink on the cut-away areas or background, the design is surrounded by white space. Relief prints typically are bold, with strong color contrast.
Chinese artists have used woodcutting techniques since the ninth century, often in textiles. Look for relief prints by contemporary Asian artists and by Holbein the Younger, Katsukawa Shunsho, Katsushika Hokusai, William Blake, Vincent Van Gogh, and James Whistler.

Intaglio printing. Intaglio (pronounced in TAL yo) comes from an Italian word meaning to incise or cut. In intaglio printing, the artist uses acid to cut into a metal plate. The artist covers the plate with ink and then cleans it so that the ink remains only in the cut grooves. The artist presses dampened paper on the plate to transfer the design.
Engraving is an intaglio process commonly seen on fancy wedding invitations. Francisco Goya, Pablo Picasso, Rembrandt, and Albrecht Durer produced intaglio prints.

Lithography. This technique, invented in 1798, uses the principle that oil and water don’t mix. The artist draws a design on a flat surface with a greasy material such as a crayon or tusche, an oil-based paint. The artist dampens the surface of the plate with water, which is repelled by the grease. When the artist applies printer’s ink to the plate, the ink sticks to the greasy design and not to the unmarked areas of the plate.
Pierre Bonnard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edouard Manet, and Edvard Munch took advantage of the technique to make a great number of prints and posters from one design.

Screen printing. Screen printing or serigraphy uses stencils of paper, fabric, plastic, or plant leaves with designs cut, perforated, or punched in the surface. The artist attaches the design to a piece of mesh that is stretched taut. The artist uses a squeegee to force paint or ink through the mesh onto paper or fabric. The uncovered areas of the screen allow the paint to transfer to the paper; the areas covered by the design do not.
Screen printing became famous in the 1960s when Andy Warhol produced his Pop art icons like the Campbell’s soup cans. Other artists worth studying are Peter Max, Ben Shahn, and Robert Guathmey.

Monotypes. Monotypes or monoprints are designs that are transferred in a single impression. The artist creates a design on a surface, covers the design with a piece of paper, and transfers the design in a mirror image.
Mary Cassatt, known for her images of mothers and children, often created monotypes.

The following activities are variations on each of the printmaking techniques.

Printmaking with toddlers
Toddlers and paint guarantee a messy but positive sensory experience. Prepare for each of these monoprint activities by covering the work surface with plastic or several layers of newspaper. Collect plastic paint trays or saucers. A wide base and low sides will help keep the tray from tipping over. Make sure you have a drying rack or shelf ready for drippy paintings.
Toddlers will want to investigate the paint and the process, developing new skills as they experiment. For example, most toddlers will rub and smear with the printing tool—like they do with a paintbrush—before they discover that a single-motion placement makes a better print.

Car track prints
Here’s what you need:
large sheets of paper
small, matchbox cars with wheels
plastic paint trays
masking tape
liquid tempera

1. Use a loop of masking tape on the bottom of the paint tray to hold it in place on the table.
2. Pour about one tablespoon of paint into a paint tray.
3. Provide large sheets of plain paper.
4. Show how to dip the car wheels into the paint and “drive” the car on paper, making tracks.
Variations: Provide a variety of wheeled toys and paint colors.

Object prints
Here’s what you need:
liquid tempera
paper towels
plastic paint trays
large sheets of paper
masking tape
large printing objects like empty thread spools, clothespins, plastic cookie cutters, or sponges

1. Use a loop of masking tape on the bottom of the paint tray to hold it in place on the table.
2. Choose a few, large printing tools and place them on the table near the paint trays.
3. Dampen a paper towel with water. Fold the towel into quarters.
4. Place a folded towel in the paint tray. Pour about one tablespoon of paint onto the towel to make a stamp pad. Prepare as many paint trays as there are children participating in the activity.
5. Let the children press a tool onto the paint pad and transfer the design to paper.

Bubble wrap prints
Here’s what you need:
large sheets of paper
plastic paint trays
large paintbrushes
masking tape
liquid tempera
sheets of bubble packing wrap

1. Use a loop of masking tape on the bottom of the paint tray to hold it in place on the table.
2. Tape squares of bubble wrap—raised side up— to the table near the paint trays.
3. Pour about one tablespoon of paint into each of several trays—a different color in each.
4. Invite children to paint the bubbles.
Variation: Allow the toddlers to investigate the bubble wrap thoroughly—by popping the bubbles and by painting them. Then show how their painted designs can be transferred to paper. After the bubble wrap is covered with paint, place a clean sheet of paper over the wrap and press lightly. Lift the sheet and share the multi-colored print. Remember, the bubble wrap can be reused: Rinse clean and hang to dry.

As an introduction, share examples of art prints on postcards from art museums or pictures in magazines and library books. Encourage children to study patterns and shapes, symmetry, texture, and color.
Introduce two basic printmaking techniques. In the first the artist dips an object into paint or ink and transfers the design of the object to paper or fabric. This is the simple technique used in the car track print activity above as well as printmaking with clay blocks, sponges, and rubber stamps.
In the second technique, the artist creates a printing block from foam, wood, soap, or cardboard. The artist spreads ink or paint over the design with a brayer or roller to create two surfaces, one with paint (the positive image) and one without (the negative image). The artist transfers the design to paper or fabric in a separate step, allowing the artist to make multiple copies of the design.

Folded symmetry
Here’s what you need:
large sheets of paper
liquid tempera in squeeze bottles

1. Fold a sheet of paper in half to crease.
2. Open the paper and dribble paint in any design onto one half of the paper. Invite children to use several paint colors in their designs.
3. Refold the paper along the crease.
4. Gently smooth the paper with the hand.
5. Open the paper to reveal a symmetrical, reverse image of the original design.
Variation: Vary paper color and texture as well as paint color.

Tool prints
Here’s what you need:
large sheets of paper
household tools like a new plunger, potato masher, corks, bottle caps, and wood scraps
plastic paint trays
liquid tempera

1. Make a printing pad by placing a damp sponge on a paint tray.
2. Pour a couple of tablespoons of paint onto the sponge. The flexibility of the sponge allows the tools to pick up the paint efficiently.
3. Press a tool into the paint and transfer the design onto paper.
4. Create pictures using a collection of household tools.
5. After the prints dry, encourage children to guess which tools created each design feature.

Clay prints
Investigate negative (white spaces) and positive (colored spaces) images with clay prints.
Here’s what you need:
balls of modeling clay
cuticle stick or sharpened wooden dowel
craft sticks
printing paper
liquid tempera
plastic paint trays

1. Tear off a ping-pong ball sized lump of clay. Hammer one area against a table to form a smooth, flat surface.
2. Use a craft or cuticle stick to carve a design into the flat surface.
3. Pour a couple of tablespoons of paint onto the sponge.
4. Press the clay into the paint and transfer the design onto paper.
5. Add colors to the design by rinsing the clay and choosing a new paint color.
Variation: Press small objects like keys, buttons, and pebbles into the clay to make an impression. The impression design will produce a negative space.

Sponge stamps
Here’s what you need:
clean, dry household sponges
permanent markers
heavy cardboard or mat board
craft knife (adult use only)
white glue
printing paper
liquid tempera
plastic paint trays

1. Prepare for this activity by using a craft knife to cut 3-inch squares of mat board.
2. Invite children to draw simple shapes on the dry sponges with markers.
3. Cut out the shapes with scissors.
4. Glue the shape to a mat board base. Dry thoroughly.
5. Make a printing pad by placing a damp sponge into a paint tray.
6. Pour a couple of tablespoons of paint onto the sponge.
7. Invite children to dip their sponge stamps into the paint and transfer the design to printing paper.