Introduction: Relief Printmaking by Hand With Home Materials

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If you have heard of printmaking, you know that a lot of the items we encounter every day involve printmaking. There are many different ways to create a print: relief, intaglio, screen printing, lithography, collagraph and more!

Printmaking is not only a process to create commercial items and art, it is a universal practice that has been used since ancient times. Between the 13th and 19th century it was also a huge scientific tool for learning about and recording plants and medical information. Botanists, herbalists, and doctors used prints of plants and anatomy, both human and animal, for medical research and identification.

Relief printmaking, sometimes called block printing, is where the image to be printed is raised from the surface. To create the image, you use a block of material and remove pieces from it. To do this you gouge or carve out the pieces. This creates a surface similar to a stamp where you can use ink or paint to make a printed image.

As the first image seen above, A = a block of
material, B = your printed image.

When printmaking you can use a press, but as many do not have access to a press, we are going to be printing by hand using a baren like item to help be able to print from home.

It is important to remember that the image you carve into your material will be reversed on your paper. This means it will be the opposite direction when printed, like a mirror image. Remember this when making letters and numbers.

For this project, we will be exploring some basic printmaking terms and skills while printing a relief by hand.


● Styrofoam (or other material to be your block)

● Large spoon (or a baren)

● Sharpie (or black ink to prime your block)

● White Crayon or pencil

● Sharp pencil or pen (to carve your Styrofoam)

○ You might need different tools, such as gouges, if you are using a different material.

● Paint (or block printing ink)

● Paper

● Paper towel tube and plastic wrap

○ You can also use a rolling pin or brayer instead

● Tablecloth or newspaper (to protect your table)

● Cardboard, foam sheet, or plexiglass (a plate to roll your paint on)

The second image above is of a baren.

The third image above is of a brayer.

The material I am using for my block is foam,
as it is easier to carve using various items found at home. However, relief printmaking is often printed using linoleum or wood as a base material with gouges that are u-shaped and very sharp.

Step 1: Prime Your Block

Use a sharpie to prime your foam block. Priming means to make ready and we are making it ready to design directly on our block.

Some printmakers don’t prime, but rather draw their design separately on paper and then transfer their design onto their block using a burnishing tool. Priming the whole block cuts down on proofing your print. However, proofing is still a good idea, which I will discuss more during step 7.

Step 2: Design and Carve

If you are new to printmaking, I suggest testing out a basic pattern design, my design in this project will reflect that. Also, depending on how thick your foam is, you might need to use more than a sharp pen or pencil.

A foam plate should only need a pencil, where you can dig and carve a basic design into your foam easily. If you have a thicker foam, you might need sharper tools, such as scissors, etc. If you are using shaper tools, be careful and carve out little by little.

As you carve, you will notice the white of the foam beginning to show, this white will not be printed. So it is important to remember the larger your area that is carved, the deeper it needs to be.

Step 3: Prepare Your Roller or Find a Brayer

If you do not have access to a brayer, you can use a rolling pin or create a rolling pin by using a paper towel tube and plastic wrap.

Wrap your plastic around the tube, making sure that it is as even and as smooth as possible.

Step 4: Prepare Your Ink

For this step, you will need your roller, paint, and something to roll the paint on, this is called a plate. Make an even line of paint or ink and use your roller to roll out an even surface of paint.

If you have the right amount of paint, you will hear a quiet hissing or sticky sound while rolling. If you have too much, the hissing will be louder and sound more sticky, similar to velcro. If this happens try spreading it further and thinner or start over.

Step 5: Ink Your Block

To ink your block, roll your roller onto the block moving from all four directions. Up, down, and side to side. Each time you roll the paint on, you will have to charge the roller by rolling more ink onto it.

You do not need to push down on to the block when inking it. Roll along the surface and make sure the block is evenly covered.

It is at this time you might see a need to proof your carving. To proof means to edit or fix. You might notice that some of your paint might have gotten where you don’t want it. This means you might not have carved deep enough into your foam. Rinse your foam and plate and proofas needed.

Step 6: Prep and Carefully Place Your Paper

Cut your paper to your preferred size. If you're planning on framing the piece, keep standard frame sizes in mind. Other than that, you can make the paper size whatever you want.

If you are just starting out, it might be wise to cut out some practice paper if you don't want to waste the good stuff. Newsprint or printer paper can be good for this. Remember, a heavier or thicker paper will have a different result than a thinner paper, such as printer paper.

Now, carefully place your paper face down onto your block.

Step 7: Use a Baren or Spoon

Using a spoon, start from the center of the paper and lightly press down on the back of the paper. Be very careful to keep your paper from sliding around.

Professional printers would normally use a baren for this. A baren is a disk-like hand tool with a flat bottom and a handle. It is used to burnish or rub the back of a sheet of paper, lifting ink from the block. It is a great way to get even pressure over the whole block. But a spoon or some other flat, smooth surface works in a similar way.

Go over the back of the whole paper with the spoon. Rubbing in slight circles.

Do a second pass on the paper with the spoon starting from the center again but press a little harder. Keep rubbing the entire image. You will see the paint start to show through the paper. Don't try to make the process faster by rubbing hard. This can make your image blurry or rip the paper.

Step 8: Carefully Lift Your Paper

Wash your hands and make sure your hands are clean before you begin this step. Carefully lift your paper slowly, starting from one corner until the whole paper is off the block.

Step 9: Let Dry and Keep Printing!

Continue printing, remember to let your prints dry.