Sulphur Springs Arts teacher Phillip Dick is taking his advanced art students back in time to the 1400s to learn the fundamentals on printmaking over the next few weeks.
Printmaking is the process of making artworks by carving an image into a block of material then duplicating the image numerous times, normally on paper with ink. History was made in 1455 when Johnannes Gutenbuerg created the first printing press and then transferred the first Bible to print.
Dick said the first step in the printmaking process is to find the right material to make a print relief. The print relief is a solid block of material, such as wood, that a design is carved into. The protruding surfaces are then dipped into ink and stamped on paper.
On the Gutenbuerg press, the outline of each letter was protrusions that Gutenbuerg used to copy hundreds of books. In the case of Dick’s class project, the students were told to carve a print relief in the shape of an recognizable image, such as the Sulphur Springs High School wildcat mascot.
Dick knew that using wood or metal would be too expensive, but he needed to find a way the entire advanced class could learn the fundamentals of printmaking.
Several years ago, Dick referenced the life of artist Pablo Picasso for inspiration. Picasso was known for his lithographs, etchings, drypoints, lino cuts and wood cuts throughout his career as an artist. During the 1930s, Picasso started working with lino cuts, which is the art of using a linoleum sheet as a relief surface to cut designs for printing.
“There are a lot of sources I found when researching printmaking that said that linoleum was too hard to cut in a classroom setting but all the other alternatives were incredibly expensive.”said Dick. “Colleges typically have large heaters that soften the linoleum enough so that it can be easily carved by their students, but since we do not have university resources, I had to find another method.”
Finally, around 10 years ago, Dick discovered the best way to create print reliefs for his high school students.
“So I went to the local carpet and flooring store to see if I could find something that would work for printmaking in my classroom. We found linoleum from the 1920s and 1930s that might be perfect for what we were trying to accomplish. I ended up buying the commercial grade materials that is so smooth when a student cuts into it, we immediately knew we found what we needed.”
Back in the classroom, Dick prepared the students this week for their first steps in printmaking.
“Over the years I have learned to give our students a lead into printmaking,” said Dick. “When we first started the process, many of my students were getting small cuts in their fingers because they were not used to the linoleum. We now start off by cutting into a foam block.”
Students are given a 3/4-inch blue extruded foam panel. Dick cuts the panel up into manageable pieces and the students are told to cut out a design that has a border and their initials. The student then takes another foam square to create a second design. After the designs are created, Dick tells the students about the next step in the print making process.
“We work a lot on the concept of reversing an imagine, which is the lead into relief printing,” said Dick. “Relief printing is a lot like the rubber stamp used to imprint people’s addresses — the letters are always raised and the background has been cut back. If you notice all the letters and numbers have been reversed.”
Printmaking falls into the category of graphic art. Students will first draw an image on paper before tracing the image onto a linoleum block with a pencil. After the image has been transposed, students will use a black permanent marker to color in sections that will later be cut away when the print relief is finished. The art in print making is not only developing the image but deciding what areas of the image should be cut away from the block.
“The images that you see are just a white piece of paper with black ink. There are no variations of gray,” said Dick “There needs to be a balance between the white and black areas. If there is too much white, it tends to be a weak image.”
As the students cut the linoleum, they leave marks and textures in the background on the image to create depth.
“Texturing is also used to make part of the image look middle gray or light grea. We are using only black ink but with the concept of hatching and cross-hatching we can make portions of the image looks lighter,” said Dick.
Hatching is a technique used to create tonal or shading effect by drawing or carving closely spaced parallel lines. The human eye interprets the black lines and white spaces as different shades of gray.
“The students need to determine what areas are solid black areas, textured sections that appear gray and the white areas,” said Dick. “The textured various of gray is one of the hardest things a student can learn in printmaking.”
Once the students are finishing creating and carving their images, they will be graded on the complexity and creativeness of the graphic image.
“Many times students that are first learning, will put an object in the center of the image and leave lots of white space around it. That is a weak image,” said Dick. “We focused on the rule of thirds, focal points and good composition. With the smaller blocks, I’m looking for a single object that is enlarged enough that it will be going off several sides.”
After the image is cut, a roller is dipped into a water-based black ink then applied to the linoleum block. The block is then placed face down on a piece of paper on top of a piece of plexiglass. Pressure is then applied evenly to transfer the image onto a new sheet of white paper, much like a stamp. Students were told to reproduce the image flawlessly 10 times.
“Students might have to go through numerous copies to make a correct copy,” said Dick. “Ink gets on everything and fingerprints will easily transfer to the paper.”
Dick said that one of the reasons he sought out print making was to prepare students for the college setting.
“In most colleges, linoleum is the first starter project before students work their way into more complex projects,” said Dick. “Printmaking has always been one of the areas of fine art that can be taught in high school. In college, an art student will have to work on drawing, painting, sculpture, ceramics and printmaking.”
Dick said he wanted the students to have a grasp of each area of a Bachelor of Arts degree if their were interested in taking the next step in their artistic career.
“I knew when I began here that I might only get to see each student one time. I have tried through the years for all my students to touch each area of fine art,” said Dick. “This printmaking project is one of those areas.”