November 24, 2015

Everyday Printmaking Supplies

        One of the things that really allowed me to get going with rubber block printing some twenty years ago is the fact that it can be done in a small space, is relatively easy to interrupt and clean away as needed, and doesn’t require much expensive equipment.  Indeed, these are exactly the qualities that made linoleum block printing take off as a popular medium at the beginning of the twentieth century.  So I prefer to use proper cutting tools for carving and a proper brayer for rolling the ink, but all the other equipment I use is ordinary, everyday objects repurposed for printmaking.  Here are some of those homemade, cheap tools.
        glass - The plate on which I roll out my ink is the glass from a broken picture frame.  You could just as easily use a mirror without a frame, and both picture frames and mirrors are often available for small change at yard sales, or for free in other people’s trash.  Not only is the plain glass just as good as any fancy ink plate you might buy, but it’s actually better than the metal ones you may see for sale, which simply aren’t smooth enough to work well.  (I’ll note that I bought plexiglass plates for my students, to eliminate the risk of breaking or of cuts from the edge of the glass, but for myself, I just have to be a little careful when handling the edge.)
        wooden spoon - Instead of a press or a baren I use this beautiful wooden paddle/spoon.  I bought it at one of those stores that sells cheap overstocks, cut off the long handle, and sanded the stump a little.  If you go this route, the important qualities to look for are smoothness and flatness.  A spoon with a curved bowl may push too far down into carved out areas, and may also distort the rubber more when pressing.
        thumb tack - Very small circles are almost impossible to carve well, but a thumb tack makes quite nice tiny round dots on a print.  If you merely push in and pull out, the hole will be too small even to show up, but if you push down quite deep and wiggle the thumbtack around in a circular motion, you get a good dot.  (Now I just need to figure out an easy way to carve small circles just one size up.)
        toothbrush - The best tool there is for cleaning blocks.  The rubber blocks have to be cleaned both before and after printing.  Before printing the toothbrush helps scrub off any little clinging threads of rubber that didn’t quite get carved free.  Your fingers alone don’t knock off the bits that are still slightly attached.  (Cleaning also removes grease, the powder that keeps the rubber sheets from sticking to each other, dust, cat hair, graphite, or anything else that might flaw the inking.)  After printing, the toothbrush scrubs ink out of even the tightest crevices.
        daubers - I made these to add small areas of different colors of ink to printing blocks.  I don’t guarantee that they’re the best possible tool, but they’re the best thing I’ve tried.  They consist simply of a small bit of polyester fiber stuffing wrapped in flannel and secured with a rubber band.  (I have two sizes, but of course even the smaller can’t be incredibly accurate in inking, so I don’t expect to be too precise.)  They can be washed out with soap and water in the sink - just squeeze them a lot under the water to make sure they’re thoroughly rinsed - reshape if necessary, and allow to dry.
        The thing about relief printmaking is that it’s a poor artist’s medium, and a busy-with-other-things-in-life artist’s medium.  If you wanted to you could use an ordinary fine knife blade to carve ordinary household objects such as erasers or potatoes, and ink them with an ordinary paintbrush.  You might not have to buy any supplies at all.  So don’t think you need to get a fancy professional setup in order to get started.  Use your imagination and see what you can come up with.

[Picture: some printmaking supplies, photo by AEGN, 2015.]

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