September 14, 2010

One Inch Stamp Project

        This is a project that I did for many years with sixth grade students.  It's a great introduction to relief printing, and also a lot of fun for anyone, whether you're a long-time expert or have never before tried your hand at carving a printing block.  Here's what you'll need to give it a try:
     1. carving tools - I use the Speedball linocut tools I use for all my rubber blocks, and that's what my students have used, too.  A basic set of tools is available at most art supply stores and should cost in the neighborhood of $7.  (You could also try it with an x-acto knife or any similar carving tool.)
     2. a 1" square of carving rubber - There's nothing magic about this size, but it's easy to get hold of a small piece of rubber like this: just get a plain white rubber art eraser and cut a square length off the end.  You do need to make sure that your eraser has a smooth surface, because some brands have logos imprinted on them, and if they're in a cardboard wrapper you might not see it without checking.  Also, this project works best if you have a reasonably accurate square, regardless of its exact dimensions.
     3. ink - You have plenty of options when it comes to ink.  The easiest is a standard stamp pad, but more fun is a set of nice, juicy wide-tip markers.  The most successful with my classes was the Mr Sketch brand, which have lots of ink and a good chisel tip.
     4. white paper - any kind will do, or you could experiment with any light colored paper
The block on the left makes the design above, and more below.

        The carving is simple - just doodle any old design as you carve.  Don't sketch first, don't plan too hard, just carve.  Part of the fun of this project is that often the most random designs work the best.  The black stamp shown here is one I carved from a block that a student had begun and then abandoned, claiming it was ruined.  My point is that you really can't ruin the project.
        One thing I do recommend is to try to involve at least one or two of the corners, instead of carving a design that floats in the middle of your square.  Using the corners always leads to interesting results.  (Of course, you'll have two sides to your rubber block, and you can get two mini-blocks out of any normal eraser, so you'll get at least four opportunities to experiment with different ideas.  So you can try a couple with elaborate schemes if you like, and still try a couple spontaneously.)
        The interesting thing about this project is not the single 1 inch design (which often doesn't look like much in itself) but what happens when you print the design repeatedly, as if you were tiling a wall with it.  My students were required to do some sample experimentation, arranging their multiples in several different ways before they decided on their favorite.  It's always a surprise to see what happens when you get the different patterns going.  One pattern you should definitely try is what I think of as "tiling."  To help yourself keep track of the corner you're rotating around, use a permanent marker to mark the corner on the vertical edge of the mini-block (as shown in the photo of the carved stamps above).  Time after time a student would complain that her design was boring… only to squeal with surprise and delight when she saw what happened when the block was printed with rotational symmetry.
Experimenting with repetition
Stamp as carved
A different "tiling" pattern -
compare with the design above.

Stamp as inked
with 3 colors

        And finally you get to play with the variable of color.  This is where the markers are fun.  My classes found that you can color your block with as many as three different colors in each stamping.  More than that and the first colors dry up before the last colors are applied.  (Tip: if your first color isn't printing, try blowing a warm, moist breath over the mini-block right before you stamp.  That often refreshes the ink enough to make it print.  But you do need fresh, juicy markers.)
        That's it!  You can use your mini-block to make little works of art suitable for framing, you can make notecards for your correspondence, you can make wrapping paper, you can decorate paper for use in all sorts of crafts…  If you use acrylic paint for your inking you can even stamp fabric (although that works best with a design that isn't so detailed)…  So go find yourself an eraser and get carving!

[Pictures: Mini-block by AEGN;
Flashback to the 60s, by L. Walton, 2000;
Flowers in a Field of Diamonds, by K. Mika, 1999.
(L. and K. were sixth grade students of mine.)]

P.S.  Thanks to amazing artist Nan Daly for pointing me to her post with some similar ideas - and some different directions for more fun with mini stamps.  Check it out at her blog Collage Lab By Two here and here.


Martha Knox said...

I am doing this project with some of my student over three weeks. Thanks for the inspiration. I posted some of their work here:

Anne E.G. Nydam said...

Great! I look forward to seeing how their work turns out. Thanks for letting me know about it.