June 3, 2011

Styrofoam Relief Printing Project

        Yesterday afternoon I did an author visit at a local library.  This included reading from Amazing, Beguiling, Curious, talking about the animals with the children, showing some of my carved blocks and explaining the relief printing process, and then leading a printing project.  For the baby brothers and sisters we provided some commercially made rubber stamps of animals to play with, but for the others I had prepared for styrofoam relief printing.
        1.  The first necessary material is the styrofoam "blocks."  I always collect clean styrofoam trays and lids of carry-out boxes, and other pieces of flat, untextured styrofoam.  (Presumably you could go out and buy a package of styrofoam plates if necessary, but I like to reuse/upcycle whenever possible.)  So the first step of preparation ahead of time was to cut these assorted bits and pieces into nice, even rectangles.  Three by five or 4x6 inches would be the best size for this project, but I cut mine smaller, in the neighborhood of 2.5x3.5, for reasons I'll explain in a bit.  Next I cut a mat board backing for each piece of styrofoam, using all the little leftover bits of mat board I always save.  (But any cardboard would work, of course.)  I used double-sided tape to stick the stiff mat board backing to each piece of styrofoam.  This gives the styrofoam extra stiffness and stability, which keeps it from cracking and makes it easier to print.
        2.  Next is the "carving" tool.  The whole advantage of styrofoam printing is that it doesn't require sharp carving tools, making it suitable for very young children.  I've found that the best tool is a very dull pencil with a smoothly rounded point.  (Either graphite or colored pencils are fine.  Ball-point pens work well, too.)  The library had an ample supply of dull pencils (!) and my loyal assistants P and T, who helped me set up before the program, went through the library's bin of pencils and selected nice smooth ones for me.
        3.  Ink.  Like any blocks, these print best with decent ink rolled thinly with a brayer.  However, because there wasn't going to be time for normal ink to dry before the kids walked away with their masterpieces, we used stamp pads instead.  The library provided the stamp pads for us, and that's why I cut the styrofoam blocks so small: I didn't know what size ink pads we'd have to work with.  As it happened, the pads were nice and big… but not very high quality, so that was the weakest part of the project: the children had a hard time getting their little blocks evenly and thoroughly inked.

        That said, most of the children there seemed to have a good time with the project.  Several kids made a second stamp, too.  We had a couple of very nice sharks, a bird that was later renamed an armadillo, an owl, a fish, and a few abstract designs from the younger kids (plus whatever others I'm forgetting).
        It's very hard to clear out large areas of solid white with the styrofoam, but on the other hand, the medium works pretty well for textures: dots and spots, little lines for fur and scales, grass, stripes, etc.  (You can also experiment with pressing other objects into the styrofoam and seeing what you get, although we didn't do that at the library.)
        Another nice benefit of the fact that this project can be done so cheaply with materials that are often already to hand, is that when the kids are having too much fun to want to stop, you can always tell them and their parents that they can do more themselves at home.

[Pictures: Jaguar, styrofoam block print by T Nydam, 2011;
Dragon, styrofoam block print by P Nydam, 2011.]


  1. I've done this project at home with kids and as an art teacher and it is always so much fun.

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