June 5, 2020

Stay-at-Home Activities 4: Fingerprinting

        This project is inspired by a series of portraits made by Chuck Close in the 1980s, in which he “painted” with fingerprints.  Of course, I would say that this could count as a sort of printmaking technique, so that’s why I’m including it as a project in this blog.  This first fingerprint portrait is, like most of Closes’s work, incredibly large and detailed: 8.5 by 7 feet in size, so yeah, he could fit a lot of detail into that.  However, here is also a much smaller, rougher one (16x11.5 inches) that’s representative of the project I’m actually proposing for you to try, since not too many of us have the wherewithal to make 8 foot art.  (And if you want to see more of Close’s printmaking, here’s a previous post on some of his other art.)
        Back in the 1990s I adapted Close’s finger printing idea into a project with seventh graders.  Each student made a portrait of themself, which they then shaded using their own fingerprints.  Unlike Close’s portraits of friends, my students made double self-portraits: both their likeness and their fingerprints represented their identity.
        Here’s my own double self-portrait, which was the demonstration sample I made at the time.  My students and I drew our portraits from life, looking in mirrors, but you could certainly use a photograph.  You could copy from a photograph, or even trace from one.  The important thing is just to get down the outlines and guide marks for your fingerprint shading.  Then start in with an ordinary black stamp pad.

     • My portrait is about 12x17, and you don’t want to work too much smaller than that or it will be really hard to get enough detail.  After all, your “brush” can’t be any smaller than your fingertip.
     • Use more than one finger, and different parts and amounts of the finger surface to make different sizes of mark, from the tiniest tip of your pinky to rolling the broadest flat of your thumb.  You can even experiment with using the side of a finger to make longer lines .  (That’s what I did for the bangs on my forehead.)
     • Use the variable of pressure to change the value (lightness or darkness) of your marks.  How hard you press into the stamp pad determines how much ink gets on your finger, and how hard you press on the paper determines how much of that ink transfers onto your image.
     • It helps not to have terribly long fingernails.
     • Yes, your fingers will get inky.  Be careful not to touch your face or clothes or furniture while you’re covered in ink.  Depending on the ink pad you use, the ink may or may not be considered “washable.”  Even after you wash your hands with soap your fingertips may well be stained.  I always told my students that the ink would come off when they washed their hair or washed the dishes.
     • There is no reason that you have to do a self-portrait, of course.  Feel free to fingerprint any  kind of picture you like.
        For younger children (or, of course, any age!) you can use fingerprints as the basis for all sorts of fun little doodles.  Ed Emberley is the master of fingerprint fun.  You can find his books in libraries if your local library, like ours, is offering curb-side pickup, but you can also find plenty of stuff posted on-line.  His techniques are more fun if you have multiple colors.  If you don’t have multiple stamp pads, you could try coloring your fingertips with broad-tipped markers.
        Whether you’re aiming for fine art or funny doodles, it’s always good for the spirit to take a little time to try something that allows you to get messy and get creative.

[Pictures: Fanny/Fingerpainting, oil-based ink on canvas by Chuck Close, 1985;
Phil, stamp-pad ink on paper by Close, 1980 (Images from ChuckClose.com);
Double Self-Portrait, Anne, stamp-pad ink on paper by AEGN, c 1993-5;
Fingerlings, illustrations from Ed Emberley’s Fingerprint Drawing Book, c 2000.]

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