Over the course of this school year, I've done two big block printing projects with my daughter's kindergarten class: a "quilt" collage print using the letters of each child's name, & the "city" auction project that we recently finished. We used scratch foam, thin styrofoam sheets designed specifically for printing, & although I am anxiously awaiting an eco-foam alternative to styro, in the meantime this stuff is pretty excellent for printing with kids too small for a linocut blade.
- scratch foam (scroll down) or clean flat pieces cut from styrofoam food trays. I bought a pack of 90 6x9 sheets for about $10 at the beginning of the school year, & since I cut the sheets down quite a bit, one pack lasted through two big projects in a class of 27 kids.
- a not-too-sharp pencil or a ballpoint pen (my favorite are the oversized Ticonderoga "Laddie" pencils)
- block-printing ink (use water-based with kids!): Speedball is my favorite but Dick Blick brand works nicely too (it just seems to be stickier, can be harder to lay a smooth coat down).
- a brayer
- an ink tray or piece of glass or some other smooth rolling surface
- a baren (Speedball makes a nice basic one that you can also use for lino cuts; I used these bamboo barens with the kids) or a spoon or your fingers
Cut your foam down to the size you want (a paper cutter is ideal here, to get a nice straight edge on your image -- remember that the shape of your foam piece determines the shape of your image), & then use your pencil or ballpoint pen to draw your design. You can't get a lot of detail with the foam, so simple designs work best. Remember that any letters or numbers need to be written backwards to print properly.
When working with kindergartners, I have them draw their image out on scrap paper first -- giving them a chance to practice & giving me a chance to make sure they are not adding too much small detail that won't print well -- & then draw it again on the foam. You can also place the scrap paper drawing on top of the foam, trace it, & then trace it once more directly on the foam to deepen the lines enough, but I think that's best suited to older kids/adults who have more control over their pencils.
If you want your image to print clearly, you need to make your lines quite deep. You can press fairly hard without poking through the back of the foam.
Roll out a small amount of ink until your brayer roller is coated. Start with less than you think you'll need & add if necessary -- it's easier to add more ink than to deal with an over-inked brayer. When I'm inking my brayer, I listen for a "sticky" sound. If I'm not hearing anything & the brayer is sliding around on the plate (instead of rolling through the ink), I have too much ink.
Roll your brayer over your foam piece to ink it. You are aiming for a smooth, thin, velvety-looking coat of ink. I listen for the "sticky" sound here too.
This is what your inked plate should look like. The image lines are clearly visible & white, meaning that 1. I drew them deep enough, & 2. I did not over-ink the foam. If your lines are deep enough & you get some ink down in the grooves, you should be ok; just watch out for filling the grooves up with ink. (If you over-ink, just pull a print on scrap paper & then take another look -- you may be just right, you may need to add a little more ink to hit the right amount.)
I like to make a test print at this point. This lets me see if I need to go back over any of the lines to deepen them, & whether or not I need more or less ink on the foam. With the kids this year, the test print was also a chance for them to feel how hard they needed to press/rub in order to pull a good print.
Turn the foam ink-side down onto your paper, & rub firmly with a baren, the back of a spoon, or your fingers. Be sure not to let the foam slide around as you're rubbing.
Starting at one corner, peel back. If you're careful with the foam, it can be rinsed & reused, so peel gently!
And, the big reveal!
These are the plates my daughter's class made for their city project. It went swimmingly well, but I put quite a bit of prep into it beforehand. The most important thing, I think, was that since I wanted various sizes AND various colors in the final piece, I figured out the print layout before I started the kids drawing, & I figured out the colors before we started printing. We had a very clear idea of where we were going with it, & I didn't have a huge amount of stress when I was finally putting the finished project together.
The kids each had an inspiration picture (a few local landmarks, a few trees, lots of houses & office buildings), & did a practice drawing of their building on a piece of butcher paper cut down to the size of the foam plate they'd receive before drawing on the foam itself. They did their own inking & printing, & I was reminded of the thing I'd discovered last fall, which is that even kids who don't much like drawing, or who struggle with fine motor control, or are sort of bored by art, are pretty enchanted by the way you can smear ink on something (with a TOOL), press it down (with another TOOL), & then when you're done, it's your drawing that you made but somehow SO MUCH COOLER.
I mounted all the prints on a 2-ply museum board using some fancy acid-free dry mount something or other (my recommendation here? Skip the art store & go straight to the scrapbooking section at Michael's), had the mat recut, & we were good to go.
Much, much, better than last year.