Everyday Printmaking Materials Hacks
A common printmaking misconception is that you need all the right tools to begin. You really don’t. Over the years I have found many substitutes for high dollar printmaking materials. While I encourage the use of quality materials, particularly handmade paper, sometimes expense and availability can get in the way of art making. Here are my best printmaking hacks to start or keep you printing regardless of funds or materials.
Drypoint Etching Material Alternatives
1. You don’t need plexiglass or copper to make beautiful work. Aluminum cans can be sliced and laid flat and etched into on either side. I recommend using a tallboy can so you have a larger plate to work on, and taping it down so to prevent the metal from rolling up while you’re working. This also protects you from those sharp edges.
CDs are another fun alternative, but just about any smooth plastic will work. I’ve used overhead projector plastic sheets for an experiment with printing etchings onto wood (semi successful). I wouldn’t be surprised if the smooth inside of a plastic milk carton would make a good substrate.
2. You don’t need a fancy etching scribe to make a good impression. My first printmaking teacher, Brian Spolans, taught us that we could tape a pushpin to the end of a pen. I used that silly looking tool to etch my first drypoint. I’ve upgraded since then- my favorite etching tool now is a needle in a mechanical pencil.
3. No ink? Try scribbling across your plate with a watercolor pencil or crayon. The water based pigment will fill the grooves and your wet paper will draw it out, much that same as ink.
4. No tarlatan? Use cheesecloth or phonebook pages. I’ve also had luck using fabric remnants from a tight weave cotton fabric- think quilt or tablelcloth material.
I made my first monotype in high school, using watercolor on a sanded plexiglass plate. Since then I’ve done monoprint using oil paint, waterbased marker, watercolor crayons and watercolor pencil. I’ve even experimented with chalk pastel, making some beautiful effects using Prismacolor Nupastel.
In a moment of artistic passion, I grabbed the nearest scrap wood I had- a thin plywood I had found by the side of the road and schlepped home. No, not balsa, not linoleum. I had no wood carving tools yet so I used a wood burning tool. I love the effect. You can see the woodgrain. I cut a little frame for the print out of the same wood I used to make it.
Here is my relief print “Burbank Alley” made from the lid of a styrofoam egg carton. Materials are everywhere, and frequently in the the recycling bin. See my Styrofoam Printmaking post for more on this.
When it comes to unusual materials, collagraph is my favorite. When I taught printmaking afterschool, the kids loved the chance to glue unexpected things to paper. I brought rosemary, feathers, textured fabrics cut from dilapidated lawn furniture, mesh bags fruits and vegetables were purchased in, pastas and more.
Good, Cheap Paper
In my years of printmaking I discovered an inexpensive paper that soaks quickly and absorbs ink well every time. It’s good to have a reliable paper for tests or classes. I’ve ended up using it for cards as well. Office supply stores sell a heavy weight cardstock, sometimes called Vellum, that works great. Neenah Exact Index Premium Cardstock was the most recent name I purchased this paper under. Offered by both Office Depot and Staples, 250 sheets goes a long way!
Soak a minute or two, until the paper develops a couple of gray spots- where the paper soaks through too much, pat dry in a towel, and print.
Printing Press Alternatives
1. The Pocket Press! I have to mention it for those reading this post from another source. If you are not yet familiar with my handheld press, learn all about it here: Printmaking Press in a Box.
2. Your car. I have printed etchings using my car tire. Proceed with caution. You plate could break. I set it up with a wooden board on top of the traditional felt sheets.
3. Your office chair wheel. I conducted an experiment in office printmaking using a broken open ballpoint pen for ink and the wheel of my chair to press the ink onto the page. I had to roll back and forth over the plate a bunch of times, and make sure my weight was being applied as I rolled, but I did transfer my etching. Not beautifully, but, enough.
4. I’m a fan of the wooden spoon, though I’ve always wondered what kind of transfer I could using my weight an a roller skate.