Faux relief-print tutorial

EDIT: I just realized we already did a tutorial similar to this! See this post for an abbreviated version, but we’re re-invigorating the process so this post is a more full description. 🙂 

It’s the first week of June…and it feels like April. Chilly, rainy, the world is a luscious shade of green and the bright red cherries out the window are definitely calling my name. While I watch the birds outside take baths in ditches and puddles, let’s learn a new printmaking technique! Is the perfect time to stay inside and teach your hands a new trick.

It’s been more than a month since we’ve had a tutorial and I have now done two rounds of this same technique so let’s learn faux relief-printing! When I say faux, it’s only because the surface onto which we will create our image is not of traditional stamping material. But it will work nonetheless!

To start, a relief print happens when a flat surface such as a piece of linoleum or rubber (or in this tutorial’s case- styrofoam!) is carved or pressed into in a desired pattern or design and then the remaining surface is inked. This results in all the recessed areas staying ink-free (and thus taking on the color of whatever paper its printed on) and all flat surfaces get inked with desired ink colors. Sound confusing? It’s not!

Our first step is to gather all required materials for this process- you may find that you prefer some tools over another, but the objective of this project is to use things you might already have laying around or at least are easy to access.

  • flat pieces of styrofoam of any size (the ones we’re using are about 5″x5″, cut from discarded meat trays…washed well!!!)
  • Paper with your desired design or pattern drawn on it, same size as styrofoam piece
  • ballpoint pen
  • pencil
  • brayer (ink roller) or foam brush
  • a piece of cardboard covered in tinfoil, spare piece of glass from a pictureframe, etc. Just something flat to roll your ink onto.
  • Paper you want to print on (any color, but must be the same size or larger than your piece of styrofoam)
  • Acrylic ink, block printing ink, screen printing ink…just some kind of pigment

Things to remember:

  1. When creating your design, take care that it fits the size styrofoam piece you have available. That being said, it is possible to break a larger design into lots of smaller ones and then print them side by side. I’ll show an example of that later.
  2. It will print backwards! If you’re drawing a design that is “orientation-sensitive” (ex: has text, or things that need to stay in a specific orientation), you might want to scan it in somewhere and reverse it. You might want to make a copy of the drawing no matter what, because it will most likely get ruined during the process and you might want a backup
  3. Most printing inks are permanent so be mindful of what you’re wearing. Old oxfords make great smocks!
  4. Make sure you have access to water- you’ll want to rinse paint off your styrofoam and painting surface so it doesn’t dry and become permanently encrusted.

A little background info.:
The images I’ll be showing you are from a long-term project done with the town art program. We talked about what home means to us and developed imagery accordingly. I won’t include more description in that for privacy’s sake but you should know that these images fit into a larger project goal we’ll tell you about later! The village art program has developed similar imagery, and they will be eventually combined to create a group project.

Okay, let’s begin.

Step 1: Let’s assume you already have your image drawn. It’s on a larger paper than your styrofoam piece but the shape of your future printing-plate has been traced onto the paper so you know what your boundaries are. Similar to this:

The black and white image is simply a copy of the red drawing on 8.5×11″ paper

Step 2: Place your paper over the styrofoam and line them up together, then tape styrofoam square to the back to secure. (holding both pieces up to a light is helpful in lining things up)

Step 3: Flip your paper over so the drawing is on top and the styrofoam is on bottom. Now grab your ballpoint pen and trace over the image, pressing down into the styrofoam so you create an indentation. Don’t worry about ripping through the paper- it’s more important to press the image into the styrofoam!

Whatever lines you press into the styrofoam will “resist” the link , whatever remains flat will take on the ink color.

Step 4: Once you feel you’ve successfully traced your image into the styrofoam, take the paper and styrofoam apart. Now it’s time to run a test print!

After the image is carved, the styrofoam should be good and bumpy with the impression of your lines.


Step 5: Grab your tube of paint, your brayer (roller) a flat, washable surface such as a piece of glass, plastic, or cardboard covered in tinfoil, and the paper onto which you want to make your print. Squeeze out a bead of ink about 1/2″ by 4″ (or the width of the brayer) and start rolling your brayer through it, first in one direction and then in perpendicular motions. This is to ensure there’s an even spread of ink and you have neither too little nor too much ink on your roller. An alternative to this is to simply use a foam brush and ink your styrofoam piece that way. Test out different methods to see which way you like best!

Step 6: Once your roller (or foam brush) is covered with ink, roll over your styrofoam image with the image side up! Make sure the entire surface is covered, and not too much ink has globbed up the grooves that you just made with your pen. This will ensure a clean print. (picture to come)

Step 7: Place your piece of paper over the freshly inked image and rub with your palms, applying a bit of pressure and taking care to rub all corners and edges. (picture to come). When you’ve rubbed over the entire surface, peel the paper from the styrofoam and you have your print!

These two designs (bike and red sweater) were done by Ellie

It is entirely possible to skip the whole paper part of this process and go straight to drawing on styrofoam- the paper simply allows you to get your drawing just right before you start pressing into the material.

And don’t just print once…use this your printing plate over and over to try new colors, new paper, and even print on fabric. Have fun!

BONUS: My favorite spot in our new studio so far….I’ll post more pictures of it in action next time!