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Printmaking Doesn’t Bite | Arts & Activities
Oct 2015

Printmaking Doesn’t Bite

Printmaking Doesn’t Bite

It seems that far too many art teachers are scared of printmaking. Printmaking doesn’t bite, it doesn’t have bad breath, and I’m fairly certain it doesn’t have cooties. Printmaking is fun. Printmaking is exciting.

Two years ago, I made it a goal to create scaffolded printmaking lessons for each of the five grade levels I teach. I want my art room to be an exciting place to learn, and introducing the use of many different media keeps student interest and engagement high.

I have found that students particularly love printmaking. The most popular printmaking lesson I teach is a three-color reduction print lesson for fourth grade, which I typically teach between winter break and the end of the school year. It is fairly lengthy (six to seven 45-minute classes), so I like to build up to it. The project is designed around advanced printmaking skills, as well as the art of Andy Warhol.


Nico’s snake slithers across warm-color backgrounds.

Students begin the project by discussing several examples of Warhol’s work. We talk about his pop-culture influences, his use of color, and his overall process. The last pieces we investigate are several images from his “Cow” series.

When I tell my students they will be creating animal portraits that will be printed using three colors, they are immediately eager to get to work. They know they will be creating an awesome series of prints. In fact, this is one of those projects that students look forward to several years before getting to work on it.

By this point, my students have done a simple stamping project in first grade, a one-color foam print in second, and a collagraph print in third grade. In fourth grade, my goal was to take a familiar material and push it to the limit. This lesson uses the same foam material from my second-grade lesson. Each student gets a 6″ x 9″ piece to work with.

Before students dive into the foam, they first need to create a killer drawing. I don’t think this project would have the same impact if the drawings weren’t as good. I’m a big proponent of reference material. I want my students to draw what they see, as opposed to what they think they know. Prior to teaching this lesson, I always raid the library for books about animals, insects and dinosaurs. Each student gets to select a book of his or her choice. I have students trace their foam on the sketch paper and draw their animal portraits as large as they can within that rectangle.

Once students have a great drawing, the next step is to transfer part of the drawing to the foam. The drawing is taped to the foam and students use a small wooden tool to press only the silhouette of the animal into the foam. The sketch is carefully removed (and saved for later) and students press the silhouette in a bit more to ensure a good quality print.


Mohamed missed one day of printing, and kept his finished two-color work as is.

Since this is a reduction print lesson, the idea is to build up color as parts of the foam are gradually removed. On the first day of printing, students each print three times. These first day prints are essentially a background color with the outline of the animal. The final presentation of the work will use two prints, so this gives students a better chance of getting two high quality images.


Charvi’s two best prints were cut out and glued to black paper for presentation.

After the first day of printing is finished, students place their sketches back on the foam, press in the details of their animals, then cut off any negative space surrounding the animal. The animal is then printed with a contrasting color directly onto the dried outline prints students made on the first day of printing. This is when the true impact of the project becomes visible. My students are giddy with excitement as they show each other their work. It’s a thrilling day for everyone.

The next step is to again cut off more of the printmaking foam in order to print a third color. I ask the students to pick something that makes sense to be different color than the rest of the animal. For example, in my demonstration piece I drew a rhinoceros. I cut off the horns because they are visually different than the rest of the animal. Students often choose noses, eyes, horns, or beaks. These are printed on same paper used on the previous two printing days. At this point, the prints are finished and left to dry until the next class.

The final step of this project is presentation. Students look at all three of their prints and choose the two best. The prints are carefully cut out and mounted side by side on black paper. Students then write an artist statement about what they created as well as what they learned while working on the project. The results I get from this lesson are outstanding. The sense of pride is incredibly evident when my 4th graders see their work displayed in the hallways.


Close-up of one of Mason’s zebra prints.

While this isn’t the quickest lesson to teach, I have a few tricks to help it run smoothly. First, I always demonstrate each step along the way. This is important for all of my visual learners as well as those who aren’t as familiar with my printmaking procedures. Next, I set up printing stations on the counters around the exterior of my room so students have plenty of room to move around. I tried putting the stations on the student tables once and it made it much more difficult to work. Finally, by fourth grade, my students are very familiar with printmaking. Since it isn’t a new media, they adapt very quickly to a more difficult process.

This lesson is definitely a keeper for me. It could be simplified for younger students by using fewer colors. Alternately, it could be extended by requiring specific color relationships or even connecting it to the classroom science curriculum. Any way you use it, I bet it will be a hit. With a little practice, you’ll see that printmaking lessons aren’t scary. The results from this lesson are certainly worth the effort.

Elementary students will …
become familiar with the processes of creating a reduction print.
create three complete three-color prints.
view and discuss the artwork of famous pop artist Andy Warhol.
reflect about their artwork by writing an artist statement.

Creating: Conceiving and developing artistic ideas and work.
Responding: Understanding and evaluating how the arts convey meaning.
Connecting: Relating artistic ideas and work with personal meaning and external context.


Sketches, tools for pressing into the foam, and foam cut apart into pieces were used throughout the printing process.

8.5″ x 11″ sketch paper
9″ x 12″ all-purpose art paper
9″ x 6″ Scratch-Art Scratch-Foam
Water-based block-printing ink, brayers, Plexiglas
10″ x 13″ black construction paper

Zach Stoller is an art educator at Griffith Thomas Elementary School in Dublin, Ohio. Visit his classroom blog at thomaselementaryart.blogspot.com

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