Docent Dialogue: Kitchen Lithography with the Docent Corps

Katy Thompson, Children’s Education Associate

One of the most difficult jobs a docent has on a tour is breaking down an artistic process that is not easily visible in an artwork. No matter if that audience is young or old, any method an artist uses that is not easily discernible, unlike a painting or a drawing, requires a discussion on process. You may think, why not just skip the process and talk about what we see? The process not only produces what we see but often dictates how we see it, especially in printmaking.

Director of Children's Education Alyssa Dumire begins her explanation of Kitchen Lithography to the group of gathered docents.
Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education, begins to walk the docents through the steps of Kitchen Lithography. Photo courtesy of FWMoA.

In our Art Term Tuesday posts, we have defined two printmaking techniques: engraving and stone lithography. This double vocabulary lesson underscores the tricky part of explaining printmaking, that it isn’t confined to one technique. Printmaking is the process of creating multiple artworks by printing, usually on paper, in one of four techniques: relief, intaglio, lithography, and screenprinting. After watching a few videos on the process of lithography we realized that wasn’t going to be enough. We decided it was time to print! But how? FWMoA doesn’t have etching stones, chemicals like talc and resin, or a printing press. Enter kitchen lithography.

Kitchen lithography is the process of using everyday items you would find in your kitchen, like aluminum foil and soda, to make a print.

You’ll need: a hard, smooth surface (we used cut up pieces of Plexiglas), aluminum foil, duct tape, greasy writing implements (like a litho crayon, china marker, permanent marker, or soft graphite), large bowls/tubs or a large sink, sponges, soda, water, paper towels, oil-based paint or oil-based printing ink, a brayer (a roller), a baren (or wooden spoon), and paper. We also suggest latex gloves and an apron if you don’t want to get messy!

First, docents began by wrapping squares of Plexiglas in aluminum foil.

Docents wrapped their Plexiglas in aluminum foil, like so.
Docents wrapped their Plexiglas in aluminum foil, like so.

There are a couple of important parts to this step:

Try not to touch the top side of the foil as you wrap it around your hard surface (the Plexiglas). If you do, the oils always present on your fingertips and hands (the reason for our number 1 rule here at the art museum!) will adhere to the surface and show up on your final print. If you are worried about contaminating your surface, we suggest using gloves!

MASTER PRINTMAKER TIP: If you are doing this with small children, however, and want to immortalize their handprint, then touch away!

The shiny side of the aluminum foil should NOT be showing. You want to be drawing your image onto the dull side.

Docents then used duct tape to seal the aluminum foil around the Plexiglas, like wrapping a present. This ensures that no soda or water gets in underneath the drawing surface.

Once they prepared their drawing surface, docents used lithography, or litho, crayons to draw their image onto their aluminum foil. The litho crayons are the greasy surface that will be protect the foil from the acid of the coke.

After they were satisfied with their drawing, docents then rinsed their drawing surface with soda. The soda mimics the chemicals in lithography and makes the foil receptive to water. It is important to remember here that the grease of your drawing and the ungreased surface, where there is no drawing, are being marked. Therefore, cola should be rinsed over the entire surface to ensure that the etched and un-etched portions are differentiated.

MASTER PRINTMAKER TIP: Um, my drawing disappeared? It should! It will be brought back to the surface in subsequent steps.

The image shows how the drawing disappears thanks to the mixing of chemicals.

After pouring cola to etch their drawings onto the surface, docents rinsed their drawings with water.

MASTER PRINTMAKER TIP: Initially, when we first experimented with this, we had an additional step of coating the images in vegetable oil to help the etching process. After some trial and error, we realized the vegetable oil was reacting negatively with the surface and causing the ink to smear over the drawing, instead of staining it.

Following this, docents used sponges to dampen the surface so the greasy ink only sticks to the drawing.

They then applied oil paint by rolling it onto their drawing surface with a brayer. After a couple of rolls, it was finally time to print!

To print, docents laid a piece of paper on top of their inked drawing and pressed down, either with a spoon or a baren (the large circular tool).

MASTER PRINTMAKER TIP: Be sure to hold your paper down when you are applying pressure so it doesn’t move around too much. To apply more pressure, add an extra piece of paper on top of your print so you can move the paper around and apply pressure evenly. We also suggest using a wooden spoon, instead of a metal kitchen spoon, because it covers a larger surface and creates a more even dispersal of ink.   

Examine the finished prints below!

Some are lighter than others, this is due to the amount of ink rolled onto the image before printing and/or how hard the docent pressed down on their image when transferring ink to paper. Prints can be realistic or abstract! Which docents chose to make realistic images versus abstract images?

You may notice some of the docent’s drawings are colored but their end prints are all black. That’s because the ink we printed with was black. The ink determines the color, not the drawing material.

One of our docents decided to write a word on her print. She, however, forgot one of the cardinal rules of printmaking! Your print is transposed backwards, therefore, her print reads MAB.

Want to try it out on your own? We’ve included links to our favorite videos showing the process of lithography. A quick YouTube search of “Kitchen Lithography” will yield a variety of videos, let us know any tips you discover!

Suggested videos: MoMA’s Pressure + Ink series and Artists’ working with a Master Printmaker

3 Replies to “Docent Dialogue: Kitchen Lithography with the Docent Corps”

  1. So, to complete your thought on use of oil, did you finally dispense with oil altogether? Haven’t heard this about kitchen litho. Does it affect the final printing?

    1. Hi! If you are referring to the vegetable oil, then yes, we stopped using it. We found that it was reacting negatively with the surface and smearing the ink. Therefore, to answer your second question, yes! We found it affected the final printing because it led to smearing, whereas the coke kept the lines clear and concise.

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