Saturday Studio: What a Relief!

Alyssa Dumire, Director of Children’s Education

Now that the seasons have fully shifted from summer into fall, the first few frosts stopping most flowers from blooming, perhaps you’re already longing for the blossoms of spring. Or, maybe you’re energized by the crisp fall air and changing leaves! In any case, we’re looking to the prints of Kamisaka Sekka to gain inspiration from nature.

Kamisaka Sekka, Japanese, 1860-1942. Flowers from Chigusa. Woodblock print on paper. Gift of Wray C. McCalester, 2018.6. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Flowers is from Sekka’s first major series, Chigusa, commonly translated as A Thousand Grasses. Within the series, prints range from more detailed, true-to-life scenes to the flat color and bold, simplified flower motifs seen above. Sekka is known as the last major artist to work in the Rinpa style which began, and was most popular in, the 17th century, but revived during the 19th century. The most stereotypical Rinpa paintings depict simple, natural subjects against a shimmering gold background. Sekka’s woodcuts, produced in the late 19th and early 20th century, sometimes followed this traditional style. Other times, as in Flowers, his work was influenced by Rinpa but brought into the 20th century through modern touches like blocks of color. 

Inspired by Flowers, let’s try our hand at relief printing. Woodblock prints, perhaps Japan’s best-known art form, fall into this broader category of printmaking in which an image is carved into a surface, typically linoleum or wood, and ink is applied to the raised image that remains to produce a print. Rubber stamps produce a kind of relief print! In Flowers, Sekka has also put a modern twist on woodblock prints, playing with positive and negative space: rather than carving away the area around the image, leaving the subject in positive, the flowers are carved away, becoming more of a design element against the bold, color-blocked background. We can achieve a similar effect with recycled materials you probably have around your home!

You’ll need:

  • A washed and dried styrofoam tray or leftovers box (not the rougher kind of styrofoam sometimes used in packaging–it should be smooth)
  • Scissors
  • Pencil and paper (for sketching, optional)
  • Paper for printing
  • Pencil, ball-point pen, and/or other tools for scratching and carving
  • Brayer (rubber roller for printmaking), paint roller, or paintbrush (foam or bristle)
  • Printmaking ink or acrylic paint
  • A smooth surface for rolling your ink or paint, such as a scrap of plexiglass or a tray

First, prepare your printing plate by cutting a flat rectangle from your recycled piece of styrofoam. I used a meat tray (which was also used as a paint palette at some point), so I just needed to cut off the sloped edges.

If you’d like to sketch your design, trace around the cut piece of styrofoam onto your paper so you know the exact size. Once you begin working on the styrofoam you won’t be able to correct your mistakes, so keep this in mind when deciding whether you’d like to sketch! Also remember that your design will be reversed when printed.

Like Kamisaka Sekka, look to nature for inspiration! I drew a floral motif from one edge of the print to the other, but you might depict the changing autumn leaves or flowing water. TIP: The bolder the better! I found it difficult to transfer some of the finer details of my design to the styrofoam.

Now, scratch and press your design into the styrofoam. If you sketched, place your paper directly on top of the plate and use a pen or pencil to trace over your lines, pressing firmly enough that the design is scratched into the styrofoam, but not hard enough to tear your paper. Once the outlines of your design are transferred, pull away your sketch and scratch them deeper. You can use other tools like popsicle sticks to carve out larger areas of the plate. 

Remember: Whatever you carve away will be the color of the paper (probably white) in the finished print!

Once you’re happy with your design, it’s time to print! There are a couple options for methods to create a multicolored print…

For a gradient effect: Squeeze out two colors of paint onto your inking surface, side-by-side, then pick up a little from both with your roller at the same time. As you roll the ink into a smooth coating, shift the roller side to side slightly to allow the colors to blend together, then roll this onto your plate (if you’re working with a paintbrush, you can just paint your colors directly onto the plate in a thin coat–try not to let the paint build up in your carved lines). 

For more defined blocks of color: Cut the plate into your desired shapes, then apply a different color of paint or ink to each, and line them up on your paper when you print. 

For both methods: Work quickly so the paint doesn’t dry (you can mist it with a spray bottle if it starts to feel tacky), then press your paper on top evenly. You can use a wooden spoon or baren to transfer the ink, but your hands also work just fine (it doesn’t take too much pressure).

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