You can teach printmaking with a few packets of Knox gelatin, a few dollar store cookie sheets, and the paper and water-soluble paint available in most schools. Gel printing is an ultra-engaging and accessible way to create multi-hued, multi-layered prints that can be used by themselves or in collages or mixed-media pieces.
Social Justice Concepts
- Address topics and artists outside the canon.
- Engage in art-making that is inclusive and accessible to everyone.
CA Artist Connection
Artists Favianna Rodríguez and Poli Marichal use printing techniques such as this one to create images about Latinx themes. Show their work to older students so they can see how living artists “address identity, resistance and erasure concepts.”
Children’s Literature Connection
The Sweet and Sour Animal Book pairs poetry written by Langston Hughes for children with art made by 1st and 2nd graders at the Harlem School of the Arts. Reading a Harlem Renaissance poet is one way to introduce artists outside the canon. The animals seen in this book can be created using gel-printed textures, which is a technique accessible to all.
Gel Printing Technique Lesson
Here is the printable lesson: Gel Printing Lesson
Duration for Adults: 2 hrs minimum
Adult Objectives: Make several multicolored prints using the gel printing process. Create interesting textures using everyday objects.
Duration for Teens: 1-2 hrs
Teen Objectives: Make several multicolored prints using the gel printing process. Create interesting textures using everyday objects. Follow good ink management procedures.
Duration for Children: One hour minimum
Child Objectives: Make several multicolored prints using the gel printing process. Follow good ink management procedures. You might want to divide this activity in two 45-60 min sessions. One session for the introduction and just a little printing, and another for the bulk of the printing. This is because you will need time to demonstrate proper inking, the social skills involved during printing in the company of other people, and the need to drop everything once they hear the stop signal.
Prototype: Make some multicolored prints beforehand. Make sure the prints are not too complex.
For the lesson itself: 8.5 x 11 sheets of paper, one cookie sheet for every three students, water-soluble paint (tempera or acrylic or block printing ink) in several colors, one block printing roller for every cookie sheet. String, plastic combs, doilies or lace, dry flowers, small plastic objects. Thin dollar store cutting boards as inking plates, one for each cookie sheet.
For classroom management, collect: tarps or fabric with which to quickly cover the tables when you arrive. Rags or paper towels for cleaning as you go. Trash bags make great smocks for children 8 and younger.
Making the Gel Plates
Linda Germain has a nice short video on how to make gelatin plates. The plates don’t need to be thick (more than 1/2″) since you won’t take them out the cookie sheet for ease of transport. There is another type of gel plate recipe that calls for glycerin, but you won’t need it for this activity. Make sure you have room in your fridge, or you can make them two at a time over a few days.
Arrive at least 30 min before to set the printing stations. A printing station has an inking plate, a gel plate, a couple of rags and a roller. Each station will have one paint or ink color. The tables need to be covered with a tarp or at least paper. You will be the person administering the ink. To make things easy, keep the color the same at every station. If your students want to use another color, they can walk to the station with the color they want. Each station should have a small box or tray with texture-making objects. You should be the person collecting them and rinsing/drying them before they get placed in the box or tray. If the room has no running water, use a 5 gal bucket in which to dump the texture objects for rinsing.
Prepping the Room
I also like to place a bag or tray with a few texture objects at every table. I tell adult students to wash and dry texture objects after they use them so other students can use them too. Create a drying area by stringing some twine across the room. Each student will need at least two feet of line in which to hang their work. Binder clips or clothespins will hold the prints while they dry. If the nearest sink is a bathroom in a faraway hallway, create a cleaning station with two 5 gallon buckets half-filled with water, or two large tubs placed on a table. I use rags and sponges because paper towels get wasted and don’t last.
The Demo: How To Ink A Roller
The demo consists of how to ink the roller, because students of all ages tend to spread the paint or ink all over the inking plate. This accelerates drying and is wasteful. Stress the need to lift and reposition the roller at the end of each stroke. Even kindergarteners can learn this. Make a test print to show them the sequence, and show them how to hang it to dry.
Printing Studio Etiquette
How you do this will vary by age group. Adults can be given a simple handout. Teens and children need a large piece of paper with 3-5 ground rules. Students of all ages need to be reminded of how to wait for their turn (without touching anyone else or making anyone feel rushed), of the language to use when sharing materials (please, may I, thank you) and what you need to see to consider their work area “ready” for the next person:
- All tools have been cleaned and returned
- Tables and chairs have been wiped clean
- The floor has been swept
- Trash is in the trashcan
- My work has been put away
Procedure for Children
As soon as they arrive, have them write their names on each piece of paper they will use. Then bring everybody to a circle. To introduce this concept, begin with the prototypes. In this case, the more variation in them, the better they’ll give students an idea of what gel printing looks like. Explain that printing is a process (a series of steps in sequence), and that an image is transferred to paper. Compare it to drawing, where the image is made directly on the paper. To discourage ingestion of the gel plates, explain that gelatin “comes from the boiled bones of animals.” That should do it!
Printing will be a busy time and for your sake, things need to stay simple. Children should not use an in-room sink until the very end of the lesson, and only to wash their hands. You will need to stop the activity earlier or distribute another set of wet rags for them to wipe off most of the paint before they go to the bathroom. This keeps them busy and shortens the hand-washing time.
Give them a ten min warning before you need to stop, a five minute warning, and then make a sound (blow a whistle, ring a bell) to signal the absolute time to stop. Check that everyone has hung their prints to dry. Then remind them of the need to leave the printing station clean and their responsibility to participate in the cleanup. I like to recognize good helpers at the end of each class. If working with very young children, I recognize them as we go, so it is essential for me to know their names or give them name tags.
Procedure for Teens and Adults
As soon as they arrive, have them write their names on each piece of paper they will use. Show the prototypes, and if you have time, some lovely examples of uses for gel prints. Variety is key since students will be exploring the types of images one can make with gel plates.
Explain that printing is a process (a series of steps in sequence), and that in printing an image is transferred to paper. Compare it to drawing, where the image is made directly on the paper. Teens can be told that a goal of gel printing is to create interesting textures. Adults can also learn the difference between monotypes (one-of-a-kind prints) and series (several prints of the same image).
Teens and adults can call you when they notice an inking plate has dried up, but they are responsible for washing and drying the texture objects they use, and for placing them back for others to use. Teens shouldn’t be going to the bathroom during the lesson (too complicated and distracting). At the end, send them to do a final hand rinse, but you need to remind them to leave it all spotless.
Give everyone a ten min warning before you need to stop, then a five minute warning, and then make a gentle but loud sound (a bell?) to signal the absolute time to stop. Check that everyone has hung their prints to dry. Then remind the group of the need to leave the printing station clean and their responsibility to participate in the cleanup.
Discussion for Children
This is normally a very exciting activity for most kids. They will have lots to talk about when they are done. Children in 3rd grade an under will benefit from orally retelling the steps, either with each other or with you writing them on a board. If they have time they can individually write the steps as well. The stems “First we… Then we… Later, we … and Finally we…” can help. Don’t forget to model language using the terms you taught them, printmaking and texture.
You can frame process questions around the Studio Habits of Mind. You can use other children’s books, for example predictable or ABC books, as frames for a series of collages or multimedia pieces.
Discussion For Teens
Children in 4th grade and older will be more interested in what you can do with these prints. Perhaps that can be a group brainstorm or discussion. You can also take them into an analysis of the various results seen around the room. You can give them post its and they can write positive comments for their peers, with the rule that each piece can only get one comment. This will ensure no one is left without commentary. You can let them know you will be looking for comments that include some of the terms they have learned such as prints, printmaking and texture. If you would rather have them focus on their own artistic process, These stems can help.
Show the work of artists Favianna Rodríguez and Poli Marichal. Point out their use of printing techniques such as this one so they can see how living artists “address identity, resistance and erasure concepts.” If the room is too rambunctious, a writing task might calm them down. It can be the exit slip they need to transition to the next lesson.
Discussion With Adults
Start with the work of artists Favianna Rodríguez and Poli Marichal who each have nice portfolio sites that are easy to navigate. How do they address identity? What are they doing as artists to resist oppressive, systemic patterns? What do they strive to show that is not seen in mainstream media? The discussion could begin as part of a reflective quick-write or it can be a group brainstorm.
Adults can also reflect on the expectations they had for their own printmaking versus their actual experience. A nice conclusion to this activity is to learn how to sign these monotypes. It should be done in pencil, at the bottom, and because they are monotypes (every print is one-of-a-kind) only the title and the name of the artist should be included.