Styrofoam Printmaking Art Lesson
Try out this class friendly styrofoam printmaking art lesson inspired by musical instruments and the Harlem Renaissance! My students loved the art and music connections and there is nothing like the magic of printmaking. I set up printing stations in the back of my classroom and it usually takes three days for a class of 25 to pull three prints.
This tutorial is classroom ready and will describe every step of the styrofoam printmaking process. I always start by showing my students the very end, where I pull three prints. Sometimes printmaking can be confusing to students, and this helps them understand the end result of this process. I always emphasize that printmaking is a PROCESS!
Styrofoam Printmaking Materials
Styrofoam is a great solution to printmaking when you don’t have a printing press in your classroom. It is affordable and super easy to work with. I used these scratch foam boards, but you can also use styrofoam plates. These worked well because they were convenient and pre-cut.
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I stuck to black block printing ink, but you can do it with acrylic paint in a pinch. Paint doesn’t have the tacky qualities of block printing ink, so you won’t get the fine details that you would with printing ink. Purchasing printmaking supplies can be an expensive investment at first. I only have six sets of brayers and inking trays, but I prefer to print in small groups so it works for my setting.
Styrofoam Printmaking Steps
Draw Instrument & Background
The first step is drawing your image on a piece of paper that is the same size as your styrofoam printing plate. My students were nervous about drawing instruments, so lot’s of encouraging words and images helped their confidence. I print out (and laminate #2021) simple images of musical instruments for them to look at while drawing. Searching for black and white clip art simplifies the instruments so students can just focus on line and shape.
The biggest trend with students is to draw the instrument TINY! I start by demonstrating putting a tick mark towards the top and then towards the bottom of their paper to give them a size reference. Even still, many students shrunk their instruments. That also prevents tracing, which students want desperately to do with the handout sitting teasingly in front of them. Depending on your particular group, tracing may not be a horrible idea. If you are looking for a tough group of students to feel successful, this is the answer. All groups of students have a wide range of abilities, and isn’t the point for students to experience success in art?
Once students are happy with their instruments, it’s time to focus on backgrounds! We start the course with Zentangle pattern making so they are pros at this point. We listen to a broad range of music while drawing. Miles Davis and Louis Armstrong are my favorite, and students love picking out the musical instruments they hear. Line variety here is key, and make sure students make some lines thin and create emphasis by thickening lines around their musical instrument.
Trace Drawing Onto Styrofoam
After students are happy with their image, it’s time to transfer it to the styrofoam! I give each student enough masking tape to tape the top and bottom. I used red and blue pens because I had a ton of them laying around. The key here is to use something that looks different than the pencil lines. You have to see which lines you have traced and which you haven’t.
It is important to mention here that this is the FIRST time students will trace their image. The lines won’t be deep enough to create a nice print from just this image transfer. I always remind students that printmaking is a process, not just a drawing. This step is to ensure they are transferring their image so they can carve the image they are happy with later. Students loved tracing and then pulling their paper back to see their lines. They were also a little dramatic about their hand hurting from pressing down so hard. That’s why it’s called artWORK, right? 🤣
Carve Lines Directly into Styrofoam
At the end of a unit, I like to have students answer this reflection question: If you could give a student advice that had never done this technique before, what would you tell them? Overwhelmingly students responded that carving deep lines directly into the styrofoam was essential to a quality print. I wanted to yell I TOLD YOU SO!!! but I held back. We used the same pens as before, but you can use any material as long as it’s carved deeply. I was afraid that students would cut through the styrofoam but we had zero incidents using this Scratch Board.
I LOVE the first day of printmaking. There is such a fun energy in the room and I love putting students in charge of the stations. I set up four stations in the back of my classroom using two folding tables (or extra desks if I have them) covered in newspaper. We start printing while most students have not finished tracing and carving their lines. I select four students that I know will make great helpers later in the class period. I always re-show the printmaking video from the 8:00 mark until the end and allow plenty of time for questions. The first day is always the slowest with the smallest amount of students printing.
I monitor the printmaking station as students select their paper and ink they styrofoam for the first time. It is so important for students to have a dirty and clean area at all times. The dirty area is where they will apply the ink with the brayer, and the clean area is where they will put their paper and pull their prints. There will ALWAYS be students who just have a hot mess station at all times. They learn fast when their paper is covered in ink before they even pull a print!
We start with a white piece of paper, usually scratch paper leftover from the copy room or cheap paper donated to my classroom. This is the test print and will help students understand how much ink they should use and how much pressure they should use with their hand. This step is SO SO important. Because this process does not use a printing press, their hand will be what transfers their ink to the paper. I like to dramatically demonstrate pressing my palm around the edges of the print and around the instrument itself.
After the test print, they print on their watercolor textured papers. We used this watercolor and crayon resist technique to create them, and it was such a nice break from drawing instruments a couple days into the unit.
I have found that often, but not always, their second print was their best. Since they had an emotional attachment to these paper since they created them, we did this second to hopefully ensure a good or best print on them. Last students were given one piece of colorful construction paper for a final print. A solid color works so well with styrofoam printing since it is so line and pattern based.
After a student successfully printed three times, I sent another student to their station and they became “the teacher”. Of course I was always looming over their shoulders, but it made my art teacher heart so happy to hear them guiding and encouraging their classmates as they printed. I try to be strategic with how I pair students and who gets a leadership role first. I am always happily surprised watching the students who are reserved in class come alive when they are helping another classmate print.
Doing this in a pandemic is a little trickier, but I didn’t change my procedures all that much. Students already wear masks 100% of class time and have a seating chart for contact tracing. I just needed to be particular about which students printed together based on my seating chart.
The “why”, or the meat of this styrofoam printmaking lesson is jazz and the Harlem Renaissance. We start the unit by looking at the jazz inspired collages by Romare Bearden. There are plenty of artists that could be used, but there is something about his bright colors I’ve always loved. I have a daily warm-up that students complete in their sketchbooks as soon as they walk into the classroom. The bellwork is always a simple reaction, responding to a question, making observations, comparing and contrasting, reflecting and other activities related to Feldman’s Method of Art Criticism.
I also love showing Faith Ringgold’s story quilts. She was a child during the Harlem Renaissance, but Jacob Lawrence, Aaron Douglas and Duke Ellington lived near her family. Can you imagine? My husband and I recently watched HBO’s Black Art: In the Absence of Light documentary which was FANTASTIC. It has wonderfully candid interviews with Faith Ringgold and her experience being a Black woman artist in a post Harlem Renaissance world. She spoke directly about Romare Bearden, a leader in this movement, not accepting her artwork. If you are interested in American art, this is a must watch.
I wish I had a free resource to share with you to help introduce this sensitive and impactful moment of art history. I use Flocabulary’s Harlem Renaissance video and it is excellent, but not free. My school pays for a subscription and the music video they created is catchy and filled with information. There is something powerful about hearing Black voices describe in song what segregation looked like in our not so distant past. I am a white educator in a non-diverse school district, and it is the authentic voice and viewpoint my students need. I get chills every time I watch it.
If you have an awesome classroom friendly video about the Harlem Renaissance, please please PLEASE share it with me!
Thank you for checking out this styrofoam printmaking lesson- happy art making!
I really love this styrofoam printmaking art lesson, but I have also done this same unit with collograph printing. Check out the details here!
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