Teaching Printmaking ... Q&A session ...

Q: ... but I am most concerned with whether or not printmaking should be taught at all ... to students K-12 and university levels. Why should students learn about printmaking, especially in this age of technology? Any replies, short or long, would be appreciated. Maybe the answer is simple ... (from Kim Kaschimer Medina)

A: (from Dean Brink) Why is it important? It forces students to think in terms of a complicated process, rather than simply getting pigment to reflect light and make images on canvas. They learn about an art that straddles modern technology (not to mention consumerist culture) and the expressive arts.

Also, unlike painting or drawing, printing allows for reproduction of the "original" so to speak. The children become empowered by being able to think in terms of reproducing pieces that express their outlook, may disseminate ideologically engaged materials (youthful angst), and of course that are more salable (cheaper to buy, as well as more easily reproduced by the artist).

A: (from Ray Hudson) I found it the most rewarding of any art projects with kids in grade school and high school. Whether it was dipping string and leaves in glue and dropping them on cardboard, letting them dry, running an inked brayer over them and printing, or wood and lino cuts, there was something about the transfer of image that produced immediate success. Kids who were nervous about drawing or painting, could, in a sense, blame the plate for failures and accept the unique successes as their own.

Few kids could produce fine lined prints and so we had to concentrate on the drama of color and larger shapes. Sometimes we used wooden spoons or student barens to print with; later, I was able to talk the school into buying a good sized press, but that was almost more work than it was worth for most students. Print making was also a way to make decorative papers that we then used in creating "homemade" sketchbooks, etc.

A: (from Gayle Wohlken) I did a demonstration of woodblock printmaking in a classroom at Kent State University's Geauga County Campus and found the students completely taken up by the process. I think anyone who gets those little knives and gouges into their hands finds a relationship with the wood they hadn't imagined. And finally, the pulling of the print - the unwrapped gift - the exclamations, sighs, giggles even. As they left the room I heard their plans being discussed with excitement. More than one copy!!! They were going to buy wood! They had an idea they couldn't wait to try! What if they turned the paper to the other side? What if the next time they try a different color on the same block, but only at the top? I saw creativity awakened.

A: (from James Mundie) Forgive me for disbelieving that there is any question as to whether printmaking should be taught in the schools. "Age of technology"? Printmaking is one of the original technologies (think Gutenberg) and - as Dean mentioned - still one the most technically demanding methods of mark making!

In my own experience teaching printmaking at the elementary school and college level, printmaking was both the most challenging and rewarding exercise for those students. My findings match Ray Hudson's exactly.

Printmaking requires an entirely different way of thinking and reverse engineering. The mental aspect of printing alone has helped my students in many of their non-artistic studies, enabling them to reason beyond the obvious.

If you think printmaking is obsolete in this technological age, then why paint or draw either? Why teach children any of these things? The reasons to continue to do these things is obvious. Technology itself cannot replace good handcraft.

Let us not forget that this "age of technology" is influencing printmaking itself (look at all the folks on this forum using their computers to help design their prints. Think how the introduction of acid-etching changed the world of metal engraving or movable type influenced calligraphy ... boxwood endgrain ... Japanese color woodblock ... lithography ... etc., etc.

A: (from Andrea Rich) It wasn't until I discovered printmaking in college however that I really understood what it was to be an artist. With printmaking I learned that I needed a plan, a composition. To create one I had to have an idea or image I wanted to communicate. I learned that once I had a composition it had to be executed with care and forethought, that each mark on the final print would be there because I put it there. It was intended, considered, concrete. Not a vague idea or happy accident. The planning and forethought were what made it my unique expression.

As for teaching, I have had occasions to teach multiple color woodblock printing to children as young as 7 years old. Real wood, real tools. They come into my studio believing they can't do it. So we start, and I show them that they can. They draw, they carve, they print, then they do it again and again. Their prints are wonderful. Their parents are amazed. These children have really accomplished something and they are proud of themselves. I am told my class (offered though the counties Cultural Council) is the most popular and asked for of the dozens offered. Students call asking if they can take it again. The point is that they have learned about printmaking but also about themselves. That they are creative and that they can solve difficult problems and learn difficult skills and that it is more fun that work to do it.

Is it worth teaching? Yes.

A: (from April Vollmer) Printmaking is so important to teach...mainly because it gives a clear forum for talking about technique. You can't talk about 'meaning' in the abstract! Printing gives a structure to how to create an image and how to talk about creation that kids especially need. I need it myself!

A: (from Mary Krieger) Why teach printmaking in schools and universities?

Teaching specific subjects, whether it's algebra or printmaking, generally has two types of justification. One is that you will need this information when you are out in the 'real world'. For example, math skills enable people to understand their bank statement. The second explanation argues that something inherent in the teaching of the subject enables students to learn ways of learning or thinking about the world.

Printmaking has some real world advantages. If a person learns how to make prints, they can make prints. Perhaps this is the advantage you see diminished by new technologies. Someone is unlikely to go to the work of making a print to advertise their garage sale when they could print off as many signs as they want from their computer printer. There are still some objects that will not go through a computer printer so that printmaking maintains some real world validity. The stencilling of floors and walls that has experienced a recent revival is a printmaking technique and silkscreening is still the method of choice for producing T-shirts celebrating your favorite cause.

The stronger argument for teaching printmaking is the contribution it makes to the ability of students to learn and understand new skills. Printmaking enables students to experience an indirect method of working. When making a block, the artist has to predict how changes in the block will change the final print. The exact effect is not known until the block is printed. Based on the new information from the print, the artist revises the block and prints again. This is the "scientific method" embodied in an expressive art. It also models a good life skill - your actions have a direct effect on outcomes and you can achieve success by modifying your actions based on previous experience.

The traditional methods of printmaking (woodcut, intaglio, stone lithography and silkscreen) have all been used over time as commercial printing methods. The present day commercial and high tech methods are identical in principle to those in the traditional techniques. Get the ink on the paper in a particular predetermined form and repeat it as many times as possible. One could argue that today's schools have incorporated printmaking into almost every faculty and subject by expecting their students to use computers to generate all their printed assignments. Every public or private school with a computer lab has set up their own little printshop. Printmaking is impossible to stop.

My final thought for this post is a more personal and perhaps emotional reason. Printmaking has given me such interesting experiences and continues to challenge me the longer I explore it that I wish to have others able to do the same. The shock of recognition on the face of a student when they pull the first print from their first block and find out that the image really is backwards is the same whether they are in Grade 1 or first year University. Printmaking continues to offer society something worth having and I hope that it continues to be taught and adopted by new artists in the future.

A: (from Jean Eger) I think teaching printmaking is meaningful because printmaking is not just an art form: it's also an important medium for communication because it usually involves multiples. I think of printmakers as the communicators of the art world. A printmaking teacher enables his or her students to communicate with numerous people through visual means. The fact that printmaking involves now-obsolete forms of mass communication gives it a significant history as a political tool as well as an artistic expression.

Prints have unique aesthetic qualities that paintings and sculpture do not have. The combination of ink with quality paper provides a sensuality that can be well understood by both the seasoned printmaker and the beginning student. Each printmaking medium has its own inherent aesthetic strengths that aid even the beginning student to produce quality art work. Studying the boldness of screenprinted posters, the sensitivity of a Rembrandt etching, and the compositional skill and elegance of the Japanese woodblock print increases the wide range of human experience that can be communicated by the printmaker.

A: (from Jeremy Hurley) Printmaking is one of those magical things where the enjoyment of the process and product are inextricably linked. I have never once in many years of teaching found a student who doesn't get hooked on the enormous satisfaction of cutting a block - whether lino or wood.

Block printing is like walking barefoot. You are connected. It's also the best way I know of getting students to appreciate a craft process - the skill, care and patience required to do it well. It's interesting that students will often be more keen to keep the cut block than the print. What an antidote to working with the virtual blandness of a keyboard and a screen!

A: (from Barbara Mason) I have been teaching printmaking to kindergarten through high school kids for the last 10 years as a volunteer. Sadly funding for the arts has all but disappeared and schools are relying more and more on practicing artists to come in and give the kids an experience they would not otherwise have. My personal experience is that most of them love it and are so excited about what they make. The processes I use are all water soluble and the results are always amazing. These kids are so creative they put me to shame. There are always a few in middle school who think they are too cool to try it, but they usually get hooked and end up liking what they do. I love printmaking and I love teaching what I know.

A: (from Kristy Jane) I have just received my BFA with a concentration in printmaking, relief especially, and I often asked myself, when I felt I had chosen something too complicated and difficult for the amount of appreciation from the public, why am I not painting or doing graphic design. Then I realized that things are made too easy in this time we are living in, embrace the opportunity to learn something underappreciated and complex. Give it life. Make people look at something you actually had to make from start to finish all by yourself, no help from computers, only your hands and wood. There is art beyond the technical reality, art in a natural reality. Children especially need to know this.

A: (from Tracy Schwartz) As a graphics major at a university I have discovered a growing dependency on digital software as a single means of art creation and reproduction. Many students are ignorant of the more purist process of Block printing, intaglio, and planography. Due to this lack of exposure to these processes, many students are deficent in composition analysis, drawing skills, hand skills, in general methodological problem solving. I fear that taking the 'art' out of graphic design, we are creating a generation of computer software experts instead of producing creative artisans.

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