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daisy yellow

Art journaling essays, inspiration, video tutorials, altered books, creative prompts and the index-card-a-day ICAD challenge.

If You Can Make Jell-O You Can Make a Gelatin Printing Plate

"A sunset is always more beautiful when it is covered with irregularly shaped clouds, because only then can it reflect the many colours out of which dreams and poetry are made."
Paul Coelho

[Fully revised from original post in April 2013]

Like cut + paste therapy, gelatin printing is calming, energizing, and focuses my mind.  I use a handmade gelatin plate to build a treasure trove of hand-printed abstract papers to use in my collages and on my art journal pages. 2-3 times each year, I make a printing plate, make 50-ish prints, and time passes in a whiz-blur. Creative flow. Printing therapy.

It starts with curiosity, wondering what on earth will happen, playing around with surface masks, and the unpredictable, imperfect nature of the output.

Gelatin prints are one of the raw materials, so to speak, for my collage work, mail art, stitched collages, etc. So they feed other parts of my creative process. 

How to make a gel printing plate? Make jello. Yes. That's it. 

"Gelatin printmaking is a planographic process, which means one prints from a flat surface. It resembles traditional methods such a wood block, etching and lithography, in that one develops the image on a printing plate. Instead of copper, stone or wood, this method uses a plate made of gelatin. It is a beautifully simple non-toxic printing method which lends itself to the exploration of image-making with a great deal of freedom and invention."
Janice Wright

Francis S. Merritt invented the process of gelatin printing. 

After I make the printing plate {instructions below}, as it chills in the fridge I go into the garden and collect delicate little flowers, leaves on tiny stems, petals and pine fronds. I also use embroidery floss, thread and shapes cut from index cards. Stencils are also quite lovely with a gelatin plate.

The process is the same, whether on a store-bought plate or an authentic handmade gelatin plate.

gelatin print, cheesecloth. ART BY TAMMY GARCIA.

gelatin print, cheesecloth. ART BY TAMMY GARCIA.

gelatin print, items from the garden. ART BY TAMMY GARCIA.

gelatin print, items from the garden. ART BY TAMMY GARCIA.

gelatin prints, index cards. art by tammy garcia.

gelatin prints, index cards. art by tammy garcia.

gelatin print, thread, leaves. ART BY TAMMY GARCIA.

gelatin print, thread, leaves. ART BY TAMMY GARCIA.

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Ingredients + Materials

  • Unflavored gelatin, water
  • Disposable container with edges at least 2" tall; a jelly roll pan, disposable lasagna pan. Do not re-use this pan for food.

There are many options for adding color to make your prints. Really, try anything you like!

  • Speedball Water-Based Block Printing Inks. They stain your fingers but the stain does come off after a bit of scrubbing. You can wear thin gloves if you wish. The magenta and yellow are gorgeous. The dark green, not so yummy. The inks stay wet longer and are fairly inexpensive. My inks lasted about 3 years before separating in the tube. Prints made with these inks {which act like acrylics} have a matte feel. After using block printing inks for a year or two, I decided that I prefer heavy body acrylics or fluid acrylics for my prints, because I want the pages to have lush, intense color. 
  • Golden or Liquitex Heavy Body Acrylics. Golden or Liquitex Fluid Acrylics. Significantly more intense & saturated color. Does not stain the fingers and will scrub off. Wide variety of colors available. Totally mixable. Much more expensive. Prints made with these paints have a ever-so-slightly glossy feel.
  • Heavy card stock or bristol paper or index paper. I use 100-110 pound weight paper. 
  • Soft rubber brayer. I use a 2" Speedball soft rubber brayer. It's useful to have 2-3 brayers; you can have two colors of paint going and still keep another dry to rub the back of the paper.

To make the printing surface:

a) Start with a large box of unflavored gelatin. In the US, Knox gelatin comes in tiny packets in a large box. Make double strength jello {specifically, use half of the water in the recipe on the box}. In the US, the ratio is 2 tiny 1/4 ounce packets to 1 cup of water.  You'll want the plate to be at least 1" thick so that it has some bounce and is more sturdy. An easy trick? Pour water into your container until it reaches 1" and then measure the amount of water needed.

The quick math? 10 cups of gelatin = 10 cups of water + 20 tiny packets of unflavored gelatin.

In a large, flat container, larger than the paper you'll use for printing, pour in the powdered gelatin. Boil water. Pour it into the gelatin. Mix gently for about 5-10 minutes with a wooden spoon until gelatin dissolves.

b) Put the container in the refrigerator for about 2 hours. The gelatin will "set" and will feel like firm jell-o. At that point, you can cover it with a thin cloth and leave it in the fridge for a week or more. 

c) When you are ready to print, take the plate out of the refrigerator and put it on a table or kitchen counter.

Here's one way to make a print:

a) To get started, apply acrylic paint with your fingers and/or a brayer; this gives lovely variations in color. You can put more than one color on the plate. 

b) The general idea is to put items on the painted printing plate, and these items act as masks. For example: string, thread, embroidery floss, twigs, leaves, petals, tiny flowers, stencils. he areas you've masked will not print onto your paper.

c) Place a piece of card stock or bristol paper on top. Press firmly. Run a dry brayer over the back if you want really juicy detail. The paint stays wet, so you can run another print with a fresh piece of paper or run a piece of paper you already used, to get another layer of stuff.

d) Remove the little bits you placed on the plate and press another piece of cardstock to capture the "ghost" of the image, this is kind of the reverse, and it has interesting echoes and edges. This print will be significantly lighter than the first. Most people like the ghost best, but I like the intense crisp lines of the first print best.

e) When you want to change colors, clean your brayer with warm soap and water. Dry the brayer! This keeps paint from building up and keeps the brayer dry so that paint/ink adheres. Don't put water on your printing surface.

gelatin print. ART BY TAMMY GARCIA.

gelatin print. ART BY TAMMY GARCIA.

The painterly threads. 

The painterly threads. 

gelatin print. ART BY TAMMY GARCIA.

gelatin print. ART BY TAMMY GARCIA.

Why make a gelatin printing plate?

It's fun. I absolutely love the handmade plate, the fact that I am making authentic prints on real gelatin. This is also a wonderful activity for middle and high school kids; I've taught workshops to my daughters middle school class and the kids had SO MUCH FUN creating the plates, collecting items from the school garden to use as masks, and printing for hours.  I like the unique characteristics as well and the fact that I can make a plate in any size, just by changing the container. 

Karen of I am Rushmore compared the results and reading the post planted the idea of printing with the cheesecloth. Cheesecloth was in a bowl on the kitchen counter being dyed with espresso... right next to my stack of cardstock for printing. If you make the plate on a ginormous cookie sheet, you have the luxury of space to make two different prints at once.

mail art collaged postcards with gelatin prints 

mail art collaged postcards with gelatin prints 

gelatin prints, index cards. ART BY TAMMY GARCIA.

gelatin prints, index cards. ART BY TAMMY GARCIA.

Notes on maintaining your plate:

a) Keep your gelatin plate in the fridge when not in use. After an hour or two of use, return to the fridge for 30 minutes to get nice and chilly again!

b) The plate will keep for a few weeks but I usually make a plate, use it for a few days and then discard. The printmaking part is so addictive that I literally spend HOURS making prints in a flash. And that provides MONTHS of journal fodder. If you plan to leave it in the fridge, be sure to cover it or it will begin to dry out.

c) You can microwave the plate if it falls apart and place it back in a baking sheet to harden again. But...  I don't know what chemical reaction occurs when the little bits of paint remaining on the gelatin are microwaved. The re-meltified gelatin has bits of paint in it, and well, ugh. It's so easy to start fresh that I just make a new plate. 

Resources:

How-To Tips for Gelatin Printing at Harborview Arts.