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

Let's do some gelatin printing! 

I love the experience of making a handmade gelatin plate and then printing an eclectic stack of hand-printed papers. These gelatin prints become the raw materials or fodder for art journal pages and collages.  Gelatin printing is like cut + paste therapy... calming, energizing, and focuses my mind. Printing is totally an act of creative flow. 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, index cards. art by tammy garcia.

gelatin prints, index cards. art by tammy garcia.

"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

Why make a gelatin printing plate?

I adore the fact that I am making authentic prints on real gelatin. A real gelatin plate is moist and cold, folks. It is a unique printing surface. I like the characteristics 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.

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 PRINTING process is the same, whether on a store-bought plate or an authentic handmade gelatin plate. BUT THE RESULTS WITH A HANDMADE PLATE ARE MORE NUANCED AND INTRIGUING.

How do you make a gelatin printing plate? Start by making Jell-O.

Ingredients + Materials

  • Unflavored gelatin, water
  • Disposable container with edges at least 2" tall. For example, a disposable aluminum lasagna pan or a jelly roll pan. If you use the gelatin plate with acrylics while in the container, remember not to re-use this pan for food.

There are many options for adding color to make your prints. 

  • 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. Significantly more intense & saturated color than the block printing inks above. They do not stain the fingers and will scrub off the brayer. They are available in a ton of colors and are totally mixable but much more expensive. Prints made with these paints have a ever-so-slightly glossy feel. When I teach gelatin printing to the kids at my daughters' school I use Liquitex BASICS heavy body acrylics. You might want to get the starter set plus some playful colors like PINK and a metallic like SILVER.
  • Golden or Liquitex Fluid Acrylics. Just as intense as the heavy body but a little more fluid, hence the name. 
  • Heavy card stock or bristol paper or index paper. My favorite base for gelatin prints is  100-110 pound weight bristol paper, white heavy card stock or index cards.
  • 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.
gelatin print, items from the garden. ART BY TAMMY GARCIA.

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

gelatin print, cheesecloth. ART BY TAMMY GARCIA.

gelatin print, cheesecloth. ART BY TAMMY GARCIA.

"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

Art escapades for middle & high school kids

I've taught several gelatin printing workshops for 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. The workshops take place over a two day period; a quick time slot to make the printing plates and talk about the process and about the wonders of gelatin, then allowing the plates to firm up. Then a half day of gathering items to use as masks, designing and considering and developing prints, lots of trial & error, mixing paints, etc. 

How to Make a Gelatin Printing Plate

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.

Make a print

There are about 8 gazillion ways to make a gelatin print. In other words, it's playtime!! I'll give you some starting points to get familiar and then you can take this in any direction you want! 

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. The areas you've masked [covered] 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. Be careful not to move the paper while you work, keep it in one place to get the best print. 

d) Be aware that the best prints are not necessarily the first prints! Sometimes they are nice and crisp. Sometimes they are goopy! Don't be dismayed. It is a game, this gelatin printing thing, so play as you go! As yourself "WHAT-IF?" questions. Try using an already printed card again with fresh paint. 

Gelatin printing is full of happy accidents

e) 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. You might dig the ghost best... or you might like the crisp lines of the first print.... or something in between!

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. Be careful not to  put water on your printing surface, it makes a big mucky mess and your prints won't be crisp any more.

Gelatin print, artwork by Tammy Garcia.

Gelatin print, artwork by Tammy Garcia.

Gelatin printing plate, artwork by Tammy Garcia.

Gelatin printing plate, artwork by Tammy Garcia.

Gelatin print, artwork by Tammy Garcia.

Gelatin print, artwork by Tammy Garcia.

Collaged gelatin prints, artwork by Tammy Garcia.

Collaged gelatin prints, artwork by Tammy Garcia.

Maintain your plate

a) Keep the 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... and that stack of prints 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. Sometimes the re-meltified gelatin has bits of paint in it. I find it SO easy to start fresh that I just make a new plate every few months and have fun and then let it go. 


How-To Tips for Gelatin Printing at Harborview Arts.
Some tips from the gelatin printing workshops I taught at my daughters' school