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

"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

If you can make Jell-O you can make a DIY 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 as calming and energizing as cut + paste therapy, even meditative! 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 print on index card by Tammy Garcia https://daisyyellowart.com

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 of a DIY gel plate 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 - with the same color palette, for example. Or two variations simultaneously. 

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.

Gelatin print by Tammy Garcia, https://daisyyellowart.com

The PRINTING process is the same, whether on a store-bought plate or an authentic handmade gelatin plate. But in my experience results with a handmade gel plate are more nuanced and intriguing.

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

Ingredients + Materials

  • Unflavored gelatin, water, wooden spoon

  • 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.

  • Materials for masking and making texture, such as tiny scraps of paper, small flowers & twigs, petals, leaves, string, embroidery floss, stencils, etc.

  • Heavy card stockbristol paper or index paper. My favorite base for gelatin prints is 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 2 colors of paint going and still keep another dry to rub the back of the paper.

Gelatin print by Tammy Garcia, https://daisyyellowart.com
Gelatin print by Tammy Garcia, https://daisyyellowart.com

Color Options

Try a bunch of mediums with your gelatin plate and see what works for you with the look & feel you're trying to achieve.

  • Golden Fluid Acrylic PaintPrints made with these paints have a slightly glossy feel. When I started gel printing I used Speedball block printing inks but after using them for few years and testing acrylic paints as a printing medium, I definitely prefer fluid acrylics or Liquitex BASICS [see below] for my prints, because I the color is more lush & intense and the texture not as rough. 

  • Speedball Water-Based Block Printing Inks. These inks are probably the most popular for gelatin printing and used them for several years. The magenta and yellow are gorgeous. The dark green is kind of olive camouflage. The metallics are cool! Definitely get the black because it stays wet longer than acrylics.

    • The pros? The inks stay wet longer and are inexpensive. Prints made with these inks {which act like acrylics} have a matte feel. The ink can capture lovely details. The ghosts [later prints] are great. 

    • The cons? The ink colors are not as vibrant as the Golden or Liquitex acrylics. The ink stains your fingers but the stain comes off after a bit of scrubbing. So wear thin gloves if you wish. 

  • Golden or Liquitex Heavy Body Acrylics. Significantly more intense & saturated color than the Speedball printing inks. 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.

  • Try splattering a bit of india ink onto your paint for vibrant, organic dots & marks. 

Gelatin print w/ Traci Bautista stencil.

Gelatin print w/ Traci Bautista stencil.

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"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

Yup! 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. If possible, I do the workshops over a two day period; on the first day we talk about the process and wonders of gelatin printing and make the actual printing plates and put them in the refrigerator to firm up. That afternoon - or the next day - we spend a half day gathering items to use as masks, designing, considering and developing prints, throw in a bunch of laughter and 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 Gelatine comes in tiny packets within in a large box. Look at the directions on the box and use HALF of the water called for in the recipe. [Another way to look at it is to use DOUBLE the gelatin called for in the recipe.] In the US, the ratio is 2 tiny 1/4 ounce packets to 8 ounces of water.  

how much gelatin will you need? keep reading!

b) Find a large, flat container to be the shell for your gelatin plate. From this point forward, don't use it for food! 

You can use a ceramic dish or jelly roll pan with a tall edge or even easier, a disposable aluminum turkey roasting pan! 

You'll want the plate to be at least 1" thick so that it has some bounce and is more sturdy. Since I'm always using a different container - and at school they have varying sizes - I measure how much water it takes to fill a container 1" to 1  1/2" high. That's how much water I know I'll need for that particular plate -- and then I back into the powdered gelatin amount. 

If the sheet is really large and thin, it will be delicate, so be sure that it's at least 1.5 - 2" thick so it can be transferred from container to table. 

You'll also want the container to be larger than the paper you'll be printing!

c) Pour the powdered gelatin into the pan. Boil the water.

d) Pour the water into the gelatin. Mix gently with a wooden spoon for about 5-10 minutes until gelatin dissolves. Keep mixing, and gradually and most of the little blobs of gelatin will dissolve. 

e) Let the container cool down a bit and then put in your 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 few weeks. To refresh or repair your plate, see maintenance notes at the bottom of the article. ⤵️

f) When you are ready to print, take the plate out of the refrigerator and put it on a table or counter. Most folks take the plate out of the container to work, but that's totally up to you. I often keep it in the container to contain some of the mess.

How to Make a Gelatin Print

There are 8 gazillion ways to make a gelatin print. And that's the fun of it, folks! 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 to the gel plate by rolling on the paint with a rubber brayer. You can add other colors or smears of paint with your fingers to add extra variations . You can also put more than one color on the plate. You'll want the paint to be fairly flat and not lumpy and thick. 

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 with your hands. Run a dry brayer over the back to get really juicy detail. The paint will remain wet, so you can run another print with a fresh piece of paper or run that same paper again... 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. But sometimes they are gloopy! Don't be dismayed! This is a big game! As yourself "WHAT-IF?" questions.

e) Try using an already printed card again with fresh paint to get some cool layered effects.

f) Remove the little bits of paper or thread or leaves that you had placed on the plate and then 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 like the ghost best... or you might like the crisp lines of the first print.... or something in between! 

g) When you want to change colors, clean your brayer gently 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 printing is full of happy accidents

Gelatin plate by Tammy Garcia, https://daisyyellowart.com
Gelatin prints by Tammy Garcia, https://daisyyellowart.com
Gelatin printing plate by Tammy Garcia, https://daisyyellowart.com 

Gelatin printing plate by Tammy Garcia, https://daisyyellowart.com 

Gelatin print, artwork by Tammy Garcia.

Gelatin print, artwork by Tammy Garcia.

Gelatin printing plate by Tammy Garcia.

Gelatin printing plate by Tammy Garcia.

Collaged gelatin prints, artwork by Tammy Garcia.

Collaged gelatin prints, artwork by Tammy Garcia.

TIPS FOR MAINTAINING your Gel plate

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

b) The plate will keep for a few weeks in the fridge 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, cover it or it will dry out.

c) If the plate dries out a little [but not completely], or if it cracks/tears or you drop it on the floor [yup, that's me!]  all is not lost! Refresh|rejuvinate as follows. Tear into a few pieces and microwave in another container until it melts. You can add a little more water if the plate dried out a bit. This is not an exact science - you'll see what happens and get a better feel for next time! Pour the melted gelatin back into your flat container to get a new sheet and start again! 

Resources

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