Mad Scientists: Gelatin Printing

Gelatin printing is one of the many volunteer workshops I've done with middle schoolers at my daughters' school. These are in addition to the school art class and we call this free expression. So this post covers two workshops {one last year and another this past spring} with 7th/8th graders. 

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Note: You can find specific instructions for making a gelatin printing plate in this post; this is a bit more depth about teaching kids how to make prints.

Materials. The classroom had a set of Liquitex Basics heavy body acrylics; I'd not used these paints before, and they worked really well. The color is lush and saturated. We printed on bright white heavy card stock, index cards and Strathmore Bristol paper. We used Speedball rubber brayers to roll out the paint. We also used some Golden Fluid Acrylics, colors that they didn't have in the Liquitex set; like copper, payne's gray and stainless steel.

The first time I taught gelatin printing to this level, we had 4 hours for the workshop on one day. So it was important to get the plates made and in the fridge first, really before anything else! I quickly introduced what we were going to do and we got to work.

The second time I taught this workshop {different set of kids}, we made the plates one morning, which took about 30 minutes, then we had 3 hours for the workshop the next day.

It is ridiculously easy to make a printing plate. You are making magic! For containers, we used extra large aluminum turkey-sized roasting pans. At home, I use a ceramic lasagna pan or a deep metallic jelly roll pan. Note: Whatever pan you use, once you use it for paint, it should no longer to be used for food. 

Materials to use as masks. Leaves, thread, cut-out shapes, rubber bands, ponytail holders, yarn. My daughter's amazing teachers scoured the classroom and set out materials that the kids could use to mask the gelatin plates. We used all sorts of items on the plates.

Before I proceed, I want to note that this is free-style, open-ended art. I shared the concept, showed the kids how to use the materials, showed a bunch of my own prints to give a feel for what the paint and masks could do. I didn't give them a "goal" or a project other than just exploring the materials. While the kids were working, I asked them questions about what they were planning, offered different colors of paint, helped with any problems, etc. 

Kids are unbelievably creative and natural problem-solvers if you don't try to control the outcome. The art is theirs, not mine. When I teach workshops for kids, it is extremely important to me that the art be their art, without alteration by adults.

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The kids mixed the gelatin & water with wooden spoons. A morning sunbeam highlighted the steam rising from the containers. Gelatin smells funny! The kids were like wizards & mad scientists making magic potions! The second time I taught this workshop, we had a few vegetarians in the class and they did NOT care for the more scientific information about the gelatin itself. Enough said.

We let the plates cool for about 20 minutes; at that point pairs of kids transported them to the refrigerator in the next classroom and let them cool for 90 minutes. At home, I let my printing plates cool for 2 hours and they are more firm.

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While the printing plates firmed up in the fridge, we had time to prepare and strategize for the printing adventures. I showed the kids examples of prints that I'd made, how to use a brayer, we "practiced" walking through the entire process without paint... and they started envisioning ideas for their own prints.

The kids, teachers and I went to the school garden and collected natural materials to use as masks. The kids scouted for petals, straw, tall grass, flowers, clover, twigs, vines & other organic materials.

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They were free to select paint, use anything they wanted as a mask, make as many prints as they wanted before removing the stuff and making the ghost or echo print. The kids worked in pairs, in some cases triples, then traded off. Some were fairly timid about the endeavor, others got really into it.

This is the very beginning before the plates were covered with paint!

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One of the boys wanted to create an Andy Warhol style print, so he thought through the logistics and settled on sections of paint, how cool is that?

The group made a total of 5 plates to share. The kids cycled through, making some prints, then the ghost print, then gently dabbed the plate with a dry paper towel and the next person went to work. The coolest thing was watching how much thought went into their masking set-up. I think that each turn was about 20 minutes, which allowed the person to do their work without rushing.

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Here are just a fraction of the finished prints that the kids created. It was an absolute blast! As each print was pulled, the other kids were really excited to see what it looked like, and were quick to describe each page with phrases like, "It looks like...."

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Overheard:

"It looks like a video game."
"I see a bird on a twig!"
"That's awesome!"
"It looks like a photograph."
"Let me see!"
"I'm going to use some really bright neon colors."
"I have an idea!"

We removed some of the plates from the containers; other plates we left inside the containers. I prefer to leave them in the container but most people don't. If you take the plate out of the container, you can use larger paper or position the paper anywhere you want, even half on the plate and half off. Some of the plates no longer in the containers formed fault lines and separated; the kids were not all that delicate with them. A remedy would be to make a thicker plate - like 3" and be sure to let it firm up for at least 2 hours.

The plates that remained in the containers did not crack. In the long run, it didn't matter; the kids thought it was cool and continued to print because the cracks added interesting lines to the prints. 

The teachers used some of the prints to make journal covers; the kids used some of their prints to make bookmarks. I suggested that they use the cards to make mothers/fathers day cards for their parents and learned later that a few had actually done just that.

You can find specific instructions for making a gelatin printing plate in this post.