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Scratch-Foam Printing With Water-Soluble Inks

Artist, printmaker and educator, Barbara Mason demonstrates scratch-foam printing as a classroom art activity. The lesson uses water-soluble inks to help children understand how their color choices impact the final print.

Materials Required for Scratch-Foam Printing

The materials required for this lesson are scratch-foam boards, water-soluble ink, a brayer or roller, card stock, putty knife, rolling pin, spray bottle and a damp cloth.

Learn Scratch-Foam Printing Using Water-Soluble Inks Video

Join Barbara as she teaches an easy and enjoyable way to create scratch-foam prints using water-soluble inks that can be reused for other projects.

Scratch Foam Printing with Water Based Ink Lesson Plan

Materials Needed for Scratch-Foam Printing With Water-Soluble Inks Art Lesson

  • Scratch-foam (styrofoam) sheets or clean take-out containers
  • Card stock paper
  • Rubber hand roller
  • Pencil
  • Putty knife
  • Water-based ink
  • Rolling pin
  • Spray bottle
  • Damp cloth for hand clean-up

Discover Scratch-Foam Printing Using Water-Soluble Inks

Follow along with the video transcription below as Barbara teaches how to create your own scratch-foam printing art project.

My name is Barbara Mason. I’m a printmaker and today I’m going to show you how to do a very simple, very fun and easy project for your classroom. So, whenever you’re working with a group of students – it’s a little different than working with one, and I hope I’ve set this up so that will be easy for you to do with the group.

So, we’re going to be using scratch foam, which is Styrofoam, and it comes in sheets that are 9 inches by 12 inches and you can buy them online. Amazon, Dick Blick – almost any art store will have them. And I’ve cut them into 3-inch squares so you can see I cut up two sheets. You can see I got quite a few squares out of two sheets, so that makes it pretty inexpensive to do it in your classroom. And also, you can use these take out trays – I can’t remember exactly where I got these, but a lot of restaurants use these, and sometimes Safeway will have them.  They’re making them less and less because everything is starting to be very environmental now so these are not quite as available as they used to be, that if you can get them free it’s a good thing.  You just cut this out, cut it into four pieces and you’re good to go.

So, the way this works is you can see I have my ink knife here and I have my brayers. These brayers are around $10 apiece, maybe a little more and they also are available from Dick Blick. And I have my Speedball water-soluble block printing ink. We want to use water-soluble stuff when we’re working with children because naturally, we want to clean it up. And of course, by the end of the day, somebody will be wearing it.

So, what we want to do is use this also as a little bit of a discussion about the warm and cool colors. So, we have yellow, orange, blue, red. This yellow doesn’t show up very well when we’re doing the video, and so I’m actually going to use orange because I just want you to be able to see it a little better. So, you put a small amount out because it dries fast.

And when you’re drawing on your scratch form, you want to use a dull pencil. If you use a sharp pencil, it will actually tear the foam, and it won’t print as well. So, we’re going to use a dull pencil, and we’re going to make some lines that are vertical – so lines have names. This is a straight line, that’s vertical. I want to make another right beside it. And then I’m going to make another straight line that’s horizontally. So, this is a line that goes right across – a horizontal line. It’s like the horizon line, and I’m going to make another line right below it. And then I’m going to make a diagonal line – so the diagonal line is going to go from one corner to the other corner. So, we all know what diagonal is. And then I’m going to make a wavy line. And then I’m going to make a line that’s so wavy it’s turned into a circle, a curved line. And then I’m going to make a line that’s broken. And then I’m going to make a line that is bent. Which would also be called an angle.

So now I have my drawing on here, but you can’t see it because I don’t have the ink on it. So, as I said, you don’t want to put very much of this ink out, you just want to roll it, and each time you roll it, you want to lift the roller because you want to get it even on the roller to make it work well so. This ink is – as I said – is water-soluble. Now when I roll this ink on the little square here, I’m not going to get any ink on the sides of the plate or on the plastic part, but that’s because I’ve been doing this for quite a few years. So, a normal person is going to have ink all around the edges when you roll it, you know if you don’t have a lot of practice doing this.

I’m printing this on just a plain piece of cardstock, that I cut a little bigger than my thing. I’m going to lay the paper right over it, and I am going to take my printing tool – which of course is a rolling pin – and I’m going to start in the middle and I’m going to roll that way, roll this way. A couple of times. Push pretty hard. You want the kids to be able to really push it. I always tell them to push it to China. China is on the other side of the earth, right. And then we’re going to pull it off. Oh my gosh, look at that.

So, the problem with doing this on your scratch foam is that the kids always want to write words. And the problem with words – I just tell the younger kids no words – but the problem with words is it reverses. So, what you have to do is you have to take a piece of transparent paper – and I’m just going to write the word YES because it’s an easy word to write – and then I’m going to turn it over. I’m going to lay it on my paper, and I’m just going to push through it. With my dull pencil, so that it will be backwards on my scratch foam. So now I can see that I could go over it again if I thought it wasn’t deep enough. Because, believe me, it is very hard to write backwards. You think you can do it and then you print it, and you say oh, wait, a minute that’s going the wrong way.

Now let’s try our blue here. So, if your ink gets stiff – you want to use a different roller for each color. So, you need to have a couple of rollers or brayers. And then when you’re done inking you want to lay these on their back. You don’t want to lay them on the front because they’ll get a flat spot, eventually along the front and they won’t work as well. So, it’s really important to lay them on their backs.

And so, you want to go back and get more ink? Rolling more times doesn’t give you more ink, it just moves it around. So, if you need more ink you’ve got to go back and get more ink. So, you can see there, I got a little ink on my plate. If I wasn’t printing in this exact spot, I wouldn’t care about this, but because I’m printing, I’m going to wipe this up.

And I’m using a piece of plastic here to do this inking on. You can use a counter, if you have a counter. A table with a real smooth surface that will work – any real smooth service. This plastic is ideal though, because it’s portable. OK, so now I’m printing this again – back and forth, back and forth. And when I print It, you will see that – oh my gosh. There’s my word, it says yes. You can actually read it.

So, when I get done with this, I’m going to take this scratch foam piece. I’m just going to stick it in my water. If you just throw them in a little bucket of water like this, at the end of the day you can just take then to the sink and wash them off and you can actually use the backs for doing it another time. Another thing I have the kids do that I didn’t do with this one – but I want to do it on the next one – is to write the name on the back of the paper. Because you think no two kids will do exactly the same word, but the truth of it is that as the kids start working and they start all doing stuff pretty soon their work looks remarkably the same. So, in order to make sure that a person has their own work when you’re done, you want to make sure that you actually have their name on the back of the paper. Small thing that causes a lot less strife.

OK, so now we’ve got our red. I’m going to take another piece of scratch from – I’m going do some lines again. So, when you get a bunch of lines together like this, you have a certain rhythm. It’s like a musical beat. But if you do your lines too close together – so if I’m doing lines and I’m doing that really close together like this, what happens is the whole thing is going to print white because there’s not going to be any surface to hold the ink. So, you want to make sure to tell the children not to print them too close together. So, we’ve got some vertical lines, and some diagonal lines. And now a couple of horizontal lines. So, we will print this with our red.

And as I said, as you get going with this – one of the things that I do when I work with a classroom full of kids is I have the children come up one or two at a time to do this part after they’ve done their drawing at their desk. And sometimes I can get a mom to come and help, which is really great, or an aid. Or actually if you’re working with really young kids, you can borrow a sixth grader and that’s enormously helpful.

We’re going to print this. Oh, I didn’t do the one that had my name on it. Well, you have the idea anyway. So again, we’re talking about lines. And you can print this both ways. From the middle to the edge, if you start at the edge, sometimes things will slide and you know this is a process that is a very simple process, but it can give you amazing results. You can see here where I’ve drawn my line really close together, how it gives you a wide white spot, so sometimes the children will draw something, and they’ll think they’ve got an image and it’ll have a big white spot and they’ll be unhappy, so that isn’t good.

But you can see how these all turn out. It’s really hard to do this process wrong. The other thing that I’ve done with this same process is I have cut small pieces of iron-on Pelon. Which is something they use in sewing and they put it in the collars or the front piece of a blouse or shirt and cut the squares the four inches so they’re little bigger than the actual piece of Styrofoam. And then we printed on that using warm colors and cool colors – one day the warm colors and next day we print cool colors. So, there are lots of colors that Speedball has. I don’t recommend the gold or the silver. They just don’t work very well. And I never let children use black, because it’s just not a real good color. It’s not a good color for doing this kind of artwork.

So, anyway, once they are dry, you can iron these pieces of Pelon onto a banner – a sheet –  and make a big banner for your classroom, which is a lot of fun. Or you can actually just take these squares and stick them all up on the bulletin board or glue them to another piece of paper. Or, put them on the front of a notebook there are a lot of things you can do to use these.

Now I can see here that my blue is kind of drying up. I can give it a little squirt of water and I can reconstitute it a little bit, so that it brings it back to life and I can still keep using it. You don’t want to use too much water, just a little bit, but it makes a big difference when you’ve got a whole bunch of ink out here and you want to keep using it. And suddenly it’s all dried up and it doesn’t work, and you can get it to work again. Which is really good, because you know all these products are expensive, but you don’t need very much. A tube of this ink will probably last you all year long if you’re careful with it.

The ink comes in three sizes, it comes in this little miniature size, it comes in the medium size and then it comes in the large size. Also, you can buy it in a jar.

Along with our Scratch foam demonstration that we’re doing today for your classroom, I want to talk about a different ink. We used Speedball block printing ink, which is a very good water-soluble ink, but now I want to talk about Akua. This is a cool Intaglio ink. This is an amazing ink. It cleans up with soap and water, and when you’re done with it, you can just scoop it back into the jar, so you don’t have any waste at all. It’s a little bit more expensive, but it lasts a long time, so I’m going to open this ink up.

You can see I’ve written the name of the ink on the top of it. I do that for a couple of reasons. One, I want to make sure that I get the right lid on the right jar and also it just makes it easier for me to find it when I’m going through the ink, looking for the ink. So, this settles out, and so it’s really important to mix it up before you start out. It’s a little bit thinner than our other ink works with it, but it works very, very well, and prints a little smoother. So, I’m going to do another scratch foam piece here, and I’m going to do this with curved lines. So, we’ll see how this looks when it’s done. And I’m just using my dull pencil to do this.

So, I’m going to put the ink out here on my piece of plastic. And again, you don’t need very much. It’ll never dry on the plastic – it dries by absorption into the paper. So, I’m going roll it out with my brayer. You can see how much thinner it is and you would think gosh that’s so thin is it going to work? The answer is yes, it’s going to work better than you ever thought it would work. So, we’re going to just roll it across. So, when I work with the kids, depending on their age, sometimes I do this part and I let them do everything else. I actually roll the ink out for them. As kids get a little older, say they’re  4th or 5th grade they can certainly do this part themselves, but when they are first and second grade, sometimes it’s a lot easier, a lot faster, for you to put the ink on the roller. You can give them the roller. Even up to 6th grade, I still put the ink on the roller, and I hand it to the child.

And I also say you know what color do you want? I’ve got four choices here. What color would you like to have? So being able to make a choice is an important thing for children and you know it kind of validates what they do. OK so I’m going to print this with my printing tool, which is my rolling pin, just like we did before, starting in the middle. And then I’m going to pull it off, and you can see that this is going to give you a little smoother print then our Speedball ink, but both are acceptable.

Then when we clean this Ink up, we’re going to just roll our brayer over a piece of paper, newspaper works just fine for this – any kind of scrap paper – and then just throw this away. And then this ink– if there’s any left down here that we want to save – we can just pick it up and put it back in the jar. We don’t have any waste at all. This jar of ink, as I said before, probably cost about maybe $15. So, you know we don’t want to waste it. We want to take good care of it.

And then everything cleans up here with soap and water. I have a little bit of Dawn dishwashing soap in this spray bottle. You can see it’s just slightly blue. There’s maybe a couple of tablespoons in this whole jar. And there we are good to go. And then I’m going to take this piece of scratch foam and put it in my bucket of water and then eventually I’m going to clean them all at the end of the day. They can stay in there a long time.

We’re all cleaned up and we have our amazing Akua Ink print. I’m Barbara Mason, and thanks so much for joining me today to make scratch foam prints.

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