DIY: Easy Relief Printmaking

Guest Tutorial by Ruth Bleakley

This easy (I promise!) printmaking tutorial is a great way to use up styrofoam meat trays that you are probably hoarding (or maybe that's just me...) and it would also be a fun craft for kids, as long as you did it outside. It's essential that you get water-based block printing ink (it costs about $3 a tube) - otherwise this tutorial goes from an "easy" to "the-reason-why-I-never-majored-in-Printmaking" tutorial because the cleanup is much more difficult for oil-based printmaking ink - that being said, if that's what you have on hand, go for it - actually, if that's what you have on hand, you are probably somewhat beyond styrofoam tray printing anyway!


There are some specific tools I recommend below, because they make the process a breeze - total cost if you buy them all - two brayers (rollers) plus block printing ink- is probably around $30, and you'll be able to use them for many future projects! I give some substitutions though.

Tools and Materials:

• 2 styrofoam meat/produce trays
• 1 pencil or pen
(used for rolling on the ink, substitute a mini foam roller from the hardware store)
• hard rubber or acrylic brayer
 (used to printing the plate, you can also use a rolling pin)
• kraft paper


1. Cut the edges off of your styrofoam trays, so you have a flat rectangular sheet of foam that I'll refer to as the "plate". 

2. Using a dull pencil, or a retracted ballpoint pen, design your plate. AS IF BY MAGIC, the areas where you push down with your pencil are the parts that won't have ink on them. The more you push down, the less likely they'll print with ink. I made parts of my print kind of stripy by inscribing vertical lines, you can play with different types of lines for texture. It's called a Releif print because the ink adheres to the parts of the plate that haven't been inscribed.

3. Using the second meat tray, squeeze a blueberry-sized blob of ink on the tray, and roll your brayer (fancy word for roller) over it  back and forth until the roller is evenly coated. If you're using a rubber roller, you're looking for the ink to have a texture on the tray similar to an orange peel, and when you roll your brayer, it'll make a sticking noise that sounds like tearing paper - that's how you know you don't have TOO much ink on the roller.

4. Apply a think layer of ink all over the design side of your plate. 

5. Print a test print on some scrap paper - place the plate paint side down onto the paper - don't move it. Roll the back of your plate with the second clean brayer, or a rolling pin. Carefully lift up the corner, just to check and see if it's printing right (this is kind of like a giant rubber stamp, right?). If you see areas that have paint in them that you meant to be white, you can wash off your plate in the sink and use your pencil to go over the areas that need to be squished down more.

6. To do your final print, if you're doing a pattern like I did, lay down some newspaper and simply tile your plate on a big sheet of Kraft paper by putting the prints right next to each other - Use waxed paper on top of your plate to keep your brayer or rolling pin from rolling onto the wet prints you just made. 

Kraft paper is great for printing on because it absorbs ink so readily. It's not so great for archival artwork , since it's usually not acid free but printed kraft paper would make a lovely poster or gift wrap!

Here's a takeaway hint - if you think your plate looks a little funky (and it might, it's kind of hard to get fine details on styrofoam using a pencil) make it into a pattern by printing it a bunch of times! you'll be impressed when you see how a pattern transforms the original design into something really cool!

If you try this out, link to it in the comments, I'd love to see! Also if you have any questions let me know.

Bookbinding & Graphic Arts

Jan Halvarson


Fiona Cartolina said...

What a great tutorial!
I love the look of this finished piece and would never have thought of using a styrofoam tray - great idea

markhed said...

SO awesome! I am totally going to try this for my bedroom!

K. said...

This is fantastic!! Definately want to try on a skirt or shirt...thanks!

kendal croix. said...

Very neat idea.

Anonymous said...

Woah! That is a way cool idea! I just may have to try this!!

Julia Bolchakova said...

This is great1 I am so trying it... where is my meat?..

Unknown said...

What a great tutorial!! talk about a fun handmade gift project for kids!! what fun.

Anonymous said...

Love this idea! I bet it would be great for printing holiday cards. Now I just have to figure out how to get my hands on some styrofoam trays--I don't eat meat so I'm not sure where to get them.

Alix! said...

Rachel, you can probably find styrofoam trays on pre-packaged vegetables. I just bought a stir-fry mix of vegetables that came on styrofoam, it's cleaner to use than one for meat too!

Kristina @ ReMadeSimple said...

What a cool project I'm going to try this one! Thanks for sharing.

Karen said...

I love this tutorial because you used real printmaking terms yet made it super accessible. I wish I could explain things so simply - it would make teaching so much easier. I'm going to focus on that, so thanks!