5 Secrets for Managing the Mess of Printmaking

Are you interested in printmaking but fearful of the mess?  Does the thought of managing students as they carve and ink and print stop you dead in your tracks?  If so, I am here to help with 5 secrets that will turn printmaking into your favorite art room medium!

1. Plan Ahead
You need to really think through your print-making process. This means that way in advance you should think about the subject matter, prep the supplies, organize the tools, and design a solid clean-up strategy. I suggest “chunking” the lesson into manageable steps.  For example, my 2nd grade students create a bug triptych print as a part of their insect unit.  I break my lesson down into the following steps:


  1. Day 1 – Fold a 9 x 12 drawing paper into 4ths and draw 4 different bugs in pencil (one in each quadrant).  They should be large and detailed, filling the rectangle.
  2. Day 2 – Finish drawings (if needed), choose one drawing to cut out and tape it to a pre-cut foam printing square.  I use Blick’s Inovart Printfoam for Block Printing, which just happens to come in 9 x 12 sheets.  These can be cut with a paper cutter: two quick chops and I have my rectangles ready to go, easy-peasy!  Trace all lines with a ball-point pen.  Remove the paper and re-trace the lines with the pen.  Then, write names with sharpie on the back of the foam printing plates.
  3. Day 3 – Printing!

If students finish one of the daily plans early, great!  I still do not let them move on to the next step.  There is just too much to prepare for all at once.

2. Demonstrate and Use Checkpoints
Printmaking requires a lot of steps and specific directions.  Each day, I begin with a demonstration of the task for the day.  This is a great project to demonstrate under a document camera if you have one (or another reason to advocate for a document camera in the art room if you don’t!).  I also include step-by-step directions on the board or projection screen, complete with Teacher Checks.  This helps me catch students quickly if they are off track and saves valuable time and supplies.  A sample PowerPoint slide is included below.



3. Set Up Stations
Printmaking doesn’t have to be a free-for-all.  It is a highly motivational medium that students typically don’t want to miss out on, so use this fact to your advantage.  I set up inking stations and teach students how to take turns, wait in line, and clean up after themselves.  Character building at its finest!  Just one of the many “extras” we teach in the art room.

My classroom inking stations might look like this (schematic below): 1 inking tray (paper plates or lunch trays also work) and two brayers for each color.  For this second grade lesson, I offer 3 colors, so 6 students can be inking at once.  Next to each inking station are two piles of pre-cut newspaper (I just slice off the folded edge and viola, individual sheets!).  Students bring only their foam plates to the inking station.  The actual printing is completed at their desks.  Students choose their ink colors and get in line.  They wait their turns, ink their plates and carry the plates back to their seats using one sheet of newspaper underneath.  I stress the cleanliness of printmaking.  You don’t want finger prints on your finished piece!

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4. Teach procedures, procedures, procedures!
I cannot stress this one enough.  If you have ever taken a printmaking class yourself, you know how precise printmaking can be. If you want to keep your sanity when teaching printmaking, you must have a procedure for each step along the way. It’s equally important to model and teach that procedure thoroughly before starting. For example, I teach students to look for an “orange peel” texture in their ink.  If they don’t see an orange peel texture, they need to raise their hand before they ink.  I model a print made with an orange peel texture and one without (which, of course, turns out horribly!).  I also have students rinse their Styrofoam off between prints.  I show them how to rinse their plates with a trickle of water and dry them by placing them under paper towels and pressing down gently.  It may sound completely anal, but the results are worth the trouble, I promise.
5. Allow for ample time
Part of the beauty of printmaking comes from stepping back and letting your classroom hum.  You aren’t going to knock out this lesson in one day and that is OK!  Give your students the opportunity to explore the materials and learn the techniques.  I would encourage you to try to take this lesson even deeper if possible.  The Common Core is all about creating curriculum that is “a mile deep” and printmaking can be a great fit.

Here are a few extension ideas:

  • Print white ink on black paper and add colored pencil after it is dry.
  • Use analogous ink colors in the inking tray.
  • Overprint with a darker color after adding additional details to the foam plate.
  • Give finished prints an authentic feel, adding artist names and series numbers.
  • Use sharpies to add details to the foam plate after you are finished printing.
  • Destroy the styrofoam pieces so the prints can’t be reproduced!



What are you biggest fears about print-making in the art room? 

Do you have any successful secrets to share?


Heather is AOE’s Project Manager and an expert in differentiation, curriculum development, and assessment. She is a veteran teacher in the art room and at the graduate level.


  • Kristin Adolf

    I LOVE your extension ideas! Thanks! I am working on a self portrait print with my 3rd graders currently, so I definitely intend on using some of these ideas!!!

  • jimmic

    Perfect timing! I am prepairing to begin a unit on printmaking! – I love the two brayer system with the cut newspaper – I always used old phone books and one brayer – but I’m going to use your set – up this year!

  • Janine

    I LOVE printmaking and have been doing it with my Middle Schoolers for several years now. Here are some additional printmaking resources: http://bcwmsart.weebly.com/4/category/printmaking/1.html

  • Hethlee

    Can you use tempera paint on the printfoam?

    • Vicky Siegel

      I use tempera paint (or the metallic Versatemp brand) with foam brayers. Works great and dries fast!

      • Hethlee

        Could I use normal ink brayers or should I get the foam ones?

  • Lisa

    I am so happy this week is about printmaking! I am in the process of finishing a print lesson with my 4th graders and it has worked so seamlessly this year! A trick I used this year is this: give each student a partner! I had 9 colors of ink, so 9 inking stations. Instead of newspaper, I have a magazine next to each tray (I use gallon ice cream lids for that). The printer prints. The partner (or assistant), removes the top page of the magazine so it’s ready for the next person. The assistant then takes the paper to the next color the printer wishes to use. Meanwhile, the printer is washing his/her foam. Each student prints 4 times, then they switch roles. The assistant is also in charge of letting me know when they need more ink on the tray. I don’t let students do that part because they tend to get WAY too much.

    I love the partnership because it’s amazing how much they help each other out. I hear things all the time like “I think you need a little more ink.” or “Don’t forget to press all around the edges and corners too.” or “Wow, that looks so cool – good job!” They really feed off each other and learn from each other. It also helps limit the waiting in line for colors. With 24 students, that’s 12 printing at a time, 9 stations, and usually a few washing at a time, so there is very little, if any, wait time. Goes by so quickly.

    I’m so excited to see what else we can read about printing this week! :)

    • Charmaine86

      Thanks for the tip about partners. That sounds like a great way to keep a larger group organized and on task. I’m definitely going to try this!

    • Using partners is a brilliant idea! Thanks for sharing!

    • Elizabeth

      Using partners has been the only way I’ve stayed sane when printing with 2nd -3rd graders. Kids love to be a helper, they really want to make sure their partner does it right, and the assistant love letting the teacher know when more ink is needed. I only use the foam printing trays these days as I don’t have tools for lino block printing.

      I used to be able to get a really nice thin adhesive back foam that kids could cut into great stamps, and attach to wooden blocks that my husband cut for me, but the only foam that I can find now is way to thick for kids to cut. I miss it because second graders designed wrapping papers and cards that we made into little gift sets!

  • faigie

    Do you do printing with first graders and kdg?

    • Charmaine86

      I introduce printmaking with my first graders using pre-made printing blocks that have been donated or purchased over the years. Now I have a pretty nice collection of animals, insects, etc. I cover my tables with newspaper and put a tray with one color of tempera and two rollers on each. The students put their name on a 12×18″ sheet of 80 or 90# paper and move front table to table. Before they start, we review creating patterns using shapes and colors, something that they have already done in other lessons. They love it and some of the prints are quite lovely, too!

    • I do, but I keep it simple: fingerprints, rubbings or stamps in kindergarten. For first grade I have them paint with liquid tempera directly on the table (within a taped space) and create a mono-print off the table. I like to use Jim Dine’s hearts as inspiration.

  • Curiosity

    Any suggestions on how to do printmaking when in a waterless portable? (Out of my four schools, three classrooms are in portables with no sinks.) Many thanks!

    • Lisa

      Maybe focus on the “edition” of a print instead of choosing a bunch of colors. Have them print their block 3-5 times using only one color. That way they don’t need to wash between prints. When the class is done, take a class trip to the rest rooms to wash up. Maybe also have a small bucket or spray bottle of water and a couple towels to help clean up the tables when finished. My first year teaching, I was put in the library to begin the year (due to renovations). I allowed small groups to go wash in the restroom or we used the lunchroom for messy lessons – if it wasn’t lunch time. Good luck!

    • Jill

      If you sand foam printplates very lightly, you can use liquid watercolor paints, or even thick Markers like Mr. Sketch to ink the plates quickly. I use phonebooks and have the kids tear the pages out while printing each new piece, I now love printmaking with the kiddos.

    • This might still be too messy, but have you considered printing off shaving cream? Liquid tempera can be painted and manipulated on a layer of shaving cream. Use a paper plate to house the shaving cream and throw it away when you are finished. The effect is more like marbling. Here is a lesson link: http://www.incredibleart.org/lessons/middle/marbling.htm.

      What about using a giant ink pad?

  • CDeLouise

    How do they print at their seats? are they using their hands to press down on the printing plate? do they have a clean brayer on the table?