I've been wanting to get around to writing up a "Getting Started" Block Printing resource for a while now. I've been recieving more questions recently about block printing, but especially printing on fabric - my favorite material to block print on - and wanted to condense all of these Q&A's into one area.
The beautiful thing about getting into block printing is that it's very accessible, and you can do it pretty much anywhere. It doesn't require a fancy set up or expensive tools. If you really wanted, you could print with a potato! But before I get into potato printing, I want to share with you a few reasons why I chose to include block printing into my life as a fundamental part of my design process, as well as a few of the basic tools and materials that you need to get your hands dirty. Are you ready?
Why I Started Block Printing, and Why You Should Too
1. I needed a creative hobby that was screen-free
I spent a few years working as a User Experience Designer, which required many of my days to be spent behind my laptop, designing research plans and user-flow maps all on a screen. After work, I would then go home and work with my freelance graphic design clients until the wee hours of the night. My screen time did not stop, ever, and it became very unhealthy.
With that being said, feel incredibly lucky to have had landed such an interesting job right outside of college, and was able to pull in some extra income through freelance work at the time, but I wasn't giving my mind any sort of break from the screen. What I was truly lacking was a creative hobby that was completely screen-free, and one that required my undivided attention, exercising my hands in different ways.
About a year ago, I had been following a few other artists on Instagram who were into block printing, and I felt inspired to try it for myself. I had dabbled with the medium in high school, but hadn't touched it since. I decided to pick it back up again because I had realized that it was becoming more and more important to devote some personal time to being unplugged, disconnected and fully immersed into something that's truly hand's on.
2. Elevate your skill set and set yourself apart
If you're an illustrator, graphic designer or pattern maker but typically only design digitally, I definitely recommend taking one (or a few) of your designs to the block. Try carving it out, and notice the differences between your pixel-perfect graphic versus your hand-carved piece. Maybe you'll fall in love with the hand-carved version of it, or maybe you'll discover something new about it in the process of recreating it in a new medium that you didn't originally notice on the screen. You don't know until you give it a try!
Personally, I've found that I am able to create something more unique to my personal style when block printing because of the very intimate and analogue process of it. Everyone carves a little bit differently, and as a result, the process reveals a unique level of character within the style of work that you're already creating.
3. It's relaxing AF
If you're coming home from a stressful day, and feel that you need to disappear and unwind, I highly recommend digging into some soft carving rubber without any true plan and just start carving. Don't think about the end goal, and don't worry about if other people will like what you create. It doesn't matter because you're doing this for you and not anyone else.
You'll find that you can get the same sort of satisfaction from it similar to an adult coloring book, or even playing with play-doh because it's requiring your full attention, and shifting your mind into a creative, flow state.
4. It encourages "Slow Art" and thinking through each step
By taking the time for "slow art", I've been able to explore, more than ever, the intention behind my work as a whole and each piece individually. Instead of getting things done to...get things done, I've taken the opportunity to ask myself "Why".
To be more specific, I've noticed improvement within my own pattern making skills over the past 8 months since I picked up block printing. Before I brought block printing into my creative process, I was designing patterns starting with a few doodles (maybe) in my notebook, and then bringing them into Illustrator and also finishing them there. Taking the time to carve out each doodle of a pattern element separately, and then ink and stamp the elements to work through patterns on paper, stamp by stamp, has forced me to evaluate each step of the process as I go. I work through my patterns in a hands-on fashion before introducing any color or high level of detail in order to make it as simple as possible to start out. Taking a step back and evaluating the balance of positive and negative space within a pattern composition in black and white has actually clarified my process, making it a more intuitive experience.
5. Less planning and more exploration
Allowing myself to freely explore and "play to learn" has given me permission to take more risks within the work I create, especially in the earlier stages of pattern development. I felt inspired by the Organization "Humans Who Play" as a way to reframe my creative process. If you've been through design school and have been taught to design within the grid, or abide by the grid, I have some advice for you: This might not be the best "textbook design advice" but sometimes we just need to say f*** the grid. Forget about the design grid that's been drilled into your head for a second, and just do. Spread out a large roll of paper on the floor, roll up your sleeves and get messy. Carve out a few shapes, and print freely. Don't over think it either - start with the most basic shapes (circles, semi-circles, triangles, lines) and begin! Try some repeating patterns, or try some more randomized ones and see what happens. Remember to periodically take a moment to pause, and ask yourself what you like, or think about what's working and what's not. There are absolutely no consequences during the early stages of this process. I highly encourage beginning this way if you're feeling stuck in a rut, or are experiencing a creative block.
Ready to Get Started?
- Carving Kit: You can pick one of these bad boys up in person at your local art supply store, or online through Amazon or the Speedball or Blick website.
- Soft Carving Rubber: I recommend Blick Ready-cut for beginners, but even I still use it because it's easy to control. You can find this in any Blick store near you or online through Blick, or the Speedball Art site has several options for soft carving rubber. Find Blick Ready Cut here.
- Block Printing Ink: Speeball or Blick makes water-based block printing inks, great for printing on paper that you can find here If you're looking to print on fabric, I use Speedball's block printing fabric ink, which is an oil-based ink that cures within about 24 hours and it's completely safe to wash once you've given it plenty of time to cure.
- Brayer: This is the roller that is used to apply the ink to your stamp. You can get these here
- Baren: This tool is used to apply even pressure on top of your stamp block. It is not absolutely necessary to get started, but I recommend it for achieving printing consistency. I went my first few months with out one of these, but once I bought one, I will never go back. It made block printing so much easier and my results were more consistent. Find it here.
- Paper: This one is up to you! Any paper that you can find, you can print on. For better results, I suggest using a paper that's heavier and uncoated, or matte. Printing on coated or glossy paper isn't great because it's slippery and the ink doesn't completely cure.
- Fabric: Again, this one is completely up to you! It's important to explore what materials you enjoy working with. However, I've found that printing on natural materials such as cotton, linen, hemp or canvas has been the most successful for me. Also, avoiding material with a lot of stretch helps control printing consistency. Start by finding a few second-hand fabrics at your local thrift shop to keep experimental costs low! If you're looking for 100% cotton tea towels, find them here
- Ink Plate: This is also not necessary, but the purpose of it is to apply and roll out your ink. It's nice to have one because it's washable and reusable. If you want one, you can find it here. Personally, I use cardboard scraps or an old flat surface and it works just as well.
Please let me know if this resource has been helpful for you, and please share with someone else who's curious about starting block printing!
Thanks for sharing the process, very interesting!
I was wondering what you think about lino for fabric block printing. Do you think the quality is the same as Soft Carving Rubber?
Wow thanks so much for all the resources and sharing your process! Much appreciated!
Thanks so much for taking time to write this! I love the look of block printing and I’ll be using your tips and list to hopefully get started in the near future :-)
Thanks so much for taking the time to write this, along with handy links and commentary. I’m a customer of your Etsy shop, and you got me curious to try block printing as a hobbyist. Appreciate you taking the time to open the door for others to explore block printing!