Annette Mitchell is Professor Emerita of Art at Plymouth State University and the inventor and principal teacher of the foam plate printing technique. She continues to teach in PSU's College of Graduate Studies, having served as Coordinator of Drawing since 1981. She received the New Hampshire Art Educator of the Year Award in 1990. Her work has been featured not only in art magazines but also hangs in both public and private collections.
Check out her DVD workshop, Foam is Where the Art is, in the Creative Catalyst shop.
You use printmaking inks. What’s the difference between printer’s ink and acrylic paint? For your process, what are the benefits that you get by using printmaker’s ink?
The difference between water-soluble block printing ink and acrylic paint is that the block printing ink gives you a longer printing time.
Even after the printing ink is completely dry, it is easy to remove from palettes, brayers, etc. Whereas, acrylic paint dries quickly and permanently making it difficult to remove from brayers, palettes, etc.
Because water-soluble printing ink is vulnerable to moisture, the finished prints on paper need to be placed under glass or protected if handled or displayed in public.
However, the quick drying time and permanence of acrylic paint is perfect for foam block printing on fabric (it can be made even more permanent by ironing the printed fabric). When working with acrylic, it’s easier to use sponge rollers for applying the paint to the foam block; they deliver the paint smoothly and are easier to clean.
What is the foam you are using for block printing? Are you printing on Styrofoam? How is the foam you’re using different and why is that difference important?
People often call it “Styrofoam,” but Styrofoam is a different material than what I use. Styrofoam consists of lots of little balls that will crumble and fall apart if you break an inexpensive cooler at a picnic. What I use is polystyrene foam, an extruded material commonly used to make trays for supermarkets or cafeterias. Many products are made with this type of foam—coverings for marine buoys, coverings for gliders, large sheets of basement wrap insulation to name a few. Consequently, it is available in sizes small to huge and in different thicknesses and textures. It comes in various colors but the important thing is that it is identified as polystyrene foam.
For those just getting started with printmaking, you suggest making textured plates. What are the benefits from starting with something a bit more basic and then slowly building into the complex? Is there a way of thinking artists need to learn when working with printmaking?
When anyone ventures into a new medium it is helpful to establish an understanding of what that particular medium has to offer. Printmaking has traditionally been celebrated for emphasizing the art element of texture. Traditional printmaking methods such as aquatint, mezzotint, etching, engraving, woodcut, etc. strongly support the visual use of texture. By starting with a basic exploration of available printed textures the person does not have the added pressure of producing a “finished image” right off the bat. They have time to get to know the new medium. Should I be applying more ink/less ink? Many questions will be answered by basic introductory experiences. Then, relevant topics can be addressed in a steadily building sequence that will quietly unfold into the most complex personal expression.
What do beginning students usually struggle with most when starting out printing with foam? What advice do you give them?
Many students think that they should create a masterpiece immediately, “an image that should be FEDEXed to the Louvre,” ha! Or they often judge their ability by how well they can draw representationally. I encourage people to relax and enjoy the process and let it take them to an unknown destination, rather than bossing the art around and forcing it toward a preconceived image. Remember how many skinned knees we had as kids learning to ride a bicycle or roller skate? Once we learned, we had great fun, didn’t we?
You clearly are so comfortable with color. For someone just getting started in printmaking, do you have any suggestions for how to approach color?
The best teacher for color is to not be afraid of using it. My first design teacher required us to bring in two hundred different yellows (no two alike) on one inch by one inch squares of paper. We were to use opaque watercolor and do it in one night. I learned so much from that experience and soon I wasn’t afraid to try mixing any color that I saw just to see if I could do it.
In printmaking, I often recommend to students that when they are printing many ink layers (for example, ten registrations) that they print a light color over a dark color, or, a dark color over a light color, back and forth. In that way, the various colors can be seen better by the contrast of value. One student told me recently that someone said, “Value does all the work but color gets all the credit.” I like that.
For your abstract pieces: What decisions do you make before you begin? And then once you begin, how much of your process is pure reaction to the layer before vs working toward a desired effect?
The only decision that I make before I begin an abstract is what feeling I want it to reflect. Will it reflect a particular experience or be an exercise to demonstrate for a class, etc. As a teenager, the first abstract that I thought was one of my best expressed how it felt when I danced fast.
Today I create abstract pieces that combine Sumi ink and foam block prints to express how it feels to hike in the White Mountains of New Hampshire at specific locations like Mt Washington or The Basin. For those, I create a line that expresses the armature or movement of the scene. Then with tracing paper, I decide on areas of the image to develop foam block prints for the textures or values.
Similarly, for your more realistic work, how much do you have planned before you begin? What do you need to have decided before you get started? How do you work through those problems? (For example, thumbnail sketches, etc.)
For my more realistic work, I take foam plates with me in a plastic carry box. I decide on a subject that really interests me visually and I settle in for a long observational drawing. I use the plastic box as a drawing support.
To date, I have done a series of about one hundred and twenty plants. I don’t do any warm-ups or make thumbnail sketches. I just draw directly on the foam with a very sharp pencil (have several with me).
I like to have the image run off the edges compositionally; that is my only plan. In that way, the negative spaces are important and the subject fills the composition.
I select subjects that I want to study. Consequently I have also done many figures and interior scenes. Before I leave the subject, I make color notes and record information on the back of the foam plate with a ballpoint pen that will help me with the printing later in my studio.
What skills do you work on regularly? And why are those particularly important to consistently practice? (For example, musicians practice scales. What is your visual artist equivalent?)
As I move through my daily life, I take photographs of abstractions that I see. I am always on the lookout for an artistic section of some scene. I post one abstraction per day on Facebook. I go to art exhibitions, to critique groups. I look at artists and artwork on line and am constantly on the lookout for artists to suggest to classes that we research and discuss. I teach drawing classes for a local artist cooperative gallery and teach two nine-day Creative Studio courses every July and January at Plymouth State University. I want to gather new information and ideas to share with my art colleagues.
Where in your process do you think about design? What design elements or principles are the most important to your work and how do you use them?
The principles of design are the foundation for all things art. The principles are never absent from my thinking. If I had to select the most important principles, I guess I would select repetition and economy of means. Repetition sets up a visual eye movement that creates a rhythm. Also, by dropping out any unnecessary details, the result gives both the artist and the viewer an opportunity to be an active participant in considering the expression.
What is it about foam printmaking that has kept you working in it as a medium for all these years? What draws you to printmaking and keeps you there?
Printmaking has always supported my interest in line quality and continues to teach me about the importance of texture. Even though the process of printmaking is often considered to be about creating multiples of an image, that has not been what has drawn me to it as a process. I am interested in creating only one print (or a very few variations of an image) so my method is more akin to painting in that regard. However, transferring ink from one surface to another creates a look that only can be achieved by the means of foam block printing. Consequently, printmaking combined with my other interests in drawing, painting, and art quilting has greatly expanded my visual vocabulary and continues to make me question, “what’s next?”
Learn more about Annette W. Mitchell by visiting her website.
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