Wednesday, 1 July 2015

Contextualising Printmaking in Art and Design Education

The previous post shows examples of artwork produced by pgce students at the institute of education. The artwork was accompanied by an essay which aimed to bring together the student teachers school experience with their subject specialism. I've decided to post my essay in order to put my artwork in context- but I'm very much an artist not a writer...


Printmaking is one of the world’s oldest art forms, the haunting hand prints in the Cueva de las Manos in Argentina; carbon dated to be from 7300BC, are possibly the earliest example of people leaving their mark through print. In recorded history printmaking was a widely practiced technology, in 5th century China and later in Japan, text and imagery was printed with woodblocks. By the 14th century Printmaking had reached Europe and played a large role in the European enlightenment and the development of cultural and scientific advancement in the west. Traditionally, eastern & western printmaking is stylistically very distinct, however with the growth of modernist attitudes and the influx of technical innovation the range of print as a fine art form has become increasingly diverse.   

The national curriculum for England and Wales specifies that students should “become proficient in drawing, painting, sculpture and other art, craft and design techniques,” Students should “use a range of techniques and media” and “increase their proficiency in the handling of different materials.” It goes on to say that at the end of key stage three pupils’ are expected to “apply and understand the materials, skills and processes specified in the programme of study.” (DOE 2013) Due to its structured framework and the technical skill behind it, printmaking is a popular practical process in the art and design curriculum of many schools.    

Lesson time often focuses on the creation of the print block, but rarely to the wider professional or contextual implications of what is being made. The lack of meaning behind the activity can be confusing for the pupil and cause them to question the purpose of the activity they are doing. Context is valuable, a Head of department observed; 

“We are not training students to be artists, we are using art as a vehicle for questioning  everything, a means to think in a very diverse way and contemporary art is the genre that leads us that way.” (Downing & Watson 96:2004)

In this essay I would like to consider the role of printmaking within art and design lessons. I will compare it’s use in schools with the professional printmaking environments and reflect on how the industrial model might inform good practice in the secondary classroom. I will also be looking at professional printmakers and a range of artists who use print to consider how their work can inform printmaking in school. To aid the discussion I will reflect on my own practice and experience teaching and working as a technician. 

Low tech printmaking and tacit learning 

The German Expressionist, Karl Schmidt-Rottluff would, so I was told; sit on the troop train on the way to the trenches hacking woodcuts with his bayonet in found pieces of wood. I’ve never been able to prove this; however the handmade, spontaneous quality of his work is plain to see. It illustrates the beauty of low tech printmaking in contrast to the well-established processes and equipment we come to associate with the medium. Such low tech approaches are a benefit in schools, where access to a press is unlikely. The practicalities of printmaking usually mean that pupils have to use low quality inks on cheap paper and print using spoons or rollers rather than on presses. This is an observation not a criticism. Inspired by Schmidt-Rottluff, my own practice explores the tactility and readiness of low tech forms of printmaking. I believe that making a print by hand gives the artist more ownership in the processes and is valuable for engagement.

Printmaking has a structure and conventions, which can be restrictive creatively. A classroom environment equipped with high quality print resources might prevent pupils from formulating their own preconceptions about the techniques they are learning. A stimulating environment will encourage pupils to engage and learn however, ‘this is not to be confused with an environment of pure spectacle manufactured in the hope that an overwhelmed audience will be stunned into reverential compliance’ (Addison & Burgess 44:2015). 

Ideally pupils should feel able to take ownership of their learning, rather than be overwhelmed by the situation. Producing a woodcut comes about through the acquisition of tacit knowledge, it is very difficult to effectively communicate didactically. This knowledge should be taught experientially through ‘reflection-in-action’ (Schon in Addison & Burgess 43:2015). A scheme of work I ran with a KS4 class had them explore drypoint printing; first, through exploring linear mark making with a dip pen which was then reviewed, refined and interpreted on the drypoint plate. The completed plate was proofed, reviewed and reworked. The entire development of the process relied on transitions through investigation, reflection and revision. This development is illustrated by Kolb’s learning cycle. 

Educational experience, as defined by Dewey broadly promotes intelligence and natural curiosity (Dewey in Eisner 99:1991), Eisner continues that ‘at it’s best the educational experience the school engenders will lead to increased individualisation’ (Eisner 100:1991). Removing some printmaking structures, and promoting low tech and experimental forms of practice, pupils can pick up technique and good practice more quickly and then begin to develop their own ideas and approaches. As they progress down individual paths, the cyclical nature of experimental learning; illustrated by Kolb, challenges pupils to be more dynamic and independent. ‘Tacit learning includes implicit thinking, intuition, hunches and skilled performances’ (Polanyi in Addison & Burgess 124:2015).

In printmaking there is a sense of anticipation. It is a thrill to spend time preparing an image, but not quite knowing how the end result will look until it is done. In demonstrations I have tried to build that unpredictability in. When a demonstration does not go to plan, the following class reflexive observation endorses the playfulness of the process. At all times the discussion circles back around to addressing refinement and improvement, as long as the pupils feel that they are not ‘starting again’ and that there is a steady progression they are prepared to accept the responsibility of problem solving. This can be illustrated well, particularly with western printmakers; for example, Rembrandt’s Three Crosses or Picasso’s Bull series, where it is very clear how the artist has gone back to revise and develop an image.

Applying subject knowledge and understanding 

Tacit engagement facilitates pupils experiential learning, this act of learning through doing has to be reinforced through knowledge and understanding. Although experience based education is fundamentally centred on the learner, Salmon observes that key to the formation of a pupils experience is the input of the teacher. Teachers provide ‘a sense of the personal meaning which our curriculum has for us: its value, its relevance, it’s implications for us as particular human beings.’ (Salmon in Prentice 24:2002). The implication is that a teacher with specialist knowledge, and specific interest is able to shape a strong environment, which can maximise the potential for experience based learning. There is more potential for a pupil to engage independently than in a more didactic curriculum lead by a non-specialist. 

While I was visiting a print studio, I observed that the walls around the studio were decorated with examples by various artists and students who had used the facilities. The studio manager explained to me that as well as the aesthetic purpose, these prints acted as a source of inspiration to those working in the area, they also showcased what could be achieved with the processes available. In the classroom, the print specialist teacher can use their subject knowledge to create a diverse and inspiring environment, and can crucially engage the pupils enthusiastically and knowledgably about the content. Understanding of a working print studio is also an incredibly important resource to aid in lesson structure and classroom management. 

Printmaking is a very space intensive process and this has an impact on classroom usage and co-operation. In a printmaking lesson pupils will be working at all stages, and this cannot be anticipated purely by ability; an outstanding pupil may take just as long to cut a block as a very low ability or disengaged pupil. In this case then, it is essential that the classroom is structured to best service pupils working at all stages. The cutting and printing areas should be separate, and the printing station should be near a cleaning area. The printing station should ideally have space for pupils to ink up their prints and a clean space to print them. In a printmaking studio these areas are clearly demarcated and the purpose of them is to contain mess and in the case of a busy studio, to enable multiple usage. Having a clean structured area makes the process less confusing for the users; one knows where everything is, and a high quality outcome is more likely. 

A teacher can bring more than just facilitate learning, if they are able to reveal genuine enthusiasm and ingenuity to the lesson content it will foster meaning for the pupils, they will see that there is something to get out of the learning. When pupils are questioned about the purpose of what they’re making they tend to refer back on curriculum goals or they’re doing it because they need to or they’re doing it because it’s a process they enjoy. I still remember the moment I stopped thinking of myself as an art student and started considering myself an artist, and I believe that psychologically that is an important hurdle in one’s professional development. I was demonstrating to myself that I was putting my learning into practice. I felt that there was a value in what I was doing outside of the parameters of course requirements.  

Understanding can be the spark to ignite the learners engagement. The story my tutor told me about Schmidt-Rottluff may or may not be true, but it inspired me to investigate low-tech printmaking and moved my engagement with my practice on enormously. It made the work more than just an image, it made me think about the identity of the maker and of the works creation. For the purposes of context, if a teacher can present knowledge in a meaningful and relevant way the pupils will take much more from it.

Juhari Said is a contemporary printmaker who left the commercial printing industry in order to get away from the creative limitations of that environment and develop his practice independently.

“We often see that printmaking is always defined in a narrow and limited sense, and frequently in relation only to its technical aspect. This happens because its definition is strictly determined by art dealers and scholars who lack knowledge in this field, and not by artists who have vast experience in this area.” (Said 14.3.15)

We must recognise the need to marry creative experimentation with that depth of technical knowledge, which for Said will have been formed by his years as a professional printer. In the classroom, we cannot limit our definition of printmaking at the expense of pupils disengagement. 


As a printmaker I have reflected on my specialism within art and design education. Printmaking is a highly efficient and popular technique when it comes to achieving the aims of the national curriculum and as such it is very widely used in schools. The danger is that if it is taught in a didactic way and if no context is applied it can become a tick box technique, which has no further meaning or relevance to a pupil. 

In this essay I have reflected on printmaking in terms of tacit learning, and discussed how removing some technical conventions of the printmaking process, by printing in a low tech way can facilitate playfulness and experimentation. I have talked about how the process invites refinement and review, which encourages individualised engagement. 

 I have discussed the way in which a teacher can inform engagement through knowledge and understanding of the subject. If a teacher can provide a suitable working environment, and is able to provide context for the pupil to draw from, it can inspire then to develop their learning in an independent way. 


Addison & Burgess (eds) (2003). Issues in art and design teaching. London: Routledge.

Addison & Burgess (eds) (2013). Debates in art and design education. London: Routledge

Addison & Burgess (eds) (2007). Learning to Teach Art & Design in secondary school. London: Routledge

Addison & Burgess (eds) (2015). Learning to Teach Art & Design in secondary school. London: Routledge

Daichendt, G. (2010). Artist teacher: a philosophy for creating and teaching.  Bristol: Intellect. 

Department of Education (2013). National Curriculum in England: Art & Design programme of study- key stage 3. (17.5.15)

Dewey, J. (1934). Art as experience . New York: Capricorn Books.

Downing & Watson (2004). School art: What’s in it?  Slough: NFER

Eisner, E. (1991). The enlightened Eye: Qualitative Inquirey and the Enhancement of Educational Practice. New York: Macmillan

Eisner, E. (2008). The misunderstood role of the arts in human development. In B. Presseisen (Ed.), Teaching for Intelligence  (pp. 111–122). California: Corwin Press.

Greenaway, R. (9.5.15) Reviewing training skills.

McPhee, J. 2015 Essay from Paper Politics: Socially Engaged Printmaking Today (17.5.15)

Noyce, R. (2013). Printmaking off the Beaten Track. London: Bloomsbury

Prentice, R. (2002) Teaching Art & design. (17.5.15)


Tang, X. (2011). Multiple Impressions: Contemporary Chinese Woodblock Prints. Michigan: UMMA

Williamson, C. (2013). Low Tech Print. London: Lawrence King Publishing ltd 


Figure 1: Cueva de las Manos, Río Pinturas

Figure 2: Hiroshige: Thirty-six Views, print 27: Futami Bay in Ise Province. 1858 

Figure 3: Karl Schmidt-Rottluff, Russian Landscape with Sun. 1919 

Figure 4: Kolb’s learning cycle (17.5.15)

Figure 5: print studio set up, Photo: M. Hughes

Figure 6: examples of a drypoint print by a year 9 pupil, photo: M. Hughes

Figure 7: Mark Curtis Hughes, the trials of Gornemont. 2015