Opposites Attract: Self Portrait Prints

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We made Styrofoam printing plates of our faces by tracing photographs of ourselves in profile and/or “three quarter” view. We printed double images of our faces in black and/or white ink on a variety of papers, and filled the background of the paper with a colorful pattern made by repeatedly stamping a carved eraser. (We created paper “masks” to protect our face images when printing our background design.)  Learning how to control all the variables of printmaking was a key to a successful project! We made many versions of these prints, experimenting with position, paper, and ink color to create unique interpretations of the assignment. As a final embellishment, colored pencil was used to emphasize some of the edges of our printed lines.

For more detailed instructions on how to do this lesson, read on!

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We begin this lesson with a photo shoot! Using my cell phone, I take several shots of each student, both in profile and ¾ view. Alternatively, I allow students to take their own selfies (or photograph each other,) and share these pictures with me via Airdrop or another sharing service. Once photos have been approved by all parties, I print them out, roughly 8” by 10”.

Students then lay a sheet of tracing paper over the photo. Using a light table or a window, students use pencil to simplify their image into a contour line drawing—No shading or value! I discuss the importance of including “major edges”— features that have a strong definition or edge, as opposed to areas of shadow or tone. Sometimes, less is more: a few well-placed lines can accurately suggest a nose in ¾ view for example, whereas too much definition can result in the dreaded “Mr. Potato Head Nose Syndrome”— (An over-defined nose will look like it’s been stuck on to your face!) Hair and how it flows is important, but don’t outline every strand. Clothing details and major seams and folds are important to show form, but don’t worry about small patterns or text/graphics on the clothes.

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 Students tracing their photographs:

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Sliding plain paper under the tracing is a good way to check your progress:


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Once their tracing is complete, they tape the tracing paper outline to a piece of “Scratchfoam” printing board. Scratchfoam is one of my favorite printing materials, as it is durable, easy to incise, and you can shape it with scissors.

Click here to see more about Scratchfoam!

Using a ball point pen, students trace over their tracing paper portrait while it is securely attached to the foam. The pressure of the pen will create an indentation on the foam. It is OK if the tracing paper gets a few holes poked in it, but students should not be pressing so hard that they are shredding the paper!

Here is a student transferring her tracing to the scratchfoam:


Once the image is transferred, carefully remove and discard the tracing paper. Now, using  a ballpoint pen once again, students should go back to the foam and deepen the lines with a firm back and forth motion directly on the foam. I recommend that they do this slowly while holding the pen vertically so as to not “snag” the metal pen tip on the foam. Also, the goal is to depress/deepen the lines WITHOUT cutting all the way through the foam— if you can see the pen coming through from the back, you’re pressing too hard and might sever your foam into pieces.

Once transfer and line-deepening are complete, students use scissors to cut out their foam image. This step should be done carefully, as the foam plates can tear easily. OPTION: Layering strips of masking tape on the back of the foam before cutting it out is a good way to provide extra strength and increase the longevity of the plate.

Finished plates, ready to print:


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In my 7th grade classes, I use Speedball water-based block printing ink. It’s easy to clean and has good viscosity and opacity. Roll the ink on a plexiglass panel or inking tray, starting with a “melted gumball” sized dollop of ink. Roll with a brayer in multiple directions until it has an even “lizard-skin” like appearance, (no streaks,) and makes a “stick-clicky” sound. Transfer the ink to the foam with the brayer, and lay the plate face down on your prepared paper. I keep a clean brayer handy to apply pressure to the back, ensuring a solid, quality print. For this project we did a practice print on colored paper with both black and white ink, as well as the “final” double printed image that includes one white and one black print on the same paper.

Here’s a student revealing his white practice print:


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Now, let’s move on to the final print:


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By the way, this is the paper I use for the final prints: It’s a handmade rag with a nice deckled edge. It comes in colors, too— (I might try the colored paper next time!)

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Once the students have their portrait printed successfully, it’s time to think about their patterned background. We use size 1 linoleum v-shaped blades and 1” gum erasers to make our own unique stamps. ( I have some leftover stamps that the kids can practice with first, using markers and plain white paper, to give them some ideas of how they want to design their stamp.)  I encourage the students to design a stamp with asymmetry, as that will yield more interesting options by allowing them to create different patterns based on whether they place the stamp the same way each time, or rotate the placement. This is a good time to master how to align the edges of the stamp for each print to create a consistent pattern!

Stamp carving and practice:


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Practicing Rotations: (Note the arrows on the paper which indicate stamp placement. We make a corresponding arrow on the top of the stamp to assist with this!)


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Before stamping the backgrounds of their portrait prints, the students need to create paper “masks” by carefully tracing their foam printing plate on paper and cutting the shape out precisely. These masks are placed over the dried portrait prints carefully, thus allowing our stamped background to match the edge of the printed portraits, without covering them. We use a few very small rolls of tape to hold the masks in place, (but be sure to “de-stickefy” the tape by pressing it on your clothing a few times!)

Tracing and cutting our “masks”


Applying our masks with a few small rolls of “de-stickefied” tape! 🙂IMG_2457

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Students Printing their backgrounds with their hand-made eraser stamps:



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NOTE: For the background printing, I set up stations and the students move to the table that has the ink color they want. The white paper under the inking try is a place to practice and test their stamp. This makes clean-up easier than if every student has their own inking tray.


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VERY IMPORTANT: The placement of the first stamp determines how all the rest will fall. The students must build off their first stamp, in any direction— like a grid. Each new stamp must be connected to a previous one or the pattern will be thrown off. Also, Its much more interesting to start in the middle and work your way towards the edges, rather than starting lined up in a corner. Angling the stamp on a diagonal can vary the pattern interestingly as well! This student is placing her stamp on a diagonal:


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Finished Practice Prints, masks on:


…and masks off! WOW!


The same student’s “Final” print on the deckled-edge paper:


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When we are all done printing, we use brightly colored Prismacolor pencils to add some accents on our portraits for an extra visual “pop”. I instruct the students to accent here and there, enough to emphasize the image, and that the pencil should follow along and NEXT TO an existing line of the print, not ON the line.

The practice prints ended up coming out so wonderfully vibrant that we got a secondary finished project! For fun, students cut out and swapped the portraits and taped them together on the back. They then decided whether to diaplay them individually, like this: 


or side-by-side like this: 


…or “reflection style” like this:

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Here’s a slide show that shows the sequence of how the students cut and re-assembled their practice prints:

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Here are some group results. This lesson took us about two weeks, meeting daily for 47 minutes, but you could streamline it by NOT making and embellishing the practice prints. Make your own variations and have fun!



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