Potato Printing - like you've never seen before!
Years ago, a colleague in a job I once had affectionately called the Art Department 'The Potato Printers'. At the time I wasn't sure whether to be amused or offended. Many years later I explored relief printing with unusual surfaces and found you can actually achieve some lovely prints using carved vegetables such a potato or sweet potato. In this blog post, we will show you how to create a beautiful printed fabric that could be used for decoration or to make household or accessory items. This activity is suitable for children, probably age 9+ (they will need help with the knife and supervision on carving) or adults. In a later post we will show you how to turn it into something wonderful!
You will need:
A potato (other veg may work but some can be tricky to carve - potato works well)
Old fabric (old bed-sheets, shirts, curtains - faint or pale pattern can work well)
A manicure stick or other pointed tool (an old ballpoint pen works well)
Acrylic paints or fabric paints (if you are going to make a usable item afterwards, it needs to be permanent paint like this. If not, household emulsion paint would work)
Gloves (if you want to keep your hands clean)
Optional: old lace or net curtain and a glass jar.
Step 1: Carving
Choose an image and cut a block. Before you carve your potato, you need to think about what sort of image you want to create. Simple imagery works best, if you try and include too much detail you find that you won't get the level of detail you need. Plenty of linear curves work well, nothing too perfectly straight, you will find that tricky. I took inspiration from plant forms for my prints. Abstract patterns work well too. Don't be tempted to do words or numbers as these will print backwards unless you mirror them first (tricky). Once you have decided on an image, you will need to cut your potato. If you are a child reading this, please ask an adult to do this. The potato needs to be cut with a smooth knife to get a flat, clean cut (any curving in the cut will affect your print).
Use the manicure stick (or tool of your choice) to carve out the potato from the area you DON'T want to print. It is safest to carve away from your body. Work down in gentle movements, don't press down too hard or you might slip. You shouldn't try to go too deep to quickly. As mentioned, an old ballpoint pen works well too. With relief printing you are cutting away the sections you don't want to print (the gaps). So I will cut the areas around the leaves, etc. I found a manicure stick works well as it has a pointy end for fine detail and a flatter end of larger areas. As you carve, wipe the loose potato onto a cloth or tissue. Keep working into the potato, try and smooth out any rough bits and take the time to remove any loose bits of potato. Give it a wipe down with a cloth and then leave it to dry out a little, 30 min or so should help.
Step 2: Preparing the fabric
Before you place your fabric down, you need to print on a smooth but spongy surface. I used a fabric-backed table covering folded over into a thicker piece to give a bit of bounce. A folded fleece blanket works well too (put plastic on top if you don't want paint on the blanket). I used a bit of curtain fabric but any smooth woven fabric should work (avoided knitted material). Tape your fabric down or lie it out flat on the print surface. If you want a coloured or textured background to your fabric before you print, then you can do this by either sponging coloured paint directly onto the fabric or by using a stencil in the form of lace or net curtain. In my example below I used a bit of lace fabric. Anything with holes and a pattern should work.
Before you choose colours, think about the Colour Wheel and my suggestion is to use HARMONIOUS colours (these are next to each other on the colour wheel). If you use COMPLEMENTARY or CONTRASTING colours it will be hard to see your print over the top. I chose greens and yellow for this design.
I put the acrylic paint onto a piece of paper (newspaper or any old paper would be fine) as a paint palette - a small blob would do. You can mix colours together to get different shades of colour.
Then cut a bit from an old sponge and dab into the paint, The important bit it to BLOT the sponge once or twice onto clean paper, THEN dab it onto the fabric directly or onto the lace. If using the lace, cover it with paint.
Once you have put enough on and you don't need to cover the whole piece) you can then place it face down onto your fabric. Use a rolling pin (or a smooth jar works) to roll over the top to print the paint onto your fabric.
You can also print by placing lace onto the fabric and sponging paint through the gaps in the lace.
You might cut out sections of lace and print with smaller sections. This can work well for careful placement of detail.
Use combinations of these methods and use different shades of colour to create a textured and coloured background. Remember, the more similar the colours are to each other, the more subtle your background will be (and your print will seem more visible). Leave to dry before printing the next stage or dry with a hairdryer.
Step 3: Printing
Now it is time to print your potato. Before you print, think about what colours you want to use. They should be noticeable over your base colours, how much you see them depends on your choice or preference. In my green example I wanted the leaves to be seen but not in too much contrast so I chose darker shades of green for my potato print. I also used some white and yellow to lighten the colours as I printed. Like before, dip the sponge into the paint, blot on newspaper and then work the paint onto the potato surface.
Avoid putting too much paint on at once or you get blobs in the carved gaps which can look messy. If this happens, clean the grooves with a small bit or rolled cloth/tissue. It is best to build up the paint in thin layers. Once you have done this, decide where to put your block and press it down. Once it is down, don't be tempted to adjust it, you need to keep it perfectly still and press firmly over the back with your fingers, working your way around the curve of the potato, making sure it doesn't move. Then peel it back and see your print!
Too faint? Probably not enough ink or perhaps you took too long to add the paint, acrylic can dry fast. Try again with a bit more paint and try and press harder.
Too blobby? Possibly you put the paint on too thick - build it up in thinner layers next time. Check the gaps for blobs, if so clean them. Did you blot it?
Just right? Great - time to add more prints.
You can print as many as you want, where you like. I found using a continual up and down pattern worked well, rotating the block at 180 degrees. I would avoid trying to line anything up too perfectly, as the smallest bit out of line will be noticeable. In my design is used an up down layout with some overlaps and using slightly different shades of the green each time by adding tiny bits of yellow and white to the colour). I also think it is important to print half prints over the edges to ensure all of the fabric is usable.
Potatoes won't last forever so print while you can. Once finished, leave it to dry flat. If using paint, particularly acrylic, it is important to wash sponges and clean surfaces straight away, as once it dries, it is permanent.
You have now created your patterned fabric which we will use in a later post to make an item. Great work! Why not upload photos of your prints to the comments section?