Design with confidence

Would you like to feel more confident with design? If you enjoy learning new techniques and experimenting with unusual materials it can be tempting to keep on collecting more and more ideas.

But its not just about technique and special effects; the role of design is to help organise all this material, bringing it together in a coherent way, and enabling you to express and share your ideas in a print.

The aim of this post is to help you simplify the process so you can focus on design.

student creating a collagraph plate with cut and torn aluminium tape

Limit your techniques

I recently ran a course on making collagraph printing plates with aluminium tape.

Because you can do so much with this versatile material I really encouraged the students to focus on a limited series of specific techniques.

The aim was to simplify the technique in order to go deeper into design process.

We created a series of test plates, each one a considered design, exploring a different way to use aluminium tape on collagraph plates.

a series of design exercises with aluminium tape

Less is more

Collagraphs encompass so many textures and techniques it is very easy to get carried away, adding more and more to your plate.

These activities are trying to get you to reduce the range of elements on the plate, in order to really explore the design process. I find one of the hardest things on courses is to stop students adding more stuff to their plates – if I turn my back for a moment they have piled on more exciting textures and marks quickly swamping the design!

Perhaps we all need to make a big sign saying ‘less is more’ and pin it up somewhere obvious!

Student feedback

After the course I received this thoughtful student feedback which made me realise that other readers may like to have a go at some of these exercises;

“…how refreshing it was to be given particular parameters, I have taken that away and will apply to future work I am sure. I really feel I will take the dynamics of straight and torn edges on board, in particular, also LESS IS MORE in design terms!

I know you might feel just because you get experienced printers on your courses that somehow we feel we know about composition/balance stuff, but in my experience a lot of us don’t. We came to printing through workshops, Print Studios and via technique classes, and we don’t have an art school background; I would love to see more print workshops based on design, with some basic set ‘restrictions ‘ to rein me in – I find that liberating not restricting.”

The comments above make it really clear how hard it can be to get to grips with elements of design, (even if you have had an art school training), and this knowledge gap is often filled by adding ever more elaborate techniques. Kind of like adding more dressings on your salad, so instead of allowing the dressing to enhance the salad, it can end up swamping it.

students work showing a collagraph print from cut and torn aluminium tape.

Cutting and Tearing

Here is a small extract from the course on using aluminium tape, which I hope will help you to go deeper into an investigation of the design process. This activity uses ‘cut and torn edges’ as a starting point for exploration.

Limited materials

We used mountboard and aluminium tape as the vehicle, and nothing else. These two materials provide plenty of scope for endless prints. However you can apply these ideas to all sorts of other materials. Anything that can be cut and torn will work, for example fabric, paper or card.


Tonal contrast

Use the card base to provide tonal contrast; the surface of mountboard will print as a medium tone, the simplest thing to do is just use this plain surface and contrast it with the light tones of aluminium tape.

In the workshop we actually started by cutting or ripping some areas off top of the mountboard to make some rougher surface areas at the beginning; these will give areas of deeper tone, and can also inspire the aluminium tape shapes you add next.

Set your boundaries

  • Aluminium tape and mountboard
  • Only cutting and tearing
  • Scissors, knives, hands, nothing else
  • Be strict and stop before you catch yourself thinking ‘I’ll just add a little bit of drypoint’. I know it’s hard, but this is for your own good!
  • You can always make another plate with drypoint later.

Tearing aluminium tape

Torn edges are organic – only partially controlled by you, and involve you feeling your way along with your material.

Tear fast and energetically, or tear slow and thoughtfully; tearing is a process of relinquishing some control and seeing what happens.

Tearing Exercise

  • Tear part of the surface of the mountboard to reveal the rough inner core and make a darker tone. Use this in your design or just let it be part of the ground you are working on.
  • Rip shapes from the aluminium tape, removing any straight cut edges.
  • Stick the shapes down, some can overlap.
  • Consider the spaces between the shapes as well as the shapes themselves.
a collagraph plate made entirely with torn aluminium tape shapes

Cutting aluminium tape

Cut edges, either with scissors or a knife, are controlled and sharp. Whether straight or curved they are much more graphic.

Cut shapes can be abstract or representational – a silhouette or outline, complex curves and angles, or more regular geometry as in lines, squares, triangles etc.

Cutting Exercise

  • Cut shapes from aluminium tape using scissors or a knife.
  • Stick the shapes down, some can overlap.
  • Consider the spaces between the shapes as well as the shapes themselves.
  • Use a craft knife to score and cut shapes out of the top layer of mountboard once the tape is stuck down. This will create darker areas.
a collagraph plate made with cut aluminium foil shapes

Cutting and tearing combined and contrasted

Combine the two types of cut and torn line;  discover tension, relationships, and conversations between the lines and shapes.

You can use the contrast between cut and torn can edges to explore a number of concepts; organic vs mechanical, urban vs countryside, intuition vs intellect, control vs freedom….

Cutting and Tearing Exercise

  • Cut or tear shapes from the tape. Arrange them on the plate then stick down. Notice what happens where they meet, cross or overlap.
  • Notice the ‘negative’ shapes they create on the mountboard.
  • Cut out more areas once they are stuck down, or add more layers of tape if wanted.
a collagraph plate with contrasting cut and torn aluminium tape shapes

Control yourself

  • Don’t make deliberate wrinkles.
  • Don’t impress, emboss or attempt any drypoint. On no account stick any textures under the tape!
  • Just focus on the wonderful variety of effects you can create by tearing and cutting.
  • Keep your plates simple – if you have a new idea start a new plate. Make as many as you want.
  • What is the simplest plate you can possibly make?
a cut and torn aluminium tape plate

Print your plates

Ink them up as intaglio, ideally in only one dark colour.

Print each one several times, adjusting your wiping technique as you get to know the plate.

This print by a student on the course shows the torn surface of the mountboard plate creating differnt tones. This is combined with contrasting cut and torn shapes from aluminium tape.

students work showing a cut and torn aluminium tape print

More design process explorations

Cut and torn edges is only one focus, on the course we explored many more approaches, always using the same limited range of materials. It is just amazing how much you discover when you limit your choices and focus on specific aspects of design on the plate.

As the student commented, restrictions can actually feel liberating and allow you to go deeper into the particular processs.

Leave a comment below if you find this idea useful, and I can blog about some of the other ‘less is more’ design process explorations.