“How does the shape of your printing plate affect the design?”
“How can your design affect the shape of the printing plate? “

These are the questions students took as a starting point on a recent course in my studio.

can you print from bubble wrap?
can you print from bubblewrap?

So often we start with a rectangular printing plate. Manufacturing processes, commercial cutting machines, and a general sense that ‘that’s the way it’s done’ all help to perpetuate the rectangular shaped printing plate as a starting point.

Step out of your rut!

It is interesting to shake yourself out of your usual groove by questioning some of the assumptions you make. The rectangular printing plate is often one such assumption; it makes life easy, and is convenient, but is it always the most inspiring starting point?

Print combining different shaped plates
A print combining different shaped plates

As the old saying goes, “the only difference between a rut and a grave is the depth,” so if you find yourself feeling stuck in a rut here is an idea that may help you step out of it and try a different approach to plate making.

It is fun and liberating to play around with different shaped printing plates, and this activity can prompt you to discover new directions….

Different starting points for shaped printing plates

The two questions at the start assume two different routes to making a shaped plate:

‘How does the shape of your plate affect the design?’ involves taking a differently shaped plate as your starting point. 
‘How can your design affect the shape of the printing plate?’ involves making a design on the rectangular plate and then altering its shape to reflect the image.

1. Begin with a shape, and make a design that fits it

You may have a favourite size and shape you generally use for your plates. Perhaps this is because it fits in your printing press, it makes economical use of your favourite paper, or the finished print sits neatly into a particular frame size. These are all good practical reasons but also pretty boring. 

different shaped printing plates
different shaped printing plates

Tilt your perspective

If you are very attached to your particular rectangle or square why not start with a small step and change your focus by standing it on its point? This balancing diagonal plate has a very different feel from the rectangle sitting solidly on its base. This simple change could suggest a whole new approach…. 

Random off cuts

Mount board makes a great base for a collagraph printing plate, it is easy to cut with a craft knife and you may already have a heap of offcuts of different shapes.  Other craft projects can result in irregular shaped offcuts, for instance the negative shape where a circle has been cut out. Community Scrapstores are a rich resource of clean industrial offcuts in many different shapes and materials. Our one in Leeds usually has piles of foam and card with odd shapes and angles stamped out. 

printing plates made from offcuts
shaped printing plates made from offcuts

Off cuts are frequently rectangular but if they are tall and thin (or short and wide, depending on your orientation) they can surprise you in to creating new and unusual images. If you have started cutting unique shaped printing plates for yourself you will soon have a store of interesting offcuts – virtually nothing needs to be thrown away.

Shape your printing plate on purpose

A colourful print from a circular shaped printing plate
A colourful print from a circular shaped printing plate

One way to begin is to cut your own shapes from sheets of mountboard. If you have a clear idea of your finished image why not cut the plate to fit? Recognisable outlines of simple shapes like vases and jugs make great starting points.

We used quite a few circular plates, you can get gadgets for cutting different sized circles that make it easier to get a really accurate shape. Chop your circle in half for more variety! 

two prints from a torn printing plate
two prints from a torn printing plate

Alternatively rip the card into rough shapes with jagged edges. If you have a blow-torch burning the card will also give you some interesting shapes to start with.

Found materials

If you enjoy scavenging and re-cycling, found materials can make great printing plates, and they come with their own shape to start with.

Cardboard and plastic packaging that can be opened out flat provides an interesting starting point. If you pass a skip with offcuts of thin plywood or vinyl flooring these can also make great plates. 

2. Begin with a design, then shape the printing plate

As your design on the plate develops you may discover some areas are not really needed – cut them out!

Perhaps something went ‘a bit wrong’ – cut it out

shaped printing plate with net
shaped printing plate with net

Maybe your design reached the edge of the plate before it was finished – stick a bit on!

Those straight edges don’t have to stay that way. Loosen up a bit and let the design guide the shape of the final plate.

Don’t stop at one plate

Three little prints
three little prints

Offcuts are frequently small. So make little plates and arrange a few of them on the printing paper.

Tiny prints in sequences are very appealing and encourage you to discover differences or spot similarities.

Multiple smaller plates are a good way to building up rhythm and using repetition, for example lots of circular plates, or rows of similar but different rectangles 

The empty spaces

You may feel like tearing or cutting your printing paper to further challenge the idea of rectangular containers but regular shaped paper can be just what an irregular printing plate needs.

Four little shaped printing plates
four small shaped printing plates

The interesting thing about irregular shaped printing plates is the effect they have on a blank rectangular sheet of paper.

Try positioning your plate in various ways on the paper, as with the square plates, just tilting it a bit can make a massive difference. The negative space between the print and the frame becomes a dynamic part of the whole image, and how you arrange it affects the feeling of the finished print.

If you are printing several small prints on one sheet of paper the spacing between them becomes critical. If you vary the spacing it changes the relationships between the images and can totally alter the way you read the whole. Once you have settled on a layout you like, make yourself a registration sheet so you can repeat it accurately. 

Creative freedom

At the end of the two-day course the students found that abandoning the conventional rectangular plate had released their creativity, giving a sense of freedom. There was a feeling of new possibilities opening up and people surprised themselves with the finished prints they made, many being quite unlike their usual work. 

students making shaped printing plates
students making shaped printing plates

All the prints shown here were produced by students on the two-day ‘Extending Collagraphs’ course in my studio.

In case you were wondering, the little pegs in the corners of the prints are magnets, fixing everybody’s work up on the ‘magnetic exhibition wall’ so we can keep track of progress.