In this post you will discover how to make beautiful detailed printing blocks from plasticine. It is quick and simple and has lots of potential for experimentation with textures and pattern making. The technique we are using here involves pressing textures into the flat surface of soft plasticine to create unique printing blocks.

What is plasticine?

vintage plasticine packaging
the original plasticine

I’d be surprised if you’ve never played with plasticine. This non-drying modelling clay was invented by William Harbutt in 1897, and since then it has been loved by generations of children and adults.

It has been used for childrens creative play, modelling in schools, making moulds for casting, creating flexible animation figures like Wallace and Grommet, and of course printing blocks.

Plasticine is a trade mark, and you can also get a similar material called ‘new clay’ or ‘new plast’. All these contain oil so it is best to use inks you can clean off with water because solvents like white spirit will dissolve the surface creating a sticky goo.

Plasticine for printmaking

a block, a leaf and the print
plasticine block, leaf and print

The thing that makes plasticine so great for printing blocks is that it is soft enough to a detailed impression, yet firm enough to be inked up and printed. 

Warm it up to make it softer and put it in the fridge to cool it down and make it hard if needed.

Here is a short video with a demonstration of making and printing your own unique plasticine blocks.

For plasticine printing you will need;

rolling pin, ink pad and pallet knife
basic kit for plasticine block printing
  • Plasticine, of course.
    * A rolling pin (or some kind of smooth cylinder) here I am using a tube of mastic.
    * A palette knife or piece of stiff plastic to cut the blocks straight.
    * A damp sponge for cleaning ink off the blocks.
    * An ink stamp pad.

water based block printing ink with roller and tile
water based block printing ink

If you don’t have an ink pad use water based printing ink (or at a pinch, poster paint) and a roller. I use a plastic floor tile to roll the ink out on.

Also get an opened out newspaper and some paper to print on. Paper with a smooth surface works best.

plasticine printing blocks from leaves and feathers
plasticine printing blocks from leaves and feathers

Textured things to press in to the block

In these examples I have used leaves and feathers. Make a collection of different types of leaf, use them as fresh as you can, include flowers and grasses too – you never know how things will turn out till you try them. Why not try lace and other textured fabrics as well, or packaging, bubble wrap…

You can also take your plasticine to the texture; things like tree bark, wood grain, the pavement or other things in your environment are all worth a try.

Make a plasticine printing block

The video shows how to do this – here are some written instructions too.

Soften the plasticine buy leaving it in a warm place, then pull off a lump and knead it into a ball. Press this on to a flat surface and roll it a bit with your rolling pin.

With your leaf on the table, lay the plasticine flat side down on top of it, carefully roll it again to press the plasticine onto the leaf.

Lift up the plasticine and peel the leaf off. You can leave it in its natural rounded shape or cut the edges straight using the palette knife. (This helps to fit it on the ink pad if it has got too big!)

Printing the block on paper

Press the plasticine block onto the ink pad. Alternatively ink up your roller and roll ink onto the block.

Lay your printing paper onto the opened out newspaper. (The newspaper pads the table and provides a soft surface.) Press the inky side of your printing block down onto the paper, then lift it off.

If you like it, keep going – try different arrangements and combinations of textures. If it you don’t like it wipe the ink off, squish the plasticine up and roll it out again.

Ideas to try

a square block printed in a brick wall pattern
a square block printed in a brick wall pattern
plasticine block prints on coloured paper
block prints on coloured paper

Print on coloured paper, mix different shaped blocks up

Fade out the ink; keep printing the block without re-inking it

block prints getting lighter
The colour fades out

Tessellate blocks in different ways; grids, brick walls, or with uneven spacing

a grid pattern from feather prints
square feather prints in a grid pattern

More things to try

Block prints have traditionally been used to decorate book covers. They also make lovely cards and letter headings.

Block printing is a great way to create repeating fabric designs, you will need fabric printing inks for this if you want your material to be washable though. For some other fabric printing activities see this post.

Nature printing

If you enjoy making prints directly form nature have a look at the posts for different ways to make prints from leaves and feathers.