In this post I am going to show you a quick and effective activity to inspire you and get your creativity flowing; we will make a textured plate and print it by combining rubbings and mono print rolling.

This example print is from a series I made, inspired by chalk horses engraved into the Wiltshire downs. I hope you will use this as a guide to the basic technique and adapt the idea for yourself, experimenting along the way to make it your own.

Chinese horse rubbing

Taking rubbings has a long history

I wasn’t too sure if rubbings could be thought of as prints, but I discovered that almost as soon as paper was invented the Chinese made rubbings. Often these were used as a way of reproducing and disseminating important texts, with a rubbing taken from the stone or wood block inscribed with the text. This is surely one of printmakings deep roots.

Max Ernst frottage eye

Max Ernst is one of the artists most associated with rubbings, (or frottage), but he is not alone… here are some examples of others who have explored the technique.

Rubbings are a great way to create multiple images without a press. Like all apparently simple techniques it contains huge possibilities; from recording a surface texture to a journey into deep philosophical enquiry. Here is an excellent blog post by Garry Barker, which explores some of the more sophisticated applications of rubbings.

First make a Rubbing Plate

Paint  a texture on mountboard; I am using gessoand a big house painters brush to get sweeping lines of texture.

It is surprising how little texture you need to get a good result, have a go with thick acrylic paint if you haven’t got gesso.

tub of gesso and big old brush

Cut out an image

One the gesso was dry, I scored the outline with a craft knife and peeled off the top layer of gesso and paper to reveal the core of the mount board. This means the image is recessed and the textured surface is raised.

Edges are interesting

Think about your edges as the rubbing technique can emphasise these. Because the original horse is cut into a hill I ripped the top edge to suggest the contour of the chalk downs in Wiltshire.

The horse image cut out of the textured plate

    That’s it – the plate is made!

    No need to seal it because it will not be touched by ink or press.

Paper for rubbings

What you want is thin paper that is strong enough to take some rubbing without tearing. Plain newsprint works well, and is good for test pieces.

I like Hosho paper, which is used for Japanese calligraphy, it has one smooth side and one rough. Also Chinese calligraphy paper, which I get from Cypress Books.

 Wax  for rubbings

Heelball was originally made for waxing shoes. It comes in a cake a bit like a bar of soap and is often used for brass rubbings. The wax is quite hard and a dense black, so it produces a good sharp image. If you use wax crayons this will work but the image can be a bit less precise.

Graphite sticks are lovely to use, these go on smoothly without much rubbing and pick up lots of detail. 

I found I preferred graphite as when you come to roll over the image the ink can stick to the wax and lift it, this doesn’t happen with graphite.

Take a rubbing

Hold the paper steady, you may want to tape it to the plate, or to the table.

Using the side of the crayon or stick rub gently to find the key contours; once you have your bearings press harder on some places, e.g. edges, to create an interesting range of tones.

Shift the paper around on the plate and rub it again to make overlapping images.

Single layer rubbing
multi layered rubbing of horses

Combine rubbings with mono prints

Ink up a roller with ink that has quite a bit of transparent added to it

Roll once gently but firmly over the paper; this will reveal the contours on the plate, leaving the recessed areas un-inked. The roller creates a soft layer of colour which makes a lovely contrast with the sharp graphic lines and textures of the rubbing.

For more information on this inking technique have a look at the ‘roller prints’  post. In this one I suggest using as a way of exploring environmental textures.

mono print roller rubbing of green horse

Experiment with rubbings and mono print layers

Try different colours and vary the pressure on the roller to find a good balance with the wax rubbing.

Roll over the plate several times, moving it a bit each time.

Do another rubbing after you’ve rolled the ink on.

I am sure you get the idea…..

rubbing and mono print of horse
mono print wax and roller rubbing

A new approach to old printing plates

As the technique is so quick you can get stuck in with little preparation or planning, and the immediate results are a great way to get creatively warmed up.

You dont even need to make a new plate. If you have old plates with even a little bit of texture, try re-visiting them with a rubbing and a mono print roll and you may find they take on a new life….

Both rubbings and roller prints on their own can keep you absorbed for ages; combining them adds even more possibilities. I hope you will enjoy experimenting with it.