Year 5 Visual Arts

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Potato printing

Printmaking went hand in hand with the first books and allowed many more people to see pictures, although only in black and white. Johannes [yo-HAN-ez] Gutenberg invented a printing press in 1436. This device allowed paper to be ‘pressed’ against the design again and again, making repeated copies. He started with words, made out of sturdy metal letters. Before the discovery of the printing press, every book had to be written out by hand. Being able to make more than one copy of a book at a time made a big difference to the spread of knowledge. How long would it take you to write out every word of this book by hand? A very long time! That’s why we printed it.

The Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in 1493, was one of the earliest religious books to be illustrated with prints instead of having each page painted by hand. The text and the pictures were printed repeatedly, using the same press. The Nuremberg Chronicle used woodcuts for its prints.

A woodcut requires carving an image into the surface of a wooden block. It is known as a relief print, as the parts that print in black are level with the surface, while the parts cut away with a chisel show white. It is more work than drawing one picture but can then be repeated many times. In the image, you can see the artist Jacques Hnizdovsky cutting the woodblock Copper Beech whist following his sketch. He has already carved the light brown areas, and the darker brown areas are waiting to be carved.

You can make your own print in the activity below. One thing you will notice straight away is that, as we saw in the tracing activity in Year 4, the image comes out in reverse, or back to front. Printed words did the same, so the person who put the letters in frames for printing had to be able to read backwards!

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Make your own Potato print

First, gather some medium-sized potatoes, some paints, thick paper and a vegetable knife (make sure an adult does this part). Next, follow these instructions to make your own potato prints.

1. Cut the potatoes in half.
2. Draw your shape onto the flat part of the potato.
3. Ask an adult to help you cut around the shape with a vegetable knife, leaving the design raised on the surface of the potato.
4. Press your potato into some paint.
5. Wipe off any excess before stamping the potato onto paper. (Be careful, if you push too hard the potato will slide across the page.)
6. You can wash the potato stamp and use a different colour. Can you make a pattern? You can use your potato to print again and again!

You might like to try a small biscuit cutter for a more complicated shape. Push the biscuit cutter into the potato and then ask an adult to help you cut around it. If you mix some paint in a tray using a roller you can make multi-coloured prints. Enjoy your printing!

This activity is adapted from pages 166-169 of What Your Year 5 Child Needs to Know.

Click below to see a related activity.

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