dovecote plate and embossed print

Blind Embossing, or printing without ink

Blind embossing involves pressing deep textures into paper, creating subtle and dynamic images that change with the angle of light and the position of the viewer. Sometimes inspiration blossoms when your choices are limited, and if you are used to printing with colour, blind embossing will stretch your understanding of the printed surface, introducing sculptural elements into your printmaking.

Planning an embossed print

Some of the textured printing plates you have already made will work well as embossed prints, but it is also interesting to start from scratch and make a plate designed to be embossed rather than inked.

embossed print with sandpaper
texture made with torn card and sandpaper

Your textures can be much bolder and deeper than those on plates you plan to ink up. In this example I used very coarse sandpaper, which would be impossible to ink successfully but works really well for embossing.

For one off prints just arrange the shapes loose on a base plate. If you want to print your plate several times, fix the shapes down with double-sided tape or spray mount. A registration sheet showing the position of different elements will help to get things in the same position for an edition of blind embossed prints.

See paper in a new light

Designing a plate to be embossed means working with the properties of paper to mould around and hold shapes. You are focussing purely on shadows and light to create texture and form. To make a successful embossed image choose nice thick paper (at least 220 gsm) and give it a good soak. Have a look at the post on preparing paper for more information on this.

Printing without ink is a clean process

No apron, no gloves, no cleaning up – no ink!

constructing a bird print from pond liner
constructing an embossed print

On a recent embossing workshop with printmakers everybody automatically put on aprons and rolled sleeves up, as you do. It was strange to realise this little ritual was not necessary, but we skill kept our aprons on due to some deeply ingrained sense of habit. Do all printmakers feel naked without an apron?
The lack of potentially messy ink makes this a great quick drop in activity, and also an easy one to do with children.

Test the pressure on the press

Once you have constructed your plate, simply lay it on the etching press and cover with a sheet of damp paper. Set a tight pressure; it’s a good idea to do a test run with different materials to judge the best pressure.

embossed shuttlecock and fabric
students work, embossed shuttlecock and fabric

If your print is not very sharp tighten the press a bit, if it tears or wrinkles the paper try loosening the pressure or using thicker paper.

With very deep textures it can help to put a piece of foam rubber under the press blankets to add more squashiness and help the paper reach the deeper areas of the plate.

Materials for Blind Embossing

There are loads of potential materials you can emboss. The key things to look out for are:

1. Thickness

Anything much less than a millimetre will make quite a subtle indentation. Objects, which are too thick, can tear the paper, or won’t actually go through the press. 

2. Hardness

making a plate with paper clips
making a plate with paper clips

Soft materials like fabric may not have enough density to impress in to the paper. Ideally your materials need to be hard enough to withstand the pressure of the press, but not so sharp that they cut the paper.

The things listed below have all been tried and tested, I hope you will explore other materials and leave a comment if you discover anything else we could share on the blog.

Wire and metal

embossed print with wire and pond liner
an embossed print made with wire and pond liner

Plastic coated garden wire is easy to cut and bend into shapes.

Why not try printing the same wire shape several times, changing it as you go like an animation? 

Small flat metal objects emboss very clearly; see the image above for paperclips, and below for a print made with keys.

Pond liner and lino

embossed pond liner
embossed pond liner

I love using 1mm PVC pond liner, which is easy to cut with scissors or a knife and also carved with lino tools. You may be able to scrounge some offcuts from the garden centre. Clear PVC works in a similar way.

Nb. Rubber pond liner, (as opposed to PVC) is not carveable, however you can easily cut shapes out of it.

When you cut out shapes don’t forget to keep all the offcuts as well, these are great for making positive and negative designs. I found up to four layers will print if you grade them up and down in steps. 

Lino cut plates look great when embossed. Before you roll ink on your plate to print it conventionally, try running it through the press with damp paper to see how it looks as a blind embossed image. In fact you can try this will all your textured plates before you print them, it helps to test the pressure of the press, and provides a new perspective on your plate.

Fabric and string

embossed string print
embossed string and pond liner

Strong stiff fabric works best for embossing. Try things like scrim and coarse textured braid. Hessian and enviromesh are all worth experimenting with as well. 

You can make interesting designs with string or thin rope, as long as it isn’t too soft.

Cardboard 

embossed jigsaw pieces
embossed jigsaw people

Strong card that you can cut or tear is a good embossing material. Often you will find packaging with punched shapes (try the Scrapstore).

I particularly like jigsaw pieces, and buy different sized jigsaws from charity shops, then spend a happy tea break picking out the shapes that look like little people.

Assorted found objects

Try anything strong and flat. Cut up shuttlecocks, plastic packaging, combs and disposable cutlery are all worth a go. I found this plastic skeleton on the road! Cheap toyshops are a good hunting ground… 

a toy skeleton embossed on paper
a toy skeleton embossed on paper
a wooden fork embossed
A wooden take-away fork

When you incorporate recognisable everyday items in your prints it lends humour to an image and encourages people to look again at familiar objects.

Cement and glue

Embossed glue print
Embossed glue print

Bathroom tile cement is a good material for creating very textured plates, but don’t forget to sand it to remove sharp points.

Thick glue is also fun to try – here is an example made with a glue gun. Its a good idea to seal glue with a coat of shellac or varnish to prevent it sticking to the damp printing paper in the press.

Adding colour

embossed prints coloured with pastel
embossed prints coloured with pastels

Once the paper is dry you can change the image by rolling ink over the top – the indentations will stay white, alternatively try rubbing the top surface with pastel crayons, which also produces colourful results. I have found that children enjoy this – it is a bit like those magic painting books where the image miraculously appears.

two embossed faces, one with ink rolled over
two embossed faces, one with ink rolled over

Deceptively simple prints

Blind embossing can seem very simple at first glance, after all it is used commercially for letterheads and book covers, but once you start experimenting with it you will discover a world of texture and shadow that can lead you along exciting new printmaking paths.
For more inspiration have a look at the post ‘Artists prints with blind embossing

Credits
Some of the images here were made by students on the Embossing course I ran at the Arthouse in Wakefield.

Follow me on social media

3 thoughts on “Blind Embossing, or printing without ink

  1. Pingback: Artists' prints with blind embossing - The Curious Printmaker

  2. Teddi

    Hi Emily – card or thin wooden letters / numbers also work well as long as you remember to reverse them [unless you use the debossed side] But have you tried chine colle with embossing?

    Reply

Add your comment on this post

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.