How to Make a Drypoint Etching from Recycled Plastic, and Print it without a Press

Drypoint engraving of a man with a Chrysler 300 and Godzilla

Drypoint Etchings on Recycled Plastic Sheets

So far, I’ve experimented with Drypoint etching print from a Trader Joe’s biscotti container here, and a monotype print from a recycled plastic blueberry container here. In this post, we’ll go over how to make a Drypoint Etching (also known as a drypoint engraving) from a plastic lettuce container, and we’ll keep the process super simple. We’ll print the Drypoint without a press, by using a cereal spoon.

An etching needle, also called a twisted scribe
This is a twisted scribe, or a Whistler’s Needle, named after painter and printmaker James McNeill Whistler

Etching and Engraving Tools

Plastic printmaking plates are soft enough to engrave with a sewing needle taped to a chop stick. But if you have the means to get a twisted scribe (see them here on Amazon), I’d recommend adding one to your art supplies.

A stainless scribe will make engraving plastic (or traditional copper) plates much easier, and you’ll have it for the rest of your art-making life.

Three etching tools - a diamond tipped scribe, a cork handled scribe and a twisted scribe - also called a Whistler’s Needle
Three engraving tools for creating a Drypoint on recycled plastic: (top to bottom) a diamond tipped scribe, a cork handled engraving scribe and a twisted scribe, or Whistler’s Needle.

Recycled Plastic Produce Containers Make Great Drypoint Plates

With a sharp tip held like a pencil, you can draw directly on a sheet of smooth recycled plastic to create a drypoint etching.

If drawing is not your jam, you can lay a photograph underneath your plate, and trace the shapes onto the plastic. (If you do this, it’s a good idea to tape both the photo and the plate to the table to keep the two sandwiched in place while you’re drawing.)

And if holding a scribe or an engraving needle for long periods of drawing time results in aches or pain, you can also use an electric engraver (like this one) to speed up the process.

Plastic food containers can be cleaned and trimmed into printmaking plates
The best place to find a flat sheet of plastic on produce and baked goods containers is often under the label, or somewhere on the lid.
If you don’t have plastic containers in your grocer’s produce and baked goods sections, check out snacks, candies and nuts. Just think: food treats and art!
After removing the labels from plastic food containers, you can clean them to use as printmaking plates
Clip the lid from the box with craft scissors (like these). Soak the labels in warm water and roll the paper off the plastic.
Taking glue off plastic food containers with a little vegetable oil
Use a bit of vegetable oil on the glue – massage it into the glue with a paper towel to break it up, being careful not to scratch the plastic.
Use scissors to trim the flat parts of plastic food containers out of the lid and bottom to use them as printmaking plates
Wash the plastic with dish soap, and use craft scissors to trim off relief logos, ridges and raised boarders, to get a nice, flat sheet of plastic.
Tape your plastic food container snippet on top of a reference photo and use an engraving tool to trace the image
Tape your reference photo and your plastic plate to a table, or a sheet of cardboard or mat board. This will make it easy for you to rotate the photo/plate assembly while you’re drawing, to get good scribe traction on longer or curvy lines.
A plastic food container with an engraved drawing in the surface
In this example, I’ve just outlined the shapes wherever there was contrast. I plan to add watercolor, so there’s no need to crosshatch shadows, since I’ll add those with pigments later.
Inking and wiping a Drypoint plate intaglio style - made from a plastic food container
Before you ink the plate, wash it again with dish soap, and dry it thoroughly. Your ink won’t stick to the plate if there are fingerprints or tiny plastic particles floating around. If you have an old phone book, it works perfectly for inking and wiping small intaglio plates.
Taping the Drypoint plate to a surface will help stabilize it for hand transfer with a spoon
A bit of packing tape under the plate will help to keep it from moving while you’re rubbing your printmaking paper into the inked line work.
Using a cereal spoon to transfer a Drypoint etching to paper, and peeking under the corner to see if the lines are transferring
While rubbing your paper into the line work, you’ll be able to feel the spoon move over the drawing. Hold your paper steady with one hand, and peek under a corner to ensure that you’re rubbing hard enough to collect ink.
A Drypoint etching print next to a sheet of recycled plastic container used to make it
After pressing the soaked and blotted paper (this paper works best for hand-transfer and adding watercolor–>BFK Rives Lightweight printmaking paper) into the inked plate with a spoon, the Drypoint print is drying in the studio.
Painting a Drypoint etching print with watercolors
After the ink is dry, you can paint your print edition with watercolors
A Drypoint etching print of a man standing in a suit jacket and tie in front of a 1955 Chrysler 300 with a palm tree and Godzilla in the background
You can also add collaged elements, or additional drawing details to the print. You’re the Boss.
Here is a tutorial video to show you how to make a drypoint etching from recycled plastic without a press.

If You Need a Reason to Buy Cookies

I hope you’ll try this drypoint etching process on a recycled cookie container. It’s fun, relatively quick, and you can print an entire edition at your kitchen table.Let me know in the comments if you’ve tried making one, and leave a link where we can see yours. Also, feel free to leave any questions about the process.

Thanks for stopping by and I’ll see you in the next post!

Belinda

P.S. Watch printmaker Karen Wicks pull two tiny drypoint etchings made from a medication packaging box.

pulling a drypoint print from a sheet of black plexiglass after a trip through a printing press, where the line work on the plate has transferred to the paper revealing a still life of a rose, a cup and a bird figurine
After a trip through the press, pulling a drypoint etching print off a black acrylic plate to reveal the ink transfer – from the ink embedded in the grooves on the plate, to the printmaking paper

Art Quote

Unsen Mountain is a woodblock print (ca 1927) by Hiroshi Yoshida. Yoshida was an avid traveler, outdoorsman, and hiker, and he captured the beauty of various scenes through these prints. He took inspiration from 19th-century European watercolorists and added Japanese traditional ink painting themes to depict the landscapes. This print (10 x 16) captures the Unsen Mountain from across a river. The low tide of the river exposes the surrounding sand and terrain. Many people are on the sand in their swimming suits and boats are portrayed in the center of the print. The size of the mountains contrasts the small size of the people and emphasizes human interaction with nature. Yoshida also uses this print to depict one of the pastimes of people.


Supply List to Make a Drypoint Etching from Plastic

  • Recycled Plastic squares or rectangles from fruit, baked goods or candy containers
  • Plexiglass (if you can’t find recycled plastic – try perspex, optix, lexan, etc.)
  • Akua Transparent Base (this modifier thins the color in any of your pigments to print very soft and transparent)
  • Apron (this is my favorite linen apron, ever)
  • daubers or “dollies”: rolled strips of felt for ink application
A little red tabby cat asking if you’d like to make art more often
Visit BelindaTips for a free video dose of creative encouragement

7 thoughts on “How to Make a Drypoint Etching from Recycled Plastic, and Print it without a Press”

  1. Pingback: Drypoint Printing at Home without a Press (Part 1) - Belinda Del Pesco

  2. I have saved this to FINALLY review and I can hardly wait to do this!! I love your demos that repurpose materials destined for the trash bin or recycling bucket! When our class re-convenes once COVID has relinquished its hold on everyone – I want to try with them. This looks super fun, and since I don’t have access to a press yet – perfect to try! Thanks so much Belinda – and have a Happy Thanksgiving everyone.

    1. Hi MaryLiz! I’m so glad you’re going to give this a go. I just made another one at the kitchen counter, and they are so FUN! The notion that you’re rescuing something from the trash, and it didn’t cost anything extra beyond the contents of the container, which has been consumed (especially if it was cookies!) – is quite freeing! Have a wonderful Thanksgiving, and thanks again for stopping in!

  3. Pingback: Drypoint Etching from Plexiglass with Watercolor - Belinda Del Pesco

  4. Pingback: Drypoint Etching without a Press - Belinda Del Pesco

    1. Hi Robyn! Yes, let’s focus on the fun! As they say – do it for the process. Experimentation along the way informs everything upcoming. Thank you for the compliments.

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