Robert Blackburn Lesson Plan

Lesson Plan

ACFF author:  Diane Cherr  

- introduce students to one of the 20th Century’s most important American Printmakers and art instructors

-To see that Robert (Bob) Blackburn brought printmaking to many artists with his great generosity, welcoming artists of all backgrounds to The Printmaking Workshop (TPW) from the time it was founded in 1948

-To excite and inspire students as they view his prints

-To engage students in dialogue as they view Blackburn’s work

-To look at and discuss Blackburn’s use of shape, pattern, composition, color, line and form, acquainting students with the elements of art

-To learn facts about Blackburn’s life regarding the social and historical context of his work

-To prepare students for the field trip and the opportunity to create their own prints in an art making activity

Photo- Robert Blackburn, 1987
Photograph by Peter Sumner Walton Bellamy

Refugees (aka People in a Boat) 1938
Lithograph 11 1/8” 15 ¾”, edition 4 of 8
Loan from North Carolina Central University Art Museum, Gift of Christopher Maxey, Photograph in Monograph by Peter Geoffrion

Robert Blackburn was a high school student in New York City when he learned the art of lithography. “Refugees” is a lithograph.  A lithograph is created by drawing on a very heavy piece of limestone with a greasy or oily substance.  The stone is specially prepared so the artist can take ink impressions from the stone and create a print.  Blackburn treated the drawing on the stone so that the greasy image could become inky and he could make multiple impressions of his image of the men in the boat.  This is how he created all of his lithographs.

Though he was part of a gang as a teenager, he was more interested in creating art, reading and jazz music, which kept him off the streets. He learned lithography at the Harlem Community Arts Center, often referred to “the Harlem Art Center.”  The people he worked with at this time helped him form strong relationships and identify with other African American Artists.  The drawings and prints he created while a high school student were about the African American man.

“Refugees” has been interpreted as relating to the images of the Underground Railroad and the African American migration North. Real life experiences influenced Blackburn’s work.  There are two strong people rowing toward shore, while the other passengers are bent over, hard to see. What do you think the land in the distance represents?  How would you interpret this print as a trip to freedom?  What would your drawing or painting of freedom look like? Blackburn was eighteen years old when he completed this print.  What do you want to do when you are eighteen?

Boy with Green Head 1948
Lithograph, 14 ½” x  10 ½”
Loan from the Clark Atlanta University Art Collection, Courtesy of Clark Atlanta University Art Collection

Girl in Red, 1950
Lithograph, 18 ¼” x 13 ½”
Loan from Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C.
Photograph by Karl Peterson

Note: This reproduction includes registration marks, which Blackburn used to align the various colors, as well as the printed edge of a lithographic stone.  Normally, these marks from the artist’s process would be covered by a mat.

The “Boy with the Green Head” is interesting because the figure in the lithograph is looking out of the print at the viewer.   Blackburn used more than one lithography stone to create each of the two finished prints. The composition of “Boy with the Green Head” is simpler than the “Girl in Red, “ another color lithograph created around the same time.  Blackburn created the “Girl in Red” in 1950, at least ten years after “Refugees.” The marks in the margins, or white areas of the paper are called registration marks.  When an artist works in more than one color and uses more than one lithography stone, the registration marks make it possible to place the paper so the colors line up properly, and the image looks perfect.  Without those marks, the print could be blurry, or not even look like the “Girl in Red” at all.

In “Girl in Red,” Blackburn is beginning to turn towards abstractions and away from figurative work, while the “Boy with the Green Head” is purely figurative.  In ”Girl in Red,” he creates his composition by combining the still life (a collection of objects arranged together in a specific way, showing us a new way of looking at ordinary objects around us) elements in the foreground, the landscape outside the window and the portrait of the young black girl wearing red. The piece is very colorful and engages the viewer.  What colors do you see in the “Girl in Red?”  Are there as many different colors in “Boy with Green Head?”  Is one of the two pieces more interesting to you?  Do you think these pieces are realistic?


In 1948, Blackburn opened the Printmaking Workshop (PMW) in his home in New York City.  His plan was to hold printmaking classes, print editions for other often famous artists and to allow students and friends to experiment on the presses. Artists from around the world were invited to work in the Printmaking Workshop (PMW), where he generously made available printmaking supplies so they could create their own work.  Blackburn is known for welcoming other artists into his space, where they could express their creativity.  He is also known as an artistic genius.

Blackburn welcomed everyone who wanted to work and all had unlimited access to  the presses. The warm, caring, generous environment extended to everyone, whatever their race or gender.
When Blackburn could find time, he worked on his own prints.
Pictured above are several prints created at PMW by two wonderful women, Faith Ringgold and  Betty Blayton Taylor  (note we could ask Otto Neals for a quote and 2 images too).

 Ignoring the warnings,1999 by Betty Blayton Taylor
 mono print , collage approach, 17.5”x25.5”, on arches paper

  Dance Motions, 1984 Betty Blayton Taylor
mono print, collage approach, 19"x26", on arches paper

Betty Blaydon’s Statement related to her experience with Bob Blackburn
I was introduced to Bob and the Bob Blackburn Printmaking Workshop in the early 1970’s. I don’t think there was an artist that Bob met that he did not convince
that they needed to come and make prints at his Printmaking workshop. I was no exception. Though I explained to him that I had taken a course in printmaking at Syracuse University and did not like it at all!! He convinced me that he would show me a verity of approaches and I would find one that I would enjoy. First I did etchings using the intaglio approach that was exciting but later I began doing monoprints using a collage and or direct ink to plate approach. Most of my prints represent these two approaches. Bob was a dedicated master printmaker whose personal works are rare examples of the many approaches to printmaking. As a teacher he loved to share his knowledge of printmaking with any artist who expressed and interest in learning and often with those who were a bit resistant , as I was, for Bob had a touch of printmaking magic. I am blessed and very grateful to have been touched by his magic. Betty Blayton Taylor

Red Wine Glass c. 1950
Lithograph, 12 ¼ x 17
Loan from Nelson/Dunks Collection. Photograph by Greg Staley

Blue Wine Bottle c. 1951
Lithograph, 14” x 16 ½”
Loan from Howard University Gallery College of Art, Washington, D.C. Photograph by Greg Staley

Still Life(aka White Jug), c.1950
Lithograph, 13 ½” x 18 ¼” Loan from Nelson/Dunks Collection.
Photograph by Greg Staley

Red Pipe (aka Red Pitcher Still Life)1958
Lithograph16 ½” x 21 3/4 “
Loan from Wes and Missy Cochran, Cochran collection, Photograph by Ben Arnold

In the early 1950’s, after creating the “Girl in Red,” Blackburn focused upon creating recognizable still life lithographs using at least several litho stones to create the rich colors shaping the pitchers, bottles, glasses, teacups and fruit in the compositions.  The backgrounds of each print are also colorful.  Are the objects in Blackburn’s still life prints realistic? How are they different from a photograph?  Do you think he successfully created texture and shadow? How do you think he chose the colors and where to place the objects on the picture plane? How important are the colors of the backgrounds to each of the prints?  How did he select the titles of these pieces? What would you title the pieces?

Quiet Instrument 1958
Lithograph, 11 ¼ x 8 ¾” edition 11 of 12 ( ed.number may differ)
Loan from Nelson/Dunks Collection, Photograph by Greg Staley

Reflections (aka The Mirror). 1960
Lithograph, 18 ½” x  23 ¾”
Loan from Nelson/Dunks Collection, photograph by Greg Staley

Blackburn’s still life prints became more abstract as he further explored lithography, though objects were still recognizable.  As you look at the prints above, what objects can you find?  Do they look like the real objects? How are they different?  Do you think these prints are more or less interesting than if the subjects were realistic? He used more than one stone and a variety of colors of ink to create each print. How does he show shading of the objects in these prints? What shapes that are repeated  (circles, triangles, squares) in each print? Through repetition of shapes, Blackburn draws the viewer into the compositions , causing one’s eye to travel around the picture plane.

Unlike more traditional artists, Robert Blackburn often did not create limited editions of his prints, but enjoyed exploring the vast number of creative possibilities a lithographic stone or woodblock could offer.  He often turned his lithographic stones in different directions and applied a variety of colors of ink to explore the many possibilities he might create in a print.  Exploring the vast number of juxtapositions was exciting.

Blackburn’s work became more abstract.   He continued to explore the use of color in his lithographs, but enjoyed experimenting with the compositions by turning the stones in different directions when he printed them, and even changing colorations.
Look at the two variations on “Heavy Forms” printed in 1958.  They are examples of a lithograph printed two ways.  Does the composition work both ways?  The colors are very similar on both prints, but the positions of the shapes cause your eye to be drawn around the composition in different ways.  Do you have a preference? 
Heavy Forms (Pink) 1958
Lithograph, 15 ¾” x 19 ½”
Loan from Wes and Missy Cochran, Cochran Collection. Photograph by Karl Peterson

Grace- note:
Additionally, there is another vertical version of this print noted in Dr. Deborah Cullen’s essay on Blackburn – note figure 10:
Heavy forms / Pink 1958-
Lithograph, color proof
15 ¾” x 19 ½” 
The Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop Print collection
Image C : The Estate of Robert Blackburn.  Used with Permission.  Prints and photographs Division, The Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.

Heavy Forms (Pink) 1958
Lithograph, 19 ½” x 15 ¾”
Loan from Nelson/Dunks Collection.  Photograph by Greg Staley

Three years later, in 1961, Blackburn created a totally different version of
the lithograph “Heavy Forms.”  He had saved the original stones he had printed from and by inking them up in different colors and make minor changes to the stones, he was able to completely change the print. How are the colors different? In the 1961 print, the shapes are completely inside a frame created by a beautiful red ochre (brown) ink. The two earlier prints are completely different in their composition, or how the shapes are placed on the picture plane and the color changes the mood or feeling of the print.  The earlier pink prints, have shapes extending off the picture plane. Do you like one print better than the other?  Which and why? Give each piece a new title using your imagination and explain your title.

Heavy Forms, 1961
Lithograph, 15 ¾” x 19 ½” Loan from Wes and Missy Cochran, Cochran Collection, Photograph by Karl Peterson

Additionally- in Deborah Cullen’s essay
Heavy forms, 1961
Lithograph, edition of 10
15 ¾” x 19 ½”
The Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop Print Collection
Image c: the estate of Robert Blackburn.  Used with Permission.  Prints and photographs Division.  The Library of Congress, Washington D.C.

“Blue Window” and “Windowed Shapes” are two other examples of larger scale lithographs printed in differing colors and directions.  They are like puzzles.

Blue Window, c 1962-1963
Lithograph, 17 ½’ x 26 ¾”
Loan from Wes and Missy Cochran, Cochran Collection.  Photograph by Karl Peterson
Can you find the circle in each piece?  How are the prints similar?  How are they different?  What shapes are in the same place on both prints?  What shapes have moved?  Do you prefer one print?  What do you like and why?  What do you think of Blackburn’s choice of colors?

Windowed Shapes, 1963
Lithograph, 17 ½” x 26 ½”
Loan from Wes and Missy Cochran, Cochran Collection.  Photograph by Karl Peterson

Robert Blackburn was also well known for his woodcuts.  A woodcut is a relief print. The artist draws the composition on a piece of wood and uses special gouging tools to cut away pieces from the block of wood.  The pieces of wood that are cut away with the tools will not receive ink.  The raised portions of the wood block are inked with a roller.  A piece of paper is placed on top of the block and rubbed with a wooden spoon, barren or a press can be used.  The paper is lifted away from the woodblock.  The raised areas of the woodblock have printed in reverse and the recessed areas have not picked up any ink and have remained blank.  If more than one color is used, separate blocks are usually used for each color ink.

This is an example of woodblock used to create one of the Three Ovals (aka The Ovals) prints ca late 1960’s- early1970s

Woodcut, 12 x 15 ¼”
Image c: the Estate of Robert Blackburn, Used with permission

Here are several prints with three ovals, all of which are similar.

Three Ovals (aka The Ovals), 1960’s-1970s
Woodcut, 17 1/5” x 14 ½”
Loan from Nelson/Dunks Collection.  Photograph by Greg Staley

This is a black and white print of Three Ovals.   Look how carefully Blackburn cut out the shapes.  He also made other marks with his woodcutting tools.  The lower right corner looks like wood, where the other parts look smooth or have cut out textures.  Blackburn raised the woodgrain, probably using a soft wire brush to remove the softer wood and expose the harder wood on the block.  Only the harder raised wood accepts the ink when raising the grain.

Red Inside, 1972 – late 1980s
Woodcut, 12” x 11 ½”
Loan from Nelson/Dunks Collection.  Photograph by Greg Staley

The woodcut “Red Inside’” is very similar to  “Three Ovals.”  What shapes are repeated?  How are the prints alike?  How are they different?  How does the use of color versus black and white change your view of the imagery.

Woodscape, 1984
Woodcut, 12’ x 15 1/4”
Loan from the estate of Robert Blackburn and the Robert Blackburn Printmaking Workshop, The Elizabeth Foundation for the Arts, NY, Photograph by Karl Peterson

In Woodscape, 1984, there are many similarities between the previous two prints, “Three Ovals” and “Red Inside.”  What are the similarities?  What shapes are repeated in all three prints?  What is the main difference in “Woodscape?”  Why do you think Blackburn gave the piece this title?  How does the raised wood grain change the print?  How does this print relate to the other two woodcuts?

Many of Blackburn’s prints have trapezoidal centers illuminated by corner relief areas. Three larger prints, “Blue Things,” “Purple Flash III” and “Yellow Flash” are good examples of this composition.   They are also wonderful examples of his bold use of color. Blackburn reused the four corner relief panels from “Blue Things” in the other two prints. In “Purple Flash,” the purple jewel tone curves through the center of the piece, mimicking the corner shapes.  What weather form does it make you think of?

Blue Things, c.1963-1970
Woodcut, 20” x 26”
Loan from Wes and Misty Cochran, Cochran Collection, Photograph by Karl Peterson

Purple Flash III, 1972
Woodcut, 26” x 20”
Loan from Nelson/Dunks Collection.  Photograph by Greg Staley

Yellow Flash, 1972
Woodut, 26” x 20”
Loan from Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington, D.C.  Photograph by Karl Peterson

Once again, in “Yellow  Flash,” jewel like tones cut through the center of the piece, drawing the viewer’s eye through the composition with the yellow and white diamond and red triangles. What does this print make you think of?  What is the mood of these prints?

Modern Times, 1974
Woodcut, 11 ½” x 11 ¼”
Loan from Nelson Nelson/Dunks Collection. Photograph by Greg Staley

Modern Times, 1984
Woodcut, 11 ½”x 11 ¼”
Loan from Wes and Missy Cochran, Cochran Collection, photograph by Karl Peterson

The first of the two “Modern Times” woodcuts was created in 1974.  Ten years later, Blackburn created the second version of the print in blue, red, black and white. He used the same woodblocks to create each print.  Find the triangles and follow them though the two prints.  Now follow the circles.  Even though the woodblocks are printed in different directions, your eye follows the shapes and colors.  Tell what you like about the prints.  Do you think “Modern Times” is a good name?  Do you think the title pays reference to the abstract composition or that it has a different meaning?

A group of three large related woodcuts follow.  Look at the differences and similarities in the rhythms created in the yellow and blue “Sunburst,’” the more neutral “Space Shape (aka Space Ship, Kiss Shape)” and the vibrantly colored “Penumbra.“   “Sunburst” has a sense of a figure, Blackburn has cut marks in wood inked up to create the yellow circular area. The flattened neutral grays, greens and blues of “Space Shape“ seem to move back, while the white shape comes forward.  In “Penumbra,” Blackburn created the dominant circle around the upside down Africa shape by cutting rounded and dotted marks into the blue background.  A penumbra is a partial shadow, like an eclipse.  Was Blackburn successful in illustrating his title?  Do you see a sky?

Sunburst, 1967-1969
Woodcut, 20”x 25”
Loan from Robin Holder, Photograph by  Karl Peterson

Space Shape (aka Space Ship, Kiss Shape), 1970
Woodcut, 22” x 20”
Loan from Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress, Washington D.C. Photograph by Karl Peterson

Penumbra I (aka Walk in the Shade), 1970-1974
Woodcut, 20” x 26”
Loan from Nelson/Dunks Collection.  Photograph by Greg Staley

Robert Blackburn- Art Definitions

A print is a work of art made up of ink on paper and often existing in multiples.  The artist uses an indirect transfer process instead of drawing directly on paper.  The artist creates a composition on another surface (wood, stone, metal plate, linoleum for example) and the transfer occurs when a sheet of paper is placed in direct contact with the surface (or matrix) and is run through a printing press.  Relief prints, such as linoleum or woodcuts can also be printed without a press, using a brayer (roller), a baren (a round flat burnishing tool that firmly rubs the back side of the inked paper when creating a relief print) or wooden spoon to create similar pressure to that which would otherwise be created by the weight of the printing press.

An advantage to creating artwork as a print is that numerous “impressions” can be made, because each new piece of paper can be sent through the press or printed the same way.  The artist decides how many prints to make and the total number of identical impressions is called an edition.

A lithograph is one of the most direct printing mediums because the images are created on a flat surface, like drawing with a crayon or watercolor on paper.
The artist uses special oil based crayons or ink to draw on a polished slab of limestone.  After treating the stone with special chemicals, the image will attract the printer’s ink and the blank areas will attract water and repel the ink.  The surface of the stone is kept wet while the oil-based ink is put on the stone with a large roller in the areas that have been prepared to receive the ink.  A piece of clean printing paper is placed on top of the inked stone and it is run through a litho press, which exerts even pressure.  Once the paper is lifted from the stone, the image has been printed in reverse.  A separate stone is used for each color ink. 

Woodcuts are the oldest printmaking technique, arising around 1400 and originally used for stamping designs onto fabrics or playing cards.  Though the woodcut became a popular art form in the 1600’s, it was not until the late nineteenth or early twentieth century that woodcuts played a dominant role in printmaking.  Woodcuts fit in the category of relief prints. Woodcuts can utilize the grain of the wood as part of the composition.  They can be rough hewn or very finely detailed.  The artist draws the composition on a piece of wood and uses special gouging tools to cut away pieces from the block of wood.  The pieces of wood that are cut away with the tools will not receive ink.  The raised portions of the wood block are inked with a roller.  A piece of paper is placed on top of the block and rubbed with a wooden spoon or barren.  A printing press can also be used.  The paper is lifted away from the woodblock.  The raised areas of the woodblock have printed in reverse and the recessed areas have not picked up any ink and have remained blank.  If more than one color is used, separate blocks are usually used for each color.  A linocut or linoleum block print is created similarly.  Either woodcuts or linocuts can be printed on a printing press.

Still Life 
A collection of inanimate objects arranged together in a special way, showing us a new way of looking at the ordinary objects around us.  In the twentieth century, the still life dissolves into the geometry of the shapes as the objects were more abstracted.

Robert Blackburn Passages, 
September 18 – December 19, 2014, 
The David C Driskell Center at the University of Maryland College Park

Note: Diane Cherr presented this workshop for the children at Arts Westchester

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