Frottage: A Simple Printmaking Technique with a Rich History

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Frottage of an image from a storm drain with watercolor on top

At some point, you probably took your nice new crayons and started to peel the paper off. Maybe when the tip got dull you did this to expose more of the crayon. Then perhaps you used the side of the crayon to fill in large spaces. And then one day, either you discovered on your own or somebody showed you that you could use the side of that crayon to do something wonderful – transfer an image!

The ancient art of Frottage (derived from the French verb frotter which loosely means to rub) is basically just that, transferring an image to a piece of paper by the simple act of rubbing or dabbing pigment to paper that is on top of a raised surface.

Storm drain used for frottage image at top of this post

Frottage had, and still has, uses beyond aesthetics. In ancient China, frottage was a method used to preserve culture by recording sacred text made from carved blocks and images carved in stone, which could deteriorate over time. In addition, rubbings from brass plaques and bronze artifacts not only record historic events but also things like fashion.

A popular past time is taking rubbings from tombstones. Old tombstones are often quite ornate but also tend to give brief biographical information about the person buried. Before going to any public place to make a rubbing, it is best to check with the caretakers to see what the protocol is as many historic sites need to make sure items are not being “over rubbed” which can damage the artifacts over time.

Rubbings are also a great way to learn about your community – what types of vegetation is growing by recording tree bark, leaves, and plants. Utility covers are another way to learn about your community. The storm drain above is an example of how the local water company is educating people not to dispose of things in the storm drain as it can harm aquatic life in nearby streams.

Above – textures that can be used for decorative or informative rubbings. String at the top left is patio furniture, tree bark, a utility cover, and spurge

Most surprising to me was to learn that Max Ernst, a German artist active in the early and mid 20th century, used frottage as a break though method for his drawings. You can see a YouTube video on that here.

In my research, I have come across some other information that you may find interesting and useful and those links are below. The NYT article is particularly a favorite of mine because it is a true reflection on the time it was written.

Field Museum Chinese Rubbing Collection

1975 New York Times Article by Norah Smaridge

2 thoughts on “Frottage: A Simple Printmaking Technique with a Rich History

  1. I think just your yard would provide lots of things. Become a texture detective! One of the things about rubbings is the supplies are very portable. Perhaps on one of your walks? Maybe Norristown Farm with all the structures?


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