Breadtag Sagas ©: Author Tony, 2 January 2019
Linocut 101 for Artists — A Practical Introductory Guide
My art practice was languishing, partly I think because the three quasi-religious works in the Moral Ambiguities exhibition in 2011 (which I had been working on for some time) and even the generic protest posters were an end point of my photomedia work and I didn’t really have anything more to say. It had been a wild ride for ten years and I’d always thought of myself as an accidental artist. Hence, I wasn’t particularly upset at the time.
Denise and I then embarked on an amateur learning endeavour, trying out drawing, life drawing, basic painting techniques and other things, which were both enjoyable and satisfying.
We went to an open day at Gorman House in Canberra in early 2018 mainly to support jewellery maker Phoebe Porter who is the daughter of close friends. In one of the open studios a woman was making rubber stamps as an art medium and we duly stamped some cave painting style horses onto a piece of paper. I liked the pattern I did and the way one could do lighter and darker impressions depending on how hard one pressed on the ink pad. I liked the result enough that I put it on the fridge.
Now despite my involvement in artist exchange portfolios with printmakers, I’d never been especially attracted to printmaking nor thought I ever would. However, the rubber stamps inspired me, but I thought to myself linocutting is the place to start.
I was attracted to lino, I don’t know why!
This article, however, isn’t about me in particular. It is about how I went about learning without initially any tuition or support. I want to share my experiences because I think are a good starting point for anyone, particularly if you don’t want to begin with a course.
If you are like me you have no idea what printing techniques or types mean:
1 Relief printing (means the ink adheres to the surface of the block)
Linocut uses a sheet of linoleum into which an image is cut. The areas carved out are white.
Woodcut means the design is cut from a block of wood, a sheet of ply or MDF board. The wood grain may be evident in the finished work.
Wood Engraving means the image is cut into the end-grain of a block of wood. The grain is not evident and the technique is used for fine or detailed images.
2 Intaglio (is the obverse of relief printing)
The design is etched or engraved into the surface of a plate. When ink is applied and the excess wiped off, the ink remaining in the grooves is transferred to the paper. Etching, engraving, aquatint, drypoint, mezzotint and polymer intaglio are all intaglio techniques.
A process which relies on the antipathy of oil and water, lithography uses a special stone or a lithographic plate (usually aluminium).
My Basic Process
I began on the Internet looking up articles and videos on linocut. There weren’t many that suited. What I wanted was some inspiration, some basic information on how to go about it and what to buy to begin.
First some Really Basic Instructions, but ignore the band-aids. There is no reason to ever cut yourself as long as you don’t put your holding hand in front of the cutter blade. Three Bears is another example. For my first YouTube video I looked at The Virtual Instructor. At 12-minutes (min) it is a bit long but it does cover all the key elements, including transfer and the sticky ink sound.
Inspiration on YouTube
For inspiration, I can’t go past James Green of Sheffield (4.23 min). How could one not be inspired!
For non-reduction linocutting I thought Coral Cave (9.38 min) did an excellent example of a simple three-colour print.
Reduction (or destructive) linocutting seems to inspire some people but leaves me cold. It means you plan several cuts on the same sheet of lino. You print off a large number of prints (e.g. 10, plus some more for mistakes) and you need a good registration process. Then you cut some more destroying the first image. Reprint with another colour and so on.
Crossbill by Tian Gan (6.52 min) is a good example of the reduction method. Tian has some good tips and shows herself using the Flexcut SlipStrop tool sharpening device mentioned below.
Laura Boswell (14.53 min) gives a solid lesson on lino reduction technique. Laura has some good instruction on fine detail in cutting (4.53 min). Things I got from the lesson were (1) sand the lino lightly; (2) use India Ink for black areas (not to be cut), it washes off with detergent before printing; (3) use the finer Japanese woodblock tools (need to hold the fine point part of the tool with your other hand while cutting); (4) uses a workshop light with battery and power point recharger to give a raking sideways light, while cutting; (5) occasionally uses magnifying glasses with interchangeable lenses.
Next First Steps
On the basis of the Internet start, I went to the local art supply store (Eckersleys in Canberra) and purchased some grey lino 15×15 cm (AUD $6 ea), a Micador set of 6 linocut knives (~$20) and some tracing paper. I used these to draw, trace and cut a breadtag shape and a border onto my first piece of lino and then another breadtag with rising sun rays and no border on my second. I also shortly thereafter purchased a vinyl alternative to lino, but I hated it. As someone on the web said it is bland and ‘soulless’.
Now having produced some first samples, I had to print them. I went back to Eckersleys and purchased a 90 mm roller (~ $20) called a brayer and a bamboo baren for pressing or rubbing the paper onto the inked lino. I also bought three jars of Derivan water-based block printing ink — black and two colours ($20 ea). I acquired a sheet of glass from Denise for mixing and rolling the ink, which she’d used for monoprints.
I managed to test print at home my first two art experiments and proved to myself that I could do it and that it wasn’t hard. The prints were rudimentary. I wasn’t sure about the printing. I thought it would require further learning and might be difficult.
Anna Curtis does very fine multi-colour Australian plants. These demonstrate the pinnacle of reduction multi-colour technique (24 min) developed over years. Whilst the end result, is not to my taste (perhaps my poor taste), the process is impressive with many colours involved. It is inspiring to watch.
The incredible potential of linocut is also demonstrated by the printing of Alick Tipoti, a Torres Strait Islander’s massive linocut, by a master printmaker and helpers (3.20 min).
My first mistakes
1 The cutting equipment I’d paid $20 for was a poor choice and not great tools to work with. My left thumb (I’m left-handed) was numb for a couple of weeks. There are quite good cheap tools and sets, Japanese and European that you can get, but it is best to ask people who know for advice.
2 Many people print at home and like doing so. My inclination was always to do tests at home but to print at a community resource, because of this I was slap happy and not meticulous in my test printing. I also knew that in the long-run one could always pay a master-printer to do it for you. (I was surprised to find out later that the famous Japanese woodblock artists, such as Hokusai, were never allowed near a woodblock — it was a semi-medieval guild process.)
I later decided to only work in black ink for the foreseeable future and therefore didn’t need the coloured inks. Derivan is a very cheap ink and only suitable for test prints at best. Also, as well as needing to use more expensive inks, oil-based inks are the way to go. I wasted money buying more than one Derivan Ink.
3 I also didn’t need the bamboo baren as the back of a spoon would be sufficient for test prints but I’m sure it will come in useful. The roller or brayer is useful.
What I learned
My experiments with a single colour showed me I didn’t like bright one-colour prints. I was heading toward B&W, but didn’t know it yet. I reacted against the idea of multi-colour prints (or at this stage) for simplicity and raw impact. Hence I was initially uninterested in reduction printing.
Coral Cave (above) taught me the simplicity of multiple (or duo) blocks.
Denise and I were off to Queensland for a couple of months for the winter to house-sit. At the major house-sit at Mon Repos, John was a collector of linocuts mainly in black and white, which stimulated and inspired me. I’d purchased two sheets of 30 x 30 cm grey lino and worked out the designs from photographs before we left. I’d decided that I really liked lino and that I’d buy decent tools. We were passing through Brisbane and it was only a short detour to Carbatec who stocked the Swiss Pfeil linocutting tools I wanted. I’d chosen a linocut Pfeil set 6C of six tools, 3-V and 3-U or scoop tools ($219). I also bought another U-tool for $37 and a sharpening kit — Flexcut SlipStrop $29. I may need a couple of more different shaped tools in future. (I also still have my cheap and nasty set. But, haven’t used them again.
I cut my first two serious works while we were house-sitting.
Possibly the most important thing for me in beginning linocutting was that I had a project to begin with. When Denise and I were doing our amateur attempts to draw and paint, we were just going with the flow and doing what we were told in our beginner’s courses. We never finished anything. While this was good in what we were doing, it is useless for undertaking a serious artwork, until you decide what you are going to do.
In my previous art practice, I’d gone through a phase of what I called my primal breadtag work in seeking simplicity. In moving into linocuts the primal breadtag approach was a no brainer. What more brutal simplicity could one achieve for a primal breadtag series than a black & white linocut.
Final Step Printing
As mentioned, I do basic printing at home to proof a design and find out where corrections or further cuts need to be made. For more formal printing I intended to do this through a collaborative community facility called Megalo in Canberra. Others do all their printing work at home with a spoon and a baren rather than a press and some have a simple press at home.
I undertook two private tuition sessions on printing lino on two different print machines at Megalo. Between the two Denise, Penny and I did a woodblock course over a weekend with a Newcastle artist and excellent teacher at Megalo. I learned in the woodblock course that I wasn’t particularly interested in woodblock.
Also in the woodblock course we learned a simple alternative to the destructive use of photocopies with water to transfer images onto the lino. In the course, we used a cheap chemical household cleaner called Orange available from supermarkets (check with artists in your country). This works with photocopies (but not laser prints). Putting the cleaner liberally on the back of the photocopy transfers the image quite well. However, I prefer tracing paper. Others draw straight onto the lino.
The printing of my first two works particularly the tree-one was difficult as the large black areas didn’t print black but came out speckled. This was frustrating but also forced me to realise almost immediately that printing isn’t always easy and that it is a learning process that one needs to persevere with. There wasn’t anything wrong with the surface of the lino, but it did look shiny. There wasn’t any obvious contamination. For example, if one has used masking tape on the surface (this happened in the woodblock) the glue residue will interfere with the ink.
I used worn light sandpaper gently over the two lino blocks then I scrubbed them gently with Jif (a white powder cleaner that isn’t abrasive). I don’t know which worked (I think the Jif) but this did resolve the problem.
I finally got what I desired two good prints on cheap paper ($1 and $2 a sheet) and then two good prints on fine art paper Rives BFK ($10 a sheet).
My next task was to amalgamate two non-reduction linoprints by accurate registration. This is not that difficult. I learned two excellent things about using film in printing.
First, my two linocuts had large blank areas and I’d created masks for these areas using cardboard. This worked well but the masks became covered in ink quite quickly. Another printer suggested making masks using film because you could easily clean the ink off.
Second, one creates a registration sheet on paper and sticks or lays film over it and then uses cardboard such as mat board attached to the film by masking tape to delineate the exact positioning of the lino and the art paper. Printing can be quite messy and the ink needs to be controlled not to get on places you don’t want it to. This requires practice.
Another thing I learned was that one can correct mistakes on the lino by cutting in the midst of the printing process (you can’t uncut mistakes, however).
The oil-based inks are chosen by experience. There are several good products to choose from. The nice thing about oil-based ink is that they are slow drying, which means you don’t need to hurry and can take breaks and go off to lunch without the ink drying. The negative, of course, is that you have to wait at least two days before collecting the prints from the drying racks and even then you may need to be careful for a week.
I found that black & white lino prints are a good place to start. However, it is horses for courses and you may wish to plunge into reduction-printing and multi-colour lino prints.
Good luck! I hope this outline proves as useful to you as it has done for me.
Key Words: Lino, linocutting, rubber stamp, relief printing, basic instructions, inspiration, YouTube, reduction linocutting, non-reduction lino cutting, brayer, baren, woodblock, black & white, colour, multi-colour, tools, printing, press, Megalo, water-based ink, oil-based ink, James Green, Coral Cave, Tian Gan, Laura Boswell, Anna Curtis, Alick Tipoti, Eckersleys, Pfeil, Carbatec, Flexcut SlipStrop, Joggles
I’ve put this section below the line because I don’t want to lose artists who have liked what I’ve said up to now. If you believe that art & craft don’t have anything to say to one another. Please don’t read on.
Rubber stamps revisited
Finally, as I got into this with rubber stamps, I thought I should end with them as well. You can carve rubber or pseudo-rubber with linocut tools. But, you can also buy quite complex shapes and patterns in rubber online and use them for a variety of tasks, many of which straddle art and craft practice.
You can also produce mixed media using linocut techniques and rubber stamps. Similarly, one can print linocuts onto collages or pre-painted or dyed surfaces or even rubber stamped surfaces that may include paper but also other materials, including cloth. Just as one can do relief printing with wood and lino or by screen-printing and stencils. You can expand your horizons. I haven’t yet but may do so in future.
Joggles is an online supplier of rubber (creative art textures — no longer a link), ‘so-called’ innovative products (8.04 min) on a YouTube blog and other craft/art supplies.
More importantly, there are some creative tutorials sponsored by Joggle.
Monoprints from unmounted rubber stamps and gel plates (12.57 min).
Foam stamps have possibilities too. If you can get over the crafty nature, these two videos Kate Kerr (1.55 min) & general foam stamps (12.05 min) have potential for serious art works as well.
Other tutorials on carving rubber stamps (27.32 min) and on gel blocks (10.04 min) are quite useful too. Various of these talk about ‘ghost prints’ and are an excellent source of creative ideas.
The possibilities seem endless.
Posted in Te Horo, New Zealand
I did some linocuts when I was in university, but none since then. Great advice about buying good tools and materials. Happy New Year to you both.
Really clear and helpful with the process and your experience with materials. You make a good point about learning and moving onto your own projects.