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Linoleum Printmaking Workshop

Linoleum-cut Reduction Relief Printing

Theme: Documentation and Memory

Please begin by reading this article about how the easy accessibility of photography affects our daily life and even our memory of events:

Consider how photography affects your experience of the world around you. Do you photograph your meals, friends, yourself, the landscape, etc. on a daily basis? Multiple times a day? How do you distribute this material? Is it kept on your phone and/or shared on various social media?

Call to Action: In the next couple of days, attempt to have a “photo free day” as the article suggests.

In addition, every time you find yourself wanting to take a photograph, draw or write a sketch/note to yourself in your sketchbook instead. You could also collect objects/mementos of the subject you desired to photograph, i.e. natural materials like leaves, stones, twigs; commercial/consumer materials like straws, candy packages, bags; paper materials/notes/lists; etc.!

Feel free to label these entries with a time or mood or any other data you feel is pertinent to the urge to snap a shot.  Sketchbook work may include collage of actual items like leaves from the ground you wanted to photograph, the wrapper for the chopsticks by the meal you wished to take a pic of, or some makeup pulled off your face and smeared onto a page when you skipped a selfie.


The Basics (for when you want to do this at home):

Relief printing: Applying ink to the surface of a substrate or block so that only raised portions of the surface retain ink and print. Paper is then laid on the block and pressure is applied either by hand or with the benefit of a press. The ink on the surface of the block is transferred onto the paper to make the print. Ink can then be reapplied and printed to create an identical group of prints known as an edition.

In the linocut process portions of the block are removed by gouging the surface with carving tools or abrasives in order to create a design. Because areas that you remove will not retain ink you are effectively removing the white/ light areas of your design. Anything that remains will print black (or whatever ink color you choose to use). There are two major strategies for single reduction relief printing. These are “white line” and “black line techniques”. “White line” requires that you remove the defining textures and contours of your subject so that you are left with a predominantly dark composition with light elements emerging from the dark space. “Black line” requires that you remove the interior of your forms and background leaving the black outline of your subjects. This option usually requires more cutting but is more appropriate unless there is a specific reason for your subjects to be presented in a dark environment.

What you will need:

Sheet of linoleum: Make sure you buy the thin sheet. You can get linoleum backed by plywood, this is for printing with a letterpress, but it is too thick to be run through the relief press.

Linoleum cutting tool: Speedball makes a kit that has a variety of removable blades that are stored in the tool’s handle.

Brayer: Speedball soft brayers work well because drum can be removed from the handle to make cleaning easier.

Chip board or mat board: This is for registering your paper to your block.

Printing paper: Rives BFK is a good, versatile, relatively inexpensive cotton-rag paper for printmaking.

Newsprint: Used for proofing the block and as backing between the print paper and the press blankets.

Ink knife: Any hardware store putty knife will do.

Razor scraper: Used for clean up only.


Step-by-step process:

I. Set-up

A. Cut your linoleum block to the desired size using an X-acto knife or the knife attachment in your linoleum cutting kit.

B. On the back of your print paper, measure the size of your paper. Traditionally, the only marks on the front of the print should be the image and your signature. Tear down your paper to size (typically finished prints have white margins so your paper should be larger than your block).

C. T-and-bar Registration:

  1. Still on the back of the paper, measure to the center of the top and bottom edges.
  2. Draw a vertical dash from the edge of the paper on both edges. Cross the dash on the top edge. Do this on every sheet of paper.
  3. Take your piece of mat board and cut it down to size. It must be large enough for your block to fit into and larger than the paper’s margins. So, for example, if your linoleum is 8″x9″ and your paper is 10″x11″ (a 1″ border on all sides), then your mat board should be at least 11″x12″ so that there are margins beyond those of your paper size.
  4. Measure and draw a box the size of your block onto the mat board. Cut a window in the mat board for your block to fit into. NOTE: Because of the possibility of slightly irregular edges, you may need to trim the window ever so slightly for the block to fit snuggly. Do not try to cut the block to fit the window!
  5. Measure to the center of the top and bottom edges of the mat board and draw a T and bar at the edges.


Now when you print you can slip the block into the jig then line the T and bar on your paper up with the registration on your jig.


II. Creating the Image

A. You are now ready to begin creating the print on your block. You may draw directly onto the block using pencils, pens, or markers or you can transfer a source image to the block.


B.Transferring an Image to Your Block Using Red-Iron Oxide Paper

If you are working from a sketch you would like to stay true to or from some other source material you may trace your image to the block using red iron oxide paper. This is nothing more than newsprint coated with iron oxide powder on one side. The paper acts just like carbon paper, leaving a red line where pressure is applied. This will leave a reasonable facsimile of your source on the block to use as a reference.

  1. Tape R.I.O. paper, red side down, to your block.
  2. Tape your source image to the R.I.O. paper.
  3. Using a ball-point pen or similarly sturdy writing implement, trace the source image. Apply a firm pressure as if you were signing a credit card receipt.
  4. Remove R.I.O. paper and source image and Voila! the image is on your block as a red outline.
  5. Go over red marks with Sharpie marker so that they aren’t wiped away during the carving process.


NOTE: There is something to be said for an image that is reworked from the original so it may not be necessary to trace every detail of the source image. Transferring just the important information gives you the opportunity to recreate the details.

C. Using a red marker, turn the entire linoleum surface red. This makes it easier to see the contrast between the surface and the information you have cut out and gives you an idea of what the finished print will look like.

D. Cut the block

  1. Use a variety of tools. Your small V-gouge will create thin, sharp lines. Your large U-gouge will create wider troughs.
  2. Always cut away from any part of your body!
  3. You do not need to cut to Cleveland! If the pressure is properly set, you can print effectively without having to cut deeply at all.
  4. When you think you have cut out enough of your image you are ready to pull a proof.


III. Printing the Image

Note: Wear gloves whenever you are handling ink or solvents so that you avoid inky fingerprints on your nice clean paper.


A. Remove ink from can by skimming your ink knife along the surface of the ink.

  1. DO NOT GOUGE THE INK!!! Gouges in the ink skin expose a greater surface area to air which causes the ink to dry out. By keeping the ink surface nice and smooth you are exposing the minimum surface area to the air, which conserves the ink in the can.
  2.  Only remove as much ink as you think you will need for your edition. This will depend on the size of your block and the size of the edition.

B. Wake up the ink by placing it on your print slab and stretching it out then wadding it back up with the ink knife over and over for about 30 seconds. Add a small amount of Miracle Gel to the ink to reduce tack and remove lap marks.

C. Stretch the pile of ink to match the width of your brayer

  1. This will be the ink reservoir you will return to when you need to replenish your slab.

2.The lead edge of this pile should be thin and even. so that the brayer can kiss the edge and have even ink distribution along its entire edge.

D. Roll out your slab

  1. Kiss the brayer to the edge of your pile so that there is even ink distribution along its entire edge.
  2. Roll the brayer down from the pile one rotation of the drum. This will be the size of your slab.
  3. Roll the brayer back and forth along the slab, lifting the brayer at the bottom so that it can spin freely for a moment. By doing this you ensure that the entire brayer is evenly inked.
  4. A good slab should look and sound like velvet, not like Velcro.

E. Set press pressure

  1. BEFORE you ink the block set the pressure.
  2. Place the block in the jig on the press bed.
  3. Place 3 sheets of newsprint over the block.
  4. Place your print blankets over the newsprint.
  5. Advance the press bed until the block is under the drum of the press.
  6. Set pressure by turning the micrometer located on the top of the press 1/4 turn to the right.
  7. Go to the micrometer on the other side of the press and repeat step 6. It is important that you gradually adjust the pressure on both sides so that the block receives even pressure from both sides of the press.
  8. Repeat 6 and 7 until the pressure is snug.
  9. Finish rolling the print the rest of the way through the press.
  10. Check pressure by examining the newsprint. If the pressure is set correctly you should be able to see the impression of the cuts in the linoleum clearly.

F. Roll up the block

  1. With a charged brayer, begin to ink the block, starting in the lower right corner. Only ink an area the diameter of your brayer. This way you can be sure the area will be evenly inked.
  2. Recharge the brayer at your slab and repeat the process, this time starting just before the end of the first inked area. By overlapping slightly you make sure that the entire block is inked.
  3. Repeat this process until there is a column of inked area along the right side. Then, begin again at the bottom, this time making sure the two columns overlap slightly. Repeat until the entire block is inked.
  4. If your slab becomes thin during the roll-up (i.e. it no longer looks or sounds like velvet) go back to your pile of ink and replenish the slab.
  5. After the entire block is inked, take your uncharged brayer and roll it in horizontal bands along the entire surface. Then roll it in columns from opposite corners. This way, any lap marks (areas where the brayer’s path overlapped itself) or other uneven areas are diminished.
  6. Your block is ready to print when the ink on the surface mimics the same velvety texture of the ink on your slab.

G. Print the block

  1. Insert your block in the window of the registration jig.
  2. Place your print paper over the block lining up the T and bar on the paper with those on the jig. Note: You should pull a proof of your block before switching to good paper. Use newsprint in place of the print paper. Only proceed with editioning the print if you are satisfied with the proof.
  3. Place one sheet of newsprint over the jig.
  4. Place the press blankets over the press bed. Keep your hand on the paper on your block so that it doesn’t move as you drop the blankets over the paper.
  5. Crank the print through the press. Keep your hand on the blanket where your block is until the pressure engages on the block. This avoids the block shifting as it goes through the press.
  6. Repeat the steps in F and G until your edition is complete.


The Reduction Method

For your project during Governor’s School we will be using the reduction relief method, AKA the “Suicide Cut”. This grisly nickname comes from the nature of relief, once you cut something away, there’s no bringing it back. In the suicide cut if you don’t start with lots of impressions when you make mistakes–and you will make mistakes–you may not have many left in your identical edition at the end. The reduction method begins in the same fashion, removing what you want to remain the white of the paper. Instead of rolling the block with black ink you will roll on the lightest color you want to print in. After printing many impressions of this lightest color you then cut away the parts of the image you want to remain that lightest color, then apply your next darkest color and print again. Then cut away what you want to remain that color, apply a darker color and print again. Etc., etc., etc., until you are left with your darkest information. Often this is known as your “key” or “trap” layer because it contains the dark (often black, but not always) contour lines and other information that traps your previous colors inside it.


To explain it in a more straightforward way: let us say you want to make a four color reduction linocut using yellow, red, blue, and black. Let’s also agree that you need 10 identical impressions in your finished edition. Here is how you would go about it:

  1. Begin by cutting/tearing down at least 20 pieces of paper to the required size and setting up registration in your desired method. In the beginning, it is always wise to have at least twice as many pieces of paper than you will need in your edition so that you can allow for mistakes and still choose the impressions that are most identical.
  2. Transfer your drawing. It may help to do a more fleshed out sketch using markers or colored pencils so that you can decide where you want each color/value to fall in the composition.
  3. Cut away everything you want to remain white. A good rule of thumb for reduction is you want each color represented to be roughly the same percentage of the finished image. So if you have four colors plus the white of the page, you are cutting away roughly 20% of the composition. This can vary greatly depending on your image. Sometimes you only need a little white or black so you’d compensate when cutting your other layers.
  4. Roll the yellow ink onto the entire block. Print the yellow on all 20 sheets of paper. If some impressions are messed up in some way continue to print subsequent layers on them, but use them as proofs. Move the rejects up to the front of the print order when mistakes are more likely to happen.
  5. Cut away what you want to remain yellow. Again, this may be 20-25% of the block.
  6. Roll on the red ink and print the edition. You’ll notice the red covers all of the yellow except the areas where you cut the yellow layer away. After printing again look for errors and move the rejects to the front of the order. Do this after each layer.
  7. Cut away what you want to remain red. At this point you should have nearly half the block carved away. If you wait too long to take material away you’ll wind up with an overwhelmingly dark finished product.
  8. Print the blue layer. Move the rejects to the front of the print order.
  9. Cut away what will remain blue. All that should be left now are the darkest shadows, heaviest textures, or boldest defining lines.
  10. Print your black layer. After editioning you will then cull the rejected prints from your edition one last time. Look for registration issues, areas where some layers were over or under inked, or impressions with extremely messy margins. If you’ve been careful you should easily get your required identical edition of 10.


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