How a linocut print is made
A linocut is a method of relief printing. Linocut gouges are used to carve lines and mark-making into a lino block. The uncarved areas are inked up using a roller and then printed.
For my one-colour lino prints one lino block is carved and printed. For my more complex multi-coloured prints, I use the multi-block method. The designs are hand-carved into traditional artists' lino blocks, one for each colour to be printed. Each colour is individually hand-printed using oil-based inks.
How I make a multi-coloured linocut print
How I make a one-colour linocut print
Below I've outlined each of the stages used to make my linocut prints. Step-by-step details of specific prints can be found in the Studio Diary section of my blog.
I love spending time in nature. I’m very lucky to live with so much beautiful countryside on my doorstep. The Yorkshire Dales, Yorkshire Coast, Yorkshire Wolds or North York Moors are all within easy reach. I make the most of this and go walking and cycling as much as I can. Holidays provide inspiration too and have in part become research trips. The Lake District and Scotland provide a very different landscape to draw from.
I’ve enjoyed photography since my childhood and now use this as a way to record ideas to work from back in my studio. If I find a view that just clicks, I’ll spend a long time taking photos from different viewpoints and soaking in the essence of what makes it so special to me.
Sketching design concepts
First I sketch out ideas from my photographs, planning how I will create the print using multiple lino blocks.
I often sketch concepts on paper as well as on my iPad. I find that sketching designs at the actual size on paper gives me a clearer idea of what marks are achievable at the scale I’ll be carving my lino. I tend to have more flow and a better quality of line when I sketch in real life. It also starts to get the muscle memory going when I carve the lino too. It does make a big difference on long sweeping curves. Plus, it feels very odd drawing a pathway a lot one way and then carving it in reverse.
Linocut prints are carved in reverse so that they print the correct way around. Overall, I reverse my photo inspiration and draw all my ideas in reverse from the beginning. This helps build up muscle memory for when I come to carve the design into a lino block.
To begin, I usually sketch ideas on Procreate on my iPad. I’m drawn to colour and shapes first. I guess this is my background, I worked as a surface pattern and product designer for 25 years before this. I like to get the general feel for a print before going into too much detail. It allows me to think about what I want the print to look like in terms of blocks of colour and not get too tied up in knots about how on earth I’m going to make it.
I paint each colour onto a separate layer so that I can separate them out in Photoshop to make a rough plan. Once I have a rough plan, I sketch the design onto paper in more detail.
I often work on a few designs in a series at the same time. The main reason for this is so that I can see how they’ll look as a collection but also to speed up the test printing, ink mixing and printing of the final prints. Using so many colours means it takes a long time to clean up all the inks and rollers. Not every print works and some end up in my ‘This is rubbish’ naughty corner!
Preparing the lino blocks
When I started making linocut prints I used a synthetic lino called SoftCut as it’s easy to carve with beginners' tools. I bought a set of professional Pfeil lino tools with birthday money and swapped to using traditional artists' lino to make my linocut prints.
I cut pieces of lino, usually one for each colour to be printed. Accuracy is essential to achieve good registration. This is how each of the colours lines up within a print. I have various tricks to make this easier. I use a registration device with Ternes Burton pins and tabs. The pins are attached to my registration device and the tabs are attached to my printing paper. Providing my lino blocks are cut and lined up accurately, they ensure that my printing paper lines up with each of the inked lino blocks. Often I mount my lino onto backing boards.
Carving each lino block
Usually, I carve a separate lino block for each colour within a print. I carve the key block or most dominant feature into the first lino block. This is transferred onto subsequent lino blocks and in turn, each one of these is carved. Accurate registration is crucial.
First I carve the key lines within my design. Once they’re carved, I add details and then clear away the area I don't want to print. The surface that is left raised, the relief, is inked and the area that is carved away won’t receive ink and therefore be the background colour or paper.
Within my set of Pfeil lino tools, I have 3 u-shaped gouges and 3 v-shaped gauges. These give me a different quality of carving lines or marks. A u-shaped gauge is a softer more consistent line and a v-shaped gauge is a more organic varied line.
Concentration is key. I carve for 10 mins, take a break and so on so that I don't make a mistake. I enjoy listening to audiobooks while I’m carving and i summer, listening to the birds outside my studio window. Each lino block can take 15 to 90 minutes to carve, depending on its complexity.
The reason I prefer using the multi-block technique to make multi-coloured prints to the reduction method is that I can test print my designs before printing the finished prints.
Test printing is where I ink up the carved lino blocks to see if I have the right balance of design, details and colour within a print. It’s all quite rough and I print wet on wet ink for speed. It gives me an idea of what will work. I spend half a day to a full day on each new print, experimenting with different tones of ink until it's just right.
It’s rare that I like a print first off. I usually walk away for a few days or weeks and have to let it settle. I then make any adjustments to the lino blocks. This could be perfecting the registration of the blocks or adjusting the design. Sometimes a lino block might not work at all, so I start again and re-carve it.
Mixing my ink colours
I use Hawthorn Printmaking Supplies stay open oil-based inks. These are made from vegetable oils with colour pigments added.
Stay open means that they don’t skin over, which means that the ink is usable all day when it’s rolled out on my inking glass. The inks I use are semi-transparent which gives a depth of colour to the finished print and allows me to overlay colours to create extra tones.
I have a thing about colour and that is where perfectionism really kicks in! I can easily spend a whole day mixing inks and playing with colours until I get them just right. A slight difference in colour can make a huge difference to the balance within a print. In many of my previous design roles, I was responsible for creating the season's colour palettes for my product area or for all the homeware or clothing ranges. In my very first job, I was responsible for mixing the pots of gouache the whole design team used to paint textile design concepts. I guess that was my training.
For test printing, I mix my small amounts of ink quite roughly. Once I’m happy with my test prints, mix up a small batch of ink. I record the recipe in my colour book and keep any spare ink in a numbered pot. The great thing about oil-based inks is that they do stay wet in pots.
Preparing the paper
I buy acid-free paper in large sheets, which are torn to the right size. Terns Burton tabs are tapped to the back side of each sheet to help me line up each colour that I print.
Printing each colour
I print each colour, usually the lightest first, allowing 2-3 days drying time between each colour. The more colours overlap, the more important it is to allow that layer to dry. If I have lots of transparent ink in my mixed ink the layers take longer to dry.
I roll out my ink onto a glass surface and using a rubber roller (or brayer), I roll thin layers of ink onto the raised surface of the lino block.
The inked-up lino block is placed into my registration device which is fixed to the bed of my etching press. An etching press is a flat bed that feeds between two adjustable-height steel rollers. Using a hand-turned press is still very much a manual process. I still hand-burnish some prints or elements within a print with a wooden spoon.
Once the inked-up block is in place, I attach the tabbed-up paper to the Ternes Burton pins that are fixed onto my registration device. As I wind the handle of my pres, the bed feed between the rollers, applying pressure and transferring the ink to the surface of the paper. I’ll run a few test prints through to test that I have the correct pressure before printing onto my final paper. If there's not enough pressure the prints will be too light and with too much pressure I risk crushing my lino block. Each time I go back to ink up the block and repeat the process on the next sheet of paper.
Once each colour is printed I leave them to dry. They need to be bone dry before mounting, wrapping or framing.
Learn more about how I’ve made individual prints in the Studio Diary section of my blog.