Reduction Block Printing Step by Step

Cabin in the Woods, Edition 8, Color Reduction Block Print

Making a reduction block print is a way to print in color without using multiple blocks.  The drawback of using this method is that since you are destroying the block in the process of making the print, your edition is not only truly limited but you may not get as many finished prints as you planned if the color does not register correctly each time you go to print.  Below are the step by step instruction for how I mad the print above.

For this piece, I decided there would be no white color at all. That is important because, like in transparent watercolor, white in block printing is not an applied color but is simply the color of the paper left untouched by ink (or in the case of watercolor, by paint)The best example of this is to see my post on printing a basic block print.    The first color on this print is a  very light gray, therefore, the entire block was inked up with the gray that I mixed. There is no drawing on the block at this point because I am only interested in printing a solid color. The photo below shows the piece of linoleum and the resulting layer of gray ink on paper.

solid color block first color

The next color I want to print is a pale yellow.  But I do not want to cover up the gray I just printed. At this point, I need to get my drawing onto the block so I know where to carve.  You can draw directly on the block or transfer a drawing.  The trunk of the trees, the cabin, the smoke and some branches will remain gray so those parts of the linoleum need to be carved away.  I have inked the block up with the yellow ink I mixed so you can see the cuts better (left) and the resulting print is on the right.   Because these first colors are so pale, they do not translate well in a photo at this stage.



The next color I want to print is green.  First I need to make sure that my drawing has not been obliterated when cleaning the ink off the block and, if so,  I need to address that first and redraw those lines.  The next thing to do is to cut away the part I want to remain yellow so they will not be covered up by the green ink. Below  you can see the inked block (right) and the resulting print (left). Now that darker colors are being added, the contrast makes it easier to see how the print is developing.

second cuts inked and printed third color


The last color I am adding to this print is a dark gray. So I will carve away* everything that I want to remain green so the dark gray does not cover it up.  I ink up the remaining parts of the block with the dark gray ink and pull the print.  The inked block is pictured to the right below and the resulting print is on the left.

last cuts inked and printed fourth color


I do want to make a note of something unusual here. Above I put an asterisk (*) after I wrote that I carved away everything I wanted to remain green.  If you look at the block above very closely,  the foreground is still there.  I choose to leave this so my block would not be “floppy”.  Because where the dark gray was being applied was so far away from this foreground area, it was not difficult to ink that part of the block and avoid this uncarved foreground area.  Generally, I would not leave anything uncarved but in this case, having some linoleum remaining at the bottom of the block  gave some stability to the block when I printed it.

Linoleum Block Printing: How is an image made and transferred?

Linoleum and woodblock printing are forms of Relief printmaking, which mean that the image is printed from a raised surface.  This is very different from other forms of printmaking such as Intaglio (etching, engraving, drypoint), Serigraphs and Lithographs.

plain linoleum
Plain piece of linoleum made specifically for relief printing

Relief printmaking is the oldest form of printmaking, whether it be making a rubbing from a gravestone (also known as frottage), or from a cut block of wood. Linoleum is a material that became popular for relief prints in the 20th century. Linoleum was invented in the mid to later 1800s as a product for floor covering.   Now, there is linoleum specifically made for the purpose of relief printing and is free from the flaws that commercial linoleum had.   I have mainly used linoleum but I am starting to develop a liking for wood.

So what exactly does it mean to print an image from a raised surface.  Above you can see a plain piece of linoleum, nothing has been drawn or cut out yet. Below you see a piece of linoleum that has been cut.  What has been removed is the part of the block that will not pick up ink that is being rolled on top. Assuming that the paper the block is being printed on is white, that is the color that those cut away parts will be in the final print.

cat tails cut block
A piece of linoleum that has been carved. The parts that have been carved away will not pick up any ink

Below you can see the block after ink has been rolled on top using a tool called a Brayer.  Relief ink is thick but also creamy, sort of like the consistency of butter that has been left out of the refrigerator for a bit. The ink is rolled out on a glass slab and then rolled onto the linoleum block. It is very easy now to see what has been carved away. Lulu, my cat, was supervising this particular application of ink but appears to have fallen asleep.

cat tails inked block
A piece of carved linoleum with ink applied

And here is what the print looks like after the ink has been transferred onto paper. I use a printing press but it is possible to transfer the ink to paper but hand rubbing with a tool called a Baren, or even a large spoon.  I prefer a press because it prints the image evenly.

Cat Tails
Finished artwork after it was printed

The writing on the margin of the print is the title (center), my signature (right) and information about the print on the left.  In this case, this print is an “open” edition, meaning that it can be printed a number of times until the block disintegrates. Generally,  if a piece of linoleum is stored correctly, the image can be printed approximately 50 times  Some artist like to number their prints.  I do not unless it is truly limited due to the method of making the artwork (this is called a reduction block and I will talk about this in the future).   Relief prints are all original works of art because the block is inked up and printed each time the image is transferred. It is almost impossible to make them exactly alike although with enough practice inking and printing you can get pretty close. Still, each one is an original. I mark my open edition prints like this:   1/Imp    That means it is one unique impression.   The idea of numbering prints at all came to be in the 20th century. Rembrandt, Durer and other artists did not number their prints.  You can see more of my bock prints by clicking here.

Redoing an Unsuccessful Print

A few posts back I wrote about a print I felt was unsuccessful. I had some wonderful feedback and decided to redo the print.  The first thing I did was change the position of the girl. So unfortunately for the idea of a new working title she is no longer holding a “broken golf club” as per my friend Julie. Sorry Julie!   Many people commented they liked the sky.  I liked the sky too but I needed to adjust the color. My friend Claudia offered that she liked how the girl sort of blended with the background and also suggested I make the head a bit smaller. I did initially make the head smaller but then decided to give her hair a bit more volume which, in combination with the change in position, makes her appear at a three quarter pose which I liked more. The print is also 6 x 8 rectangle rather than a long thin rectangle.

So here is the final piece

Big Dreams
Big Dreams, 2020, Reduction Linocut. Ed. 9 Image: 6″ x 8″

And here is the original

A Poor print
Girl with a Broken Golf Club, First attempt, 3″ x 8″

What was a bonus with redoing this print was the the key block is very good and can be printed on its own and hand colored. A key block is the last color printed (generally black) and gives definition to the image.   Here is the key block and a printed image of the block.

Big Dreams and plate
Carved key block and printed image

Notice the image is reversed from the block. They is how block prints are. I used to tell my student that if they were going to write anything on their blocks, they had better figure out how to write it backwards!

Creating a False Deckle Edge on Paper

Mould and Deckle
Paper Mould and Deckle

If you have ever had the experience of seeing a really old document, you may notice that the edges look kind of ragged.  This is what is called a deckled edge.  It is called that because the uneven edge of the paper is formed by the part of the paper mould called the deckle, which is the frame like structure in the photo above.

Hand made paper
Handmade western style paper

In my post on making the book Bedtime Story, I had mentioned using a beautiful handmade paper I purchase several years ago. The paper measures approximately 6″ x 8″ but I also needed a few pieces that were about 3″ x 6″.  If I were to get out scissors or an Exacto knife, I could easily make a smaller piece of paper but it would like sort of odd with three deckled edges and one straight edge. So how do you go about getting a false decked edge? It is pretty simple but first a bit about paper.

The piece pictured above is western handmade paper. What that means is that the paper has very short fibers. If is also a relatively weak paper compared to Eastern style papers (often misnamed ‘rice’ paper) that are long fiber papers. So the technique I am about to describe works best with western style papers because the short fibers break apart easily when wet.

Apply water
Preparing paper to make a false deckle

After measuring where you want the edge to be, you take a soft brush soaked with water and brush it along the ruler edge. If the paper is very thick (which was the case with this paper) you need to do this several times until the water soaks through.  Then you pick up the paper and very slowly and carefully start to tear from top to bottom. The result is a false deckle that should serve your purpose.

Redeckled Edges
Creating a false deckled edge

Working Title for the Unsuccessful Print

In my last post I talked about a print that was not successful and asked for feedback. One comment I just absolutely loved from my friend Julie was she was struggling with what the girl was holding and thought is was a broken golf club. I busted out laughing and decided that will be the working title for this piece and any follow up efforts.  Thanks Julie!

A Poor print
New Working Title:  Girl Holding a Broken Golf Club

An Unsuccessful Print

It is important that I share my work that does not come out as planned as well as the work I am happy with. Let’s face it, for every good piece of work, artists (I know this is true for myself) make a few crappy ones.  Sometimes I just rework the same thing and other times I abandon the idea altogether or just put it on pause.    Below is a print that did not come out the way I had planned and I will talk about how it came to be and why I think it basically is not so hot.

A Poor print
Example of a print that did not come out as planned

The original idea for this is pretty much as pictured, a girl sitting on a hill over a stream looking at a big starry sky. The other things this work originally was going to include were a full moon, then a crescent moon, and a cat.  But for some reason, I removed the cat and made a different piece of work with a cat.  But that is another story.   So I decided the focus should be on the girl.

I also wanted to do a reduction linocut, which is a way to print in color. It has been a long time since I have made one and I wanted to see if I could still register my blocks properly.  So what is wrong with this print?  Basically, it is too dark. The one I photographed is a bit lighter but in the majority of them the ink is even darker than the one pictured.  So I decided to add some hand coloring to see if that perked it up.

A poor print 2
Same print with some added hand coloring, but it is still not working for me

It did perk it up a bit but not enough to my liking. So now what?  Basically, I love problems like this.  I will probably make this piece again as a drawing but I may also cut it again and print it in lighter colors.

The point is this:  failure is a great thing. Making art is problem solving.  My thoughts are lighter colors but if this was your work, what would you change?

Making a Transfer Print

Three examples of transfer prints 

Recently I added a few new prints (see above) to my Etsy site that were made via a transfer method. I have been recently thinking about ways to print without a press because so many of the places I taught did not have a press and, in the spring, I will be teaching such a workshop again so I wanted to get back in the swing a bit.

The properties of a transfer print are very different than most printmaking techniques. The marks made are very velvety, sort of more like a charcoal drawing. If you are looking for clean, crisp lines, this is not the method to use.

Materials for a transfer print can be as bare bones as a stamp pad, paper, and pencil. But if you want a little more space for your image I suggest using block printing ink rolled out.  Here is what you need:

  • Block printing ink (I prefer permanent ink)
  • Paper
  • An inking slab such as an old baking sheet or a piece of glass or plexiglass
  • A brayer
  • Pencil
  • Cellophane tape or drafting tape
  • A fine line marker
  • Watercolor and brush are optional

If you are using a piece of glass please make sure you tape off the edges to avoid cutting yourself. You can see in my photographs below that my glass plate is taped. A heavy tape is best such as duct tape or white artist tape.

Rolled Ink
An inked plate with guide marks

Decide how big your image will be. Will is be the size of the whole sheet of paper or do you want the image set in the center of the paper with a clean-ish margin around the image?  Keep in mind if you want the latter of the two options you will not get a pristine clean margin like you would with other printmaking techniques but it will have the same effect of setting off the image.

I have marked my plate in the photo above to show both options. Circled in the red marks (this is done via photoshop, it is not on my actual printing plate) there are tic marks made with a marker.  This mark is where the ink will go.  You do not want to cover the whole plate with ink because it is not only wasteful but will make a mess.  This patch of ink is the same size as a small piece of paper I will be using, so the image will cover the whole sheet of paper, no margins.   The second marks I made in green (again via photoshop) are for if you want to use a larger sheet of paper with a margin around the image as described above. What you would do is figure out approximately where you want your image to be in relation of the paper (usually in the center). Extend the tic marks out to the edge of your inking sheet so you have indicators as to where the ink is once you put the paper down over it.  You will also see a green line on the bottom of the plate, this is also an indicator as to where to lay the paper.  With these indicators, you should be able to get your paper pretty close to getting the image in the center of the paper.

For the purpose of this demonstration, I am using a small sheet of paper that covers the entire ink patch (see below). Place the paper down and put some tape on two of the opposite corners. I always prefer drafting tape because it does not rip the paper. However, if you are practicing, use whatever you have handy such as cellophane tape.

drawing image for transfer
Marks made with a variety of tools

Now you simply draw your design with a pencil.  Above I have made marks with a variety of tools: a pencil, a thick graphite stick, the end of an erase, and my fingers. You can also use a pencil on the side, rather than the point, to get a thicker mark. The odd looking tool in the lower right corner is something called a roulette wheel, which is a specialized tool used in intaglio printing. But perhaps you have a pie cutting wheel or some other rolling implement to experiment with; have fun!

Results from transfer
Resulting Marks

Going clockwise from top right, here are the results from the various tools: pencil, roulette wheel, dragged finger, finger print, roulette wheel used a different way, fat graphite stick, stamping with end of a plastic eraser.  Keep in mind how hard you press will effect the darkness or lightness of the mark.  The finger prints were also shown as a warning, whatever you do, do not learn on your paper when drawing because those marks will be picked up. That is why it is a good idea to anchor your paper with tape. If you are using permanent ink, when the print is dry you can go over areas with watercolor.

Paper on ink pad (left), resulting print (right)

So for the quick and easy method, above is the stamp pad set up.  Again, I like permanent ink so I use Ranger Ink Pads. With this method, you are limited to the size of the stamp pad. Simply lay your paper down on the pad and draw. Presto!


Embossing by Hand

Embossing Example dark paper
An embossing plate with image embossed on dark paper

Hand embossing, also called blind embossing, is a simple technique that yields elegant results.  I referred to this technique in my last post on McMansions where you can see another example of the medium.

I became interested in embossing 20 something years ago when I came across and ad in the back of a magazine for a pamphlet called Hand Embossing by Pat Condron.  That particular pamphlet discussed a number of techniques and had a decent amount of typeface styles to practice embossing if typeface was your thing.  I tried all the techniques, though I avoided the typeface aspect.  Being of short attention span I settled on what I considered to be the easiest technique, developing even more short cuts over the years to go with my increasingly shorter attention span.

embossing tools

So to get started, it is good to have some basic materials. Absolutely essential are paper (see list below), card stock, glue, scissors, and a scoring tool (such as the back of a paintbrush).  However, if you really get into embossing obtaining a few more items makes for a better experience:

  • Cutting mat
  • Drafting tape
  • White glue
  • Xacto style knife & blades
  • Ruler or straight edge
  • Small sharp scissors
  • Pencils
  • Eraser
  • Hole punch
  • Paper scoring tool
  • Matte medium & small paint brush
  • Heavyweight card stock (such as bristol board)
  • Paper (lightweight high quality papers look the best such as Rives light sheet, Strathmore 500 series drawing papers)
  • Large spoon

After you decide on an image, when designing the template consider which areas may look good raised and which ones recessed. Since a picture is worth a thousand words, I am just going to post the plate from my last post below and you can also take another look at the plate at the top of this post.

SS Template
Sample of plate showing raised and recessed areas of design

Whether you draw your design directly on the card stock or draw onto tracing paper and transfer your design is completely up to you. I go right for the card stock, figuring that is why erasers were invented, and, since the plate is not the finished piece, who cares if it isn’t pretty?

Ok so now you have drawn and cut out your design. The next step is to glue it onto another piece of card stock.  Make sure the card stock you use to back your design is large enough that your paper fits completely on the plate. You do not want any of the paper hanging off the edge of the plate because you do not want the finished embossed piece to get bent in a way that will detract from the subtle folds and bends of the actual artwork.

Do not over glue because your card stock will warp. You can also put a heavy book on top of the plate while it dries to help keep it flat. While the glue is drying, get your paper for your finished pieces ready, making them all the same size.  When the plate is dry, put a piece of your paper on top of the plate and draw guide lines so you can easily place your paper in the same spot each time you go to emboss.

This next part is optional but I highly recommend it: give the plate a coating with matte medium, making sure not to get any of the medium globbed up in the nooks and crannies of the plate details.  It not only keeps the plate longer, but I think it makes the process of scoring a little easier. You can try it both ways but it is a step I do not avoid.  Of course, this should dry for several hours.

So the plate is dry and you are ready to emboss.  This first piece will serve as a practice piece and a reference guide/map. Make sure your surface, your hands, and your tools are clean. Lay your first sheet of paper on the plate at the guidelines your drew. Attach a small piece of drafting tape so the paper doesn’t move.  Gently rub the paper with the back of a large spoon to get the basic shape of the overall design.

Take your paper scoring tool and, using the tip, run the tool slowly along any straight edges. Start with straight edges because they are the easiest. Then go to any rounded edges and slowly run the tool against those edges with the point of the tool. If it makes it easier for you to turn your plate as you work, then do so.  When you feel you have finished scoring every aspect of your design gently lift off the paper and examine your finished piece. Since this is a practice piece, if you missed anything, try to align the paper back on your plate and go over that area you missed. Afterwards, whether you missed an area or not, use this piece as a map/guide so you know what areas need scoring for the rest of the edition of prints. Having this map/guide eliminates any guesswork hereafter.

Old Embossing 1993
Embossing from 1993

Above is one of the first embossed pieces I made, from 1993. I still have this piece so you can see how long these images last. There is one difference in this piece and that is the paper color and stock.  This was done on Arches Cover Stock, that I put a wash of paint on first. I believe I did most of these as a dry embossing, as described above, but I feel I may have done some as a “damp” embossing as well.  The difference is that the paper is slightly damp when you score it. This may be useful for a thicker paper stock (such as Arches Cover) but it is not necessary and, frankly, I do not like it because the paper stretches. However, if you do choose a damp paper method, it is then absolutely essential that you treat your plate with matte medium to keep it from warping.

If you are going to sign your finished work, it is best to do so on the back with pencil because any mark detracts from the overall subtle design. So that is embossing in a nutshell.