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.

New Tools, Yahoo!

tools
New stuff!!

Not long ago after getting tired of sharpening my lino cutting tool every three seconds and still not having it sharp I decided “Enough!”   I have been cutting with the same old tools for 30 years and had gotten used to their quirks so much that it never even occurred to me to look for something else.  But it did on that wonderful day a week or two ago.

So I called up the wonderful people at McClain’s printmaking supplies and asked a bunch of questions, thought about the information over the weekend, then called back on Monday and placed my order.  Today, packaged with great care, were my supplies, some samples of blocks, technical information print outs, and their beautiful catalogue. The catalogue is such a treat because it contains artwork submitted by printmakers from everywhere.

I have come to realize that dealing with specialty stores for something that is really important to you is really the only way to go. Great service and expert advice are priceless. And a bonus:  going through he catalogue, I came across one of my linocuts reprinted!

catalogue
From 2020 McClain’s Printmaking Supplies Catalogue