Linocut Process

Print, Plate, Brayer, and Carver

Print, Plate, Brayer, and Carver

The thing I hear most often about my linocut prints tends to be this:
“Oh, I know how to do this! We did this in grade school/high school!”

At first, as I kept hearing that, I found it to be both a humbling and frustrating thing to hear because I was choosing to hear it as “oh, kids can do what you do!”. But that’s on me and not my customers, so I remind myself that the knowledge they have is a starting point to connect with the work that I do. And when I come from that point of connection, I’m able to see that people enjoy knowing how it works. I think sometimes art can seem too removed and magical for the “general public”, and it shouldn’t be that way at all! I want it to be there for everyone to understand and enjoy.

Always use a bench hook! Always cut away from yourself!

Linocuts, much like woodcuts, begin with a solid substrate (in this case, a linoleum plate) and are carved until all of the “white space” is cut away and what remains is what will carry the ink for printing. You are, in essence, creating a giant stamp, and to do so requires a steady hand and a special carving tool.

Sometimes you don’t have a steady hand. Sometimes you have a dull tool or an old piece of linoleum, or the winds are blowing harshly from the west. Sometimes the tool bites back.

But once you’ve sacrificed a little blood to the whims of your muses, you end up with a carved plate. Hopefully you’ve remembered to reverse your initial design, because when you print, you get a mirror image of whatever you’ve carved. If you’re just doing animals or a landscape you might be safe, but I once completed an entire 12″x12″ piece that had a clock theme to it, and I didn’t realize I’d done it wrong until I pulled my first print and all the numbers were backwards! Having to re-carve an entire plate is a quick teacher to always double-check your image.

Because I’m a small operation at the moment, I have no actual press! I might someday, especially now that I have the studio space for something little. But until that point in time, I do all my printing by hand. Which is a surprising workout!

Everything in its place

When I’m ready to print, I set up a little assembly line. The first stop is the paper, and I tend to be of the opinion that it’s one of the most important parts of printmaking. As a student, I started using Rives, which is a 100% cotton paper, meaning that it’s not going to degrade over time. And that’s what I continue to use in my work today. Last year, I heard about a local program at one of the colleges in my state, who was making a new brand of art paper, designed to be able to stand up to printmaking processes. The brand is River Point from the University of Stevens Point, and they’ve since partnered with Strathmore Papers for a wider distribution. I am more than pleased with either of these papers, and use them both in my work.

Assembly line and loading the brayer with ink.

Inking the plate.

Before printing in this manner, your paper has to soak. It helps the fibers of the paper to relax and be ready to accept both the ink and impression from the plate. It’s a tricky thing though, because while you need to leave the paper long enough for that relaxation to happen, it also can’t be wet when you’re printing. In my case, I use acrylic inks, and if my paper is too wet, it causes the ink to bleed and I don’t get the sharp lines I’m looking for.

Because of this, once the paper has soaked, you then have to dry it off a little. Some people use blotter paper and clean brayers (rollers) to do this. I use lint-less, un-wrinkled towels and my hands.

With the excess water removed, the next step is to ink your plate. I’ve recently begun using a professional grade of acrylic ink that has been giving me good results. That being said, I learned using oil-based inks. I didn’t have a problem with the oil-based, only that it’s much easier for me to clean up using water instead of solvents that the oil-based inks require. With working out of my home studio, I want to keep things as non-toxic as possible.

Because the acrylic ink I use comes in a tube, I’m able to squeeze a bit of it out onto my inking glass (which is actually a mirror left over from an old project), spread it out, and then roll it with my brayer.

You get to know how much ink to use just through experience. Too much, and it’ll squish into the white space of your plate. Not enough and you won’t get the coverage that you want. One of the best ways to tell is actually through sound! With just the right amount of ink, when you roll through it on your glass, it’ll make a crackly, sticky sound.

Then it’s a matter of getting the ink from your brayer onto the plate. It’s a lot like using a paint roller! Go at different angles to make sure you don’t miss any spots!

Inked plate laid onto the paper.

The next steps are where I deviate most from printing with a press. With a press, you’d lay your plate (ink up!) on the press bed, put your piece of paper over it, cover it with layers of felt “blankets” to help cushion things, and then run it through the press. In my studio, I put the paper down on another towel and flip the inked plate upside-down onto it (lining everything up so that the print isn’t crooked on the paper). Then I press down to get that first ink impression, and carefully flip the whole thing over so that the paper is on top (ink side down). And then I press. And I rub. And I press some more. And some more. Every corner of every section gets some pressure, to encourage the ink off of the plate and onto the paper. This is where some people use wooden spoons or a baren to rub the back of the page, but I find that my hands work better for me.

The big reveal!

And then, the moment of truth! Will the ink have transferred? Will the edges be sharp? Will you have managed to keep excess ink off the clean parts of your paper? You really never know until you pull the paper off the plate. Once you have, the print – both ink and paper – needs to dry fully before you can do anything else with it.

The goal is to create an edition that is as consistent as possible across each piece. In commercial printing (magazines, newspapers, packaging), this consistency is vital to a company’s branding and appearance, and so each print needs to be virtually identical. As an artist, I’ll admit to pushing the limit a bit, with each print often having slight differences that lend to their personality as individual prints. Even within the small editions I do (often less than 10!), the subtle differences are there to enjoy.

Once I’ve selected the prints to include in the edition, each one is labeled on the front of the print. The information included is: a fraction showing the print number over the total number of prints in the edition (4/10 would be the fourth print in an edition of ten), the title of the piece, my name/signature, and the date of printing.

On a number of my linoleum cut prints, I will also go back in once everything is dry and add color using watercolor paints. While I enjoy the simple prints straight from the plate, I also like the depth and life that the color can add.