I say ‘new’, but many people will have tried linocutting when they were very young – maybe at school – although these days with health and safety that may not be so common. Perhaps it has an association on the level of potato prints, but look at these examples by Edward Bawden and Ann Lewis:
The wonderful thing about linocutting is that anyone can do it, and get great results. Making a mark or marks on a little piece of linoleum and then printing from it is a very satisfying experience which everyone should try! Not only that, but you can mass produce your design for selling or making gifts.
In this blog we will look at the following:
Tools and materials
You don’t need much to start your journey into linocutting:
Lino You can buy small pieces of what the Yanks call ‘battleship linoleum’ – the thicker brown or grey lino with string backing. Eventually you may want to buy it in rolls as it’s cheaper. Personally I didn’t get on with the new soft cut lino – I found it too flexible to work with.
Cutting Tools I began my linocutting adventure with an old William Mitchell starter set with wooden handles. When that began to wear out I got the economical Speedball set with the interchangeable blades you see in every art shop. It’s perfectly serviceable and did me for a long while – until I spent a lot more on some lovely Swiss tools by Pfeil – but you don’t need these to get good results.
Inks There are many water and oil based brands available. I first used Speedball and Daler-Rowney colour inks but I’ve recently started using Cranfield Caligo Safe Wash Relief Ink (rolls off the tongue doesn’t it). This is an oil based ink which can be cleaned with soap and water. It’s less watery than the Daler-Rowney inks so you get a crisper print. I buy the tubes because I don’t do linocutting all the time; I found the ink in the tins started to get lumps in them over time.
Rollers You will need a soft roller (sometimes called a ‘brayer’) to apply the ink to your linocut design. It needs to be a reasonable width to apply the ink evenly to the lino. The one I use most is about 15cm wide (6 inches in old money).
Inking surface I use a large tile about A4 size for adding the ink to the roller – at the time of writing this blog I believe large tiles are popular for bathrooms. You can also use perspex, glass shelving or mirrors – as long as they have ground edges so there’s no danger of cutting yourself.
Pressing When you press the paper onto your linocut you want something which will force the ink evenly onto the paper. The simplest method is to use a barren (see below) – but initially I just used my hands on a stiff piece of card.
Draw your design in reasonable detail so that when you come to cut it out you aren’t confused – you will be cutting the design in reverse so that it prints the correct way round. I usually work it out on paper first, then trace over it with a soft pencil (a B or 2B) refining it further. I then stretch the tracing paper tautly over the lino, sticking it firmly in place with masking tape. Then I rub it with a burnishing tool such as a biro with its lid on, or scissor handles (I have a burnisher but you don’t need one).
Some people paint their lino with Chinese white watercolour so they can see the design more clearly (I’ve never done it but it sounds like a good idea!)
IMPORTANT! The pencil marks on the tracing paper must be facing the lino so that your design is reversed and the graphite transfers to the lino. Keep rubbing until the design is clear – you can go over it again on the lino with a dark pen if you prefer.
Carbon Paper Method Some people use carbon paper to transfer their design to the lino. Place the carbon side on the lino, then put your drawing on top of the carbon paper and trace over it (or draw directly onto the carbon), pressing firmly with a hard pencil such as an H or HB.
White Line or Black Line Engraving?
Whatever you remove from the surface of the lino will not print, whatever you leave prints. With this in mind, you have two main methods: 1) You can create a white line image (below left) with a black or coloured background by using the line you cut or incise to define your image (a bit like a scraperboard image). 2) With a black line image (below right) you work the other way round and define your image using what you leave behind i.e., as though it was drawn with a pen.
Experiment with the different shaped tools on a piece of scrap lino first to get a feel for them and what they can do. Vary the pressure as you use the tool to create deeper or wider lines. Try not to cut too deeply into the lino as this can lead to mistakes (and injury if you slip!) There is no right way to create an image; you can go for a rough style with marks that create ‘happy accidents’, not following your design with precision and not worrying about neatness; or you can take more care to create very precise lines and cuts. Whatever works best for you, or whatever you enjoy doing the most. Note the contrast in style in the two images at the start of this blog.
IMPORTANT! Always cut away from your hand and body to avoid injury, with your steadying hand resting on the lino (e.g. left hand) behind the path of the cutting tool. You can use a guard but I have never bothered – I’ve been doing it for years and have only had a handful of minor cuts, usually because I was rushing!
Put a little ink onto the glass or tile and then move the roller over the ink, back and forth several times – it’s important not to use too much ink otherwise you will flood your design. Better to start with too little than too much. Next move the roller over the linocut until it is evenly and well covered.
Carefully lay your paper over the inked lino (you don’t want it to move). Press some cardboard over the back of the paper, rubbing it with your hand or the back of a metal spoon, or press the barren down using your body weight to help, working evenly across the paper. When you have done some pressing, lift half of the paper up and check for areas you have missed. If you want you don’t have to be too thorough – sometimes a slightly speckled surface where the ink has missed the lino creates a nice retro aesthetic (see below) – a bit like an old cheaply printed label. Then replace that half and repeat with the other side of the paper. If you want more ink in a certain spot, press down harder.
Your first impression or impressions may be very pale but this isn’t a problem – you can use these to check your design and to see if you need to make any alterations. I often find I need to strengthen a line, or cut some more lino out in an area that I neglected or misinterpreted. You may also have to remove loose bits of lino cuttings (visible because they will create a small white ring on your design).
Leave each print to dry – they can take several hours or over a day depending on the conditions and inks used. I use an old letter tray to dry mine. Don’t be tempted to do any more with your prints until they are thoroughly dried!
Oil based inks are useful in that you can hand colour them when they’ve dried. You can print and then scan black prints into a computer; then use an image manipulation programme like Adobe Photoshop to colour them in (select the black/coloured area and remove the white area, then add colours in layers underneath). You can also add colours by cutting extra layers for the same image, one for each additional colour, but that’s for the more experienced person. This is what Ann Lewis did in her image of a waterfall (top).
Repeating patterns – a starter project
Why not start on a small scale and create repeating patterns? This can be a lot of fun. Draw a design and make sure that it can be linked ‘seamlessly’ on two sides, so that it can be repeated. Once carved, you can use it like a rubber stamp; I use an ink pad by Stazon which uses a really good permanent black ink – it’s quicker than the normal printing process. Add something to grip it with on the string-backed side, if it makes it easier for you to use e.g. a strong tape.
These are woodblock frames by Edward Bawden which have been printed using a press, but the concept is the same:
I never bothered to sharpen my Speedball blades but I do need to keep my Pfeil tools sharp – there are great YouTube videos which show you how to do this. Some people say warming the lino prior to cutting helps but I’ve never done this.
Where to get linocutting materials
Use your local art shop if you can, otherwise it may disappear. Having said that, sometimes you can’t get good print making stuff in a small shop. I also buy stuff at these places online (for the UK):
You can see my linocuts here – they include a wide range of subjects and styles and might give you some inspiration!