Lino Printmaking

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I haven’t written a “how to” blog for a while and as I am preparing work for a particular exhibition where I don’t tend to do well with my abstract pieces but do sell my handmade prints, I thought documenting my process might be useful for those of you interested in printmaking.

In case you are unsure, lino printing is a technique which goes back to the early 20th century and is far easier to use than other similar printmaking techniques such as etching, which uses some pretty horrid chemicals. While these have improved in recent years, they are corrosive and need careful handling. Lithography, meanwhile, involves the use of very heavy stones. One artist I know had to give up using this method because of the damage lifting them was causing to their back. 

Lino is also eco-friendly with the following materials traditionally being mixed together: cork, pine, resin, wood powder, pigment and linseed oil, which is where lino gets its name from. Once cured, hessian fabric (called burlap in the USA) is applied to the mixture to create linoleum, or lino for short.

I have three linocuts on the go currently. Two are very similar and I am considering printing them together, but it does depend on what they look like once cut. That is the joy of printmaking of any kind; you never know what it is going to look like until you go to print it. It is always a surprise and normally a good surprise, too.

If you are going to have a go, there are a few things to consider before you start. Most lino print makers I know use super, top of the range, cutting tools and I would recommend that if you decide you love the process so much you want to do it all the time then, as I always say, buy the best. If you are just starting out, the cheap, what I consider to be throw away variety, of cutting tools are absolutely fine

The lino you want to use depends on a lot of things. How easy you find using your hands is a big one. I have been unable to complete all of these lino cut prints simply because I have given myself a stress fracture from repeatedly pushing down on lino and book board keeping them still for cutting. However, there are some very tight surfaced forms of lino which are hard and can create fabulous detail, because you can cut them so finely and they don’t move, but they are extremely hard on your hands. Equally, there are some very soft, bendy linos which are like cutting through butter, so much easier on your hands, but you are not able to get lots of detail because it is difficult to cut fine lines in something so malleable.

The traditional, hessian backed, linos are somewhere in the middle but they must be used when fresh as the oils inside them dry out and they become hard, brittle and difficult to cut. Traditionally, people would place their lino on a radiator to soften it before cutting it. I remember my mother placing hot water bottles on lino so she could cut through it more easily. It is best to use traditional linos in a warmer environment and sometimes I will run mine under hot water to soften it. We all find the best ways of working for ourselves and the best lino for the project in hand.

So, first source your cutting tools and lino and then decide what you want to print. You will see from the attached photos that I draw my design and then put it onto tracing paper, which needs to be turned over to use. I then use transfer paper to move the design onto the lino. The reason you MUST trace and turn over your design is that the printed image will be the reverse of what you draw onto the lino. So, this is crucial. If you are using words in your print or you have created a drawing of a real place (as I have in one of these prints) you want it to be printed the right way round otherwise it doesn’t work. Hopefully the photos illustrate what I mean.

The next stage can be done in a couple of different ways. Some people simply use watered-down acrylic paint to glaze over the lino and fix the lines that have been transferred onto it. I like to go over the lino with a black or brown Sharpie which I know is permanent and then I glaze over the lino so that I can easily see where I have cut and where I still need to cut.

Another MUST is the way you cut. If you can buy or make (they are really easy to make) a bench hook, you can use the back of this to hold your lino in place, making it really easy to keep your hand on the cutting blade. The MUST is that you must always cut away from yourself and you must never place your hand in front of the blade. I have been making lino prints for decades and I still slip up with cutting from time to time. If your hand is in the way I promise you a lino cutting blade stuck in your hand hurts, big time.

The above proofs from the two lino plates gives and idea of what next to cut or not from your lino plate.

When it comes to deciding what you want to cut and what you want to print, this is personal choice. If you want the print to be predominantly dark with the light lines showing detail, then clearly you leave large areas with detailed cuts showing your design.

If you want to have large areas of white and the outline of your drawing as the design, then clearly you need to cut away more of the lino. Whatever you leave will have ink on it, so if you are new to this try just a few cuts before inking up the lino and printing out a trial piece. With practice and over time you will know what sort of image you want to print and cut accordingly.

If you have a look on Google or YouTube, there are a number of printmakers producing lino cuts in gold on black paper. To produce a successful print, they need to have lots of gold ink showing on the black paper so there is minimal cutting involved.

With two of the lino prints I am cutting I want to hand paint the images once printed. I like to print these on watercolour paper and using watercolour paints and/or water-based inks. I enjoy making each print look different. This is called a varied edition. The other positive for me with this method is that I can print the image multiple times until I am bored of it, or it eventually starts to break down. With the third print I am making I was inspired by a visit to Cuckmere Haven, in East Sussex, where I took multiple photos of the cliffs there called the Seven Sisters.

With this print I am producing what is called a reduction or suicide print of the image. This involves very careful planning as you need to cut the white areas of the lino first and then print your lightest colour. Then you remove more of the lino to print the following colour. Each time you cut away the lino you run the risk of making a mistake and ruining the print altogether. I normally produce a reduction print in five or six colours with an edition of 20-25 prints. Once all the layers are cut the lino is useless as all that remains is the outlines of the darkest colours of the print. It is rarely re-usable.

Printing inks are many and varied. Personally, I use Caligo Safe Wash Relief Ink, Fabric Printing Ink, Linocut Ink and Woodcut Ink because of their versatility and flexibility. I can use them on Collagraph printmaking, linocut printmaking and, when I feel like having fun, they also print on fabric. But there are other printing inks I use, such as Lawrence printing inks and Intaglio Printmakers inks, which are both wonderful to work with. I have tried others when working in print studios and you simply need to try them to see what you like best.

Last but not least, you need to think about the type of paper you are going to use. There is a huge array of papers available to print on from fairly inexpensive printing papers to watercolour papers and Japanese papers, which are beautiful but cost. If you are just starting out a pad of printing papers will get you started and over time you can experiment with papers to get the finish you want.

I have only touched the surface on this subject. I could write a book on it, but that’s for another day. From time to time, I run printmaking classes and you can find out details of by signing up to my monthly newsletter. When my website is eventually updated, I plan to have a page on there for people to make bookings with me.

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