Linocut is how I define myself. It is my thing. I used to be a drawer (draftsperson? Terminology was half the problem) and I couldn’t imagine that linocut could give me the same freedom and nuance as drawing. It took me years of dedicated practise to realize that there are techniques available to me in linocut that are unique and wonderful and better than drawing in certain respects. I’m here to share my most effective strategies with you so that you can have a similar experience and learn to love this medium like I do.
Drawing vs Linocut
Here's how I was drawing with coloured pencil in 2014. This is a 30 x 30" coloured pencil drawing using only red, yellow, and blue pencil crayons. Before I got into linocut, this was my signature style: a lot of colour, a lot of careful shading, and sized far larger than I would ever print at.
The same year this was made, I took an introduction to printmaking class and carved this lino print:
For an early attempt at linocut, this piece isn’t necessarily bad. Technically, it hassomething, but in a digital format it kind of hurts your eyes, doesn't it? That is definitely a valid goal for some artists out there, but it has never been mine. This print walks a nice line between abstract pattern and representational pillowcase but I have learned that when your first instinct is to describe an artwork as “nice” it is missing something.
This is one of my more recent linocuts that I consider to be much more successful:
I’m working in colour again which plays to my strengths and the image isabout something. It’s pretty, but it’s also a little weird. Is that a cozy nest or a sinister trap? There’s more to look at here than in the pillowcase print and it’s not all because of the detail.
Ira Glass talks about the gap between your taste and your skill when you start making art. In the beginning, your taste outstrips your skill by miles; it's only by practising that any of us get to the point of making stuff that is as good as our taste. I'm here to help you close the gap between your skill in drawing and your skill in linocut.
Let's Close the Gap
During my transition from drawing on paper to working in linocut, my work improved with my application of these four concepts:
- Limiting the number of mark making techniques
- Employing shape instead of form
- Deprioritizing local colour
- Choosing what details to drop
I'm going to use as many examples from my own work as possible but otherwise I'm going to pull from my pinterest collections when I run out! You can also see/follow my board Linocut Goodness.
Limiting the number of mark making techniques
Limiting the number of mark-types you use makes for far more cohesive prints. Before you choose which marks to use, you have to know what kinds you can make in the first place.
Grab your carving tool(s) and a scrap of lino—if you colour your block with a dark marker (alcohol based is ideal) before carving, you'll have a better idea of what a print might look like. Now, let yourself explore:
Carve straight lines of varying thicknesses. Learn to curve the lines, gently and abruptly. Is it easier to turn your tool or turn your block? Try making short marks, and perfect dots. Try changing the beginning and end of your lines to be blunt or tapered. What happens if you apply forward pressure with a big V gouge and then wiggle it quickly back and forth? Outline a square and try to carve out the inside of it as precisely as possible (you have four chances to nail that inside right angle). Carve thin parallel lines close together and far apart. Hold the lino away an arm's length. How do your marks resolve into tone and texture? Go ahead and draw a squiggly line in marker and carve the space around it so the squiggly line becomes the positive mark. You can also try stippling, linear halftones, fine hatching, pure line, pure shape.
The type of mark most commonly associated with linocut is loose hatching and cross hatching . A really good example of this is the work of Kathe Kollwitz. She is a master of her medium (which is technically woodcut, but very similar) and her subject matter, and the style is perfectly appropriate for devastating depictions of starving children and grieving mothers.
However, many other prints that use loose cross hatching do not manage it as successfully. It's almost as if the artists want to make gestural paintings, but a carving tool lacks the fluidity and immediacy of a brush. I also see a lot of prints that are very clearly a bunch of white marks on a black field—but without any grouping or resting space, the whole thing resolves into a grayish blob instead of a face, tree, or scene. This expressionist style is not one that I engage with in my own work, so this might also be a matter of personal preference.
Above is an example of what I'm talking about: a linocut (maybe woodcut) portrait by prominent, dead, German artist, Otto Dix, who can totally handle my criticism.
I believe that one of the key ingredients to a successful linocut is cohesiveness, and the best way to achieve that is by limiting yourself to a maximum of two kinds of marks. Hatching and dots, shape and texture, halftones and outlines. See what your subject wants/needs from you.
My favourite technique, which I will be elaborating on below, is pure shape. The goal here is to delineate people, objects, and abstractions without using line or leaving a mark that is obviously made by a carving tool. (I say without using line, but my inner devil's advocate is reminding me that the linear aspect of the edges of all shapes is very important to this venture.)
Above is a relief print that I think demonstrates this technique perfectly. Every printed area is shape, with the exception of the textural grass near the bottom for a little variety (ugh, my highschool art teacher is celebrating my terminology). You may view this as a judicious use of the posterize tool, but consider that this artist mostly predated Andy Warhol and the notion of pop art.
David John Payne 1880 -1959
One more thing I love about this print is the clusters of shapes. A bunch of light shapes here, a bunch of dark shapes there... it gives your eye natural resting places which are sorely needed with this level of contrast. And see how there is a one third to two thirds balance of dark and light? Try to avoid pure 50-50 in your single layer prints.
Employing shape instead of form
If you have any classical drawing training, then the successful illusion of form has probably been placed on a pedestal in your mind. I know it was in mine! Getting that nose to pop forward and those ears to sit back was a major achievement when I was nineteen and developing my drawing practice with gusto (I was really bummed out that Michelangelo had sculpted the Pieta at nineteen and I was falling behind). I was taught to achieve form with subtle tonal gradations; contrast comes forward, softness recedes.
Think about shading a sphere. Now think about carving it in lino—the application of value doesn't translate in a clear or direct way. You may not like it, but here's my solution: don't try to make a linocut of a sphere.
The more nuanced and/or organic your subject matter, the more leeway you have. For example, a plain vase is going to require a lot more accuracy than a decorative vase with a painted-floral motif. Practised artists can make the viewer focus on whatever part of the image they like. You can use details to convey the mood and the style you're going for, and let "accuracy" become a secondary element.
Let’s look at some linocut vases, shall we?
Vase Of Flowers, Maurice de Vlaminck (French, 1876–1958).
This artist is treating linocut the way you might treat a painting or drawing. Look at the directional hatching to "round" the vase, and that pop of highlight in the middle that says "I'm shiny". You can definitely work in this style if it appeals to you, but I think we can carve lino to say "I'm round and shiny" differently, or even use it to say something more interesting about the vase altogether.
Consider this painting by Megan Galante that could totally be a linocut.
This vase says "I'm not just round, I'm curvy. I might even be hand-made pottery!" The use of shape and line makes it very clear to us what is being depicted without spelling out material and setting in an explicit, representational way. The other thing that's really working for this image is how the artist has drawn a wiggly line between luxury and sterility, and this arguably simple image is dancing on both sides of the line.
THORPE John Hall (1874-1947) The Chinese Vase. Woodcut. Pencil signed and inscribed. 19x13 inches. ( 29 / 96 )
Pay attention to the way this artist uses all shape and no form to craft a highly representational image. Those curved horizontal lines in the blue pattern make the vase say "I'm round." and the rest of the pattern says "I have a particular heritage. I am hand-painted. I unify nature and abstract pattern." The repeated contrast within the vase (compared to the soft layering of the flowers) says "Look at me." This is a talkative vase.
This is a very simple linocut. What is impressive here is how a few lines make a square say "I'm a vase." This artist knows how to make allusion to popular design to pull inferences from your brain. You know hardly anything about this vase, except... you know about how big it is, and the finish, because your Aunt Sheila has one and so does your neighbour. My mom has this vase in light green and I almost don't see the blue because the memory of the green vase is being called up so strongly.
Deprioritizing local colour
Local colour is the colour that an object is, more or less objctively. This apple is green. The sky is gray. Those pants are brown.
In essential terms, a single layer linocut print is a single colour. You could argue that there is also jigsaw printing (see:Lili Arnold) and roller blend techniques, but for our purposes: one layer = one colour.
If you get too attached to depicting objects in their local colours, suddenly your linocuts are tons of layers, which means complicated planning, registration, and printing. Which you can do! But, if I may present an alternative for linocut beginners: stop thinking about local colour altogether.
Some colour palettes that I have employed lately include: medium and dark on white paper, pale warm and medium cool on white paper, and dark cool, light warm, and intense on white. My linocut near the top of this blog, with the woman reading and the abstract vine things all around her? That's essentially a tricolour (back to my roots!) with a creamy yellow first layer that then alternates between transparent red and transparent blue for the next 5 layers of reduction.
It doesn't really matter what colour your subject matter is; I know several successful linocut artists who only work in a single layer (usually black). The reason that I don't assign specific colours right away is so that I can adapt when I actually get to printing. Sometimes what works in your sketch or digital mockup just doesn't translate into printing. Leave yourself some leeway by approximating your colours to start and seeing what is possible with limited layers.
The most separate blocks I have ever used in a single image is three, and that is because I have pared down colour to its essential qualities: light or dark, warm or cool.
WARNING: MATH AHEAD
Once you're starting to get the hang of colour layering in linocut, I have a handy mathematical formula to outline your potential colour output.
If you use a separate block for each colour and mix your ink with a bit of transparency (most block printing is a little translucent automatically), then the potential number of colours you can have in your image is equal to 2^n where n is the number of distinct blocks.
I've put together some examples:
As you can see, things escalate quickly.
1 lino block : 2 colours (paper always counts)
2 lino blocks : 4 colours
3 lino blocks : 8 colours
4 lino blocks : 16 colours
5 lino blocks : 32 colours
This means that with 10 blocks (and lots of careful planning) you could achieve over 1000 colours in your print. This kind of thing makes me simultaneously overwhelmed and excited. Linocut has endless colour possibilities, and you don't want to lose that room for creativity by trying to be completely true to local colour.
Choosing what details to drop
This is one of the most elusive aspects of composing a good linocut. Where and how is it good to leave out detail and let the viewer connect the dots themselves? I am always thinking about it and I rarely get it on the nose!
I find that I often get surprising successes with my reduction linocuts when I consider leaving off the last layer. The linocut near the top of this page with the woman reading in an abstract nest is one of those. It was supposed to have one more layer, but when I pulled proof, I saw it wasn’t necessary. Another reduction had this process recently and I actually polled my instagram following to see which one they preferred. The answer was overwhelmingly option A, the one with fewer layers.
The differences here are subtle. In B the woman's head is clearly defined by an edge that separates her hair from the background; in A there is no edge, and her hair looks darker, which I preferred. In B the woman's sock has more detail, but it looks less realistic than the sock in A. In B the fir tree details go all the way up the page and in A they are concentrated near the bottom—this subtle difference is the only thing I was sorry to lose by eliminating the final layer. Ultimately, I made the decision based on the final cohesive look.
Do you see what I mean about this being elusive?
One more thing I'd like to show you is a picture I took of the early stages of this linocut. This is four layers in, and the colour mood is wrong (and the trees are missing) but the image has everything it needs to function. If I had been a little more brave I would have left it here.
Here's to being brave in your artistic practice (whatever that looks like for you)!
I hope these strategies help your linocut endeavours transition from amateurish to awesome. It’s my favourite medium by far and I am sure you can make it work for you too! If you just devoured this post and are hungry for more, I've broken down more strategies in other super thorough blog posts. If you have any further questions I’d be happy to answer them in the comments. Happy carving!