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Linocut Printmaking 101

“Are you at all familiar with linocut?”

This is my conversation starter 70% of the time at markets. The other 30% I use “Are you a reader?” but I have to feel reasonably sure that the person will say yes because you know what sucks? Feeling the need to defend your reading habits or lack thereof to a random art lady.

Linocut is a type of printmaking where you carve linoleum, yes, like the flooring material! And then make prints from your carving by rolling ink across the un-carved areas, and applying paper with pressure to transfer the ink.

No, haha, I did not invent it. People have been doing linocut almost since the invention of linoleum in 1860. In terms of art in museums, this print, a cover for The Inland Printer by William Bradley was made in 1895. This is almost definitely not the first linocut print, but there isn’t great documentation of people experimenting with the process. 

I also want to reiterate that linocut was not invented by Picasso, which a bunch of people seem to believe. (also, he was so awful, stop referring to him when you can’t think of other artists!)

My university degree is a Bachelor of Fine Arts (BFA) with a Printmaking specialization, which is something most people don’t know is a thing. Most of us have been doing printmaking since our parents cut a potato in half for us and let us dip it in paint and press it on paper. “Only on the paper, Brianna. No, your brother is not the paper!” I gained an appreciation for the finer aspect of printmaking, first at Beal, then at OCAD. Printmaking has wide and varied definitions, that’s really a whole 300 level class, but basically it can be broken down into three categories: Relief, Intaglio, and Planographic.

  • Relief is any medium where there is a height difference between the printing area (above) and the non printing area (recessed). Relief printmaking includes woodcut, wood engraving, linocut, stonecut, etc.
  • Intaglio is a type of printmaking where texture is used to hold ink, often in recessed areas in the matrix. This includes, etching, drypoint, mezzotint, aquatint, photogravure, and collagraph (collagraph can also be printed as relief)
  • Planographic refers to types of printmaking where there is no raised or lowered areas and the separation between printing and not printing is caused by stencils or chemical processes. These include screenprinting, lithography, cyanotype, pochoir, etc.

Beyond those four categories, there are certain studies that are often grouped under “print-adjacent” and these include paper making, marbling, and bookbinding.

I am primarily a relief printmaker, although I had a pretty serious fling with Lithography in my early twenties, and latly I've been more interested in papermaking!

Relief printmaking is backwards, literally. Whenever I carve anything I have to do it in reverse because the impression works like a mirror. This is particularly important for… WORDS. Also: dominant hands of crucial characters, clocks, maps, recognizable image references, watch wrists, rotary phones, asymmetrical logos… basically specific asymmetry of any kind. Sometimes I remember. Sometimes I forget. I made this lithograph (litho is also backwards) for my undergrad thesis that is full of text. It is all facing the correct direction, except for the “g” in hockeygirl11.

A technique I use quite often is “reduction printing” wherein I carve and print a block, then I carve the same block a little more, and print again, on the same paper in a different colour of ink. Because it’s the same block, and the same paper, it’s a lot easier to line up or register the parts of the image with one another. It takes a lot of forward thinking and the sharpie comes in really handy.

In this reduction print I did in 2017, I printed first with white ink and then with blue on a light brown paper. There was a lot of text to be flipped and a lot of colour planning to do in the carving stages. Stage 1: everything that is middle toned needs to be carved away but the light tones and the dark tones need to stay. Stage 2: everything that is light toned needs to be carved away and everything dark toned needs to stay. I tend to plan based on light, medium and dark tones, rather than specific colours which helps me keep things straight.

Over the years and as I've developed more and better linocut techniques, I've recorded them in these blog posts. Happy reading!

How to Make Sense of Reduction Linocut

Coveting Your Carving: 8 Masterful Linocut* Artists on Instagram

How to Draw for Linocut Printmaking

Portraiture in Linocut: Get your face game on!

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