Linocut Printmaking 101

What kind of books are these? 

It seems to me that the conversation around artist books, zines, and fine press publishing has been growing in the last few years. I wonder if that's just my position in this community or the echo chamber of instagram. Regardless, my first job at Penrose is to make the things; my second job is to explain them. One of the reasons I classify Penrose Press books as "fine press" is their linocut and letterpress printed content.


Don’t worry if these terms seems unclear to you. I am a printmaking Nerd and I am here to enlighten you.
 

An Introduction to the Printmaking Mindset

I came to publishing by way of a fine arts degree with a Printmaking specialization. Most of us have been doing printmaking since our parents cut a potato in half for us and let us dip in 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 four categories: Relief, Intaglio, Planographic, and Lithography. The MOMA has a wonderful interactive explanation for these categories here even if they use what I would consider limiting names for them. 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. What the MOMA refers to as “woodcut” I refer to as relief, mostly because I don’t actually cut wood. My preferred substrate (the image/thing you print from) is linoleum which most people know as a type of cheap, durable flooring. In the most essential terms: I carve the linoleum (lino), I roll some ink on top, and I press some paper on it; whatever I didn’t carve transfers onto the paper. More specifically:

  • I glue my linoleum on ¾” medium density fiberboard which brings it to about ⅞”.
  • I draw my image, first in pencil, then in sharpie on the linoleum. I can’t erase my work in progress very much, or I risk creating a dip in the surface of the linoleum, which is bad for printing. I use sharpie because it stays on through printing with oil based ink, and it will remain if I want to carve and print a second layer.
  • I carve the image. I’m thinking about positive and negative spaces, a reflected image, the illusion of tone...etc. Read about it in How to Draw for Linocut Printmaking
  • I make the block ready on the printing press I use: categorically a Letterpress, specifically a Vandercook Proof Press No. 4T (as of 2020 Im using a Challenge Letterpress at SNAP Printshop). I place some paper underneath my block to make it “type high” or 0.918 inches…


TANGENT: The world used to function with a less precise inch that fluctuated according to the barley harvest. One inch was equal to three grains of barley placed end to end. This was pretty annoying for printmakers and so they decided on a standard inch. Some time later, the “official” inch was designated but it was different from the printer’s inch! (RUDE) Today the printer’s inch, commonly known as “type high” measures 0.918 official inches.
    

  • I check to make sure my rollers are the right height. I check to make sure my block is the right height. I check to make sure the tympan (the big drum that holds the paper) is padded to the correct thickness. This will result in the paper hitting the block with the right pressure to apply ink evenly, but not leave a significant dent. The dent is actually pretty popular in contemporary letterpress printing (that way you KNOW it’s letterpress) but I’m not always a fan. The dent, called “debossing” is historically considered sloppy, and for my own purposes as a book artist who usually uses both sides of the paper, I try to have as little debossing as possible.
  • I check to make sure the block is hitting the right part of the paper. This is called registration.
  • I mix my ink and check to make sure it is the right colour on paper.
  • I check to see if I have the right amount of ink on the press. (I add ink slowly, because it is easy to add but hard to remove.)
  • I pull a proof by rolling the tympan over the block and if it’s perfect it becomes my BAT (bon a tirer: good to pull) and the proof that I measure every other print in the edition against, to make sure that they are consistent.
  • I print the rest of the edition, adding ink as necessary and leave my proofs to dry on a large metal rack.

Fine Art Prints on a drying rack. Red and green patterns.

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. ​
drawing on litho stone
litho print with backwards g

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.

 

Lino block, blond woman

Linocut reduction, blond woman

Let’s dive into the specifics of printing Penrose projects, shall we?

Caterpillar Portraits

​by Joyce Jodie Kim

Caterpillar Portraits boasts a cover with 4 layers of printing. The first was a lead-type lock-up for all of the words, and the second, third and fourth were a reduction linocut. The text was printed in blue ink which remains visible on the fold-in flaps but is covered over on the front, back and spine with gold embossing powder. I applied the powder to the still wet ink, coating the title letters thoroughly, and tapped off the excess. I applied heat to the page, thus melting the embossing powder and turning it from a fuzzy brown to shiny gold. The reduction print is the border of leaves and Korean pears. It was printed first entirely in blue and allowed to dry, then I carved away the leaves and printed yellow on top of the pears. I printed twice for every cover with the pear-yellow because it was very transparent the first time. Once all the ink colours were in place, I sprinkled more embossing powder on the pears, but sparsely so when I heated it, it created a pebbly texture similar to the actual fruit.

Caterpillar Portraits in lead type Caterpillar Portraits Cover Detail  

The 16 illustrations inside Caterpillar Portraits are each 2-layer reduction linocuts with a roller blend in each layer.

 

Haha, you wish! This is Nerd Time with Brianna, no summaries! I drew each of the illustrations and carved away first only that which I wanted to remain paper-white. I drew them side by side so that when the page was folded, it would fit nicely into the signature for binding (more on this in Part 2). I printed the first layer in a blend that was light pink at the bottom and yellow at the top. I created the roller blend on the vandercook inking rollers, they oscillate (move back and forth) as part of their design to enable even ink distribution and so when you apply two colours of ink to either end of the roller it automatically blends them. The trick is to apply the right amount of ink at the right frequency and print quickly enough that the blend stays consistent and doesn’t gray out. I carved the second layer and printed with a roller blend of dark pink at the bottom and transparent purple at the top. The transparent purple over the yellow resulted in a non-metallic gold.

Linocut in pink and yellow, barely visible figure
Linocut reduction in pink and gold, child hiding by parent's legs

A Wish

by Terry Abrahams

A Wish is a single signature chapbook with a linocut cover. On the front exterior there is a dandelion printed with crisp, white, carved lines and a fuzzy, light, halo around the head of the dandelion. The fuzzy halo was created by setting the press to “trip” where it fully inks the block without printing, then wiping with a rag to remove a bit of the ink, then raising the rollers so they don’t apply ink during printing, and THEN pulling a proof. 200 times. It’s technically a type of mono-printing, since the wiping is done by hand and I can’t guarantee that they all come out identical. The interior is a four layer reduction of super subtle texture to create a flowing abstract image. Four layers lined up closely enough that the hairline white text on this page is still legible. VANDERCOOK MAGIC.

linocut print dandelion and poem linocut reduction "you got it"

Letters to Frida

by Rebecca Davison Mora 

Letters to Frida is formatted the same as a wish and has a single layer linocut cover. It’s the inside where the printing awesomeness happens. The pattern here was created with a single, unaltered block, inked and printed twice. The first impression is in teal and the second is in red, the brown is the overlap. In between printing, all I did was rotate the block 180 degrees. I call it pivot registration. It required a lot of careful planning with transfer paper at the drawing and carving stage but it meant that I spent half the time carving than if I’d done two blocks, and I stave off carpal tunnel for a little longer!

Mexican-inspired pattern blue
drying rack full of green patterned prints
lino block on the press, inked in red
inside cover of Letters to Frida, red and green pattern printed over an envelope

That's All Folks!

For fun, I’ve counted up the number of impressions per project. That’s the number of times I turned the press so that some ink came off on some paper.

Caterpillar Portraits: 2500 impressions

A Wish: 1150 impressions

Letters to Frida: 690 impressions

The Midnight Garden: 800 impressions

The Size of Texas: 800 impressions

The Pink of the Seams: 1150 impressions

Neat.

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