From floor covering to printing method

     In this age of vinyl flooring, many people aren’t familiar with linoleum.  However, at one time, it was the most popular floor covering available.  It can still be found in some older commercial buildings and homes.  Linoleum is a mixture of ground cork and oxidized linseed oil spread over a burlap or canvas backing.  The resulting surface is hard, durable, smooth and washable.

     Artists and printmakers are always seeing new possibilities, and soon after linoleum was introduced as a floor covering creative people saw that it was an ideal surface for making printing blocks.  Although linoleum doesn’t allow the same delicacy of detail that is possible with woodcuts, it is very well suited for broader cuts and multi-color work.  It’s also very inexpensive.  Linoleum blocks are faster and easier to carve than wood blocks, and will stand up to long press runs as well as hand printing methods. 

     In the early days of linocuts, artists like Picasso purchased what is called “battleship linoleum” — 1/4 inch thick and very durable — from floor covering dealers and mounted it on wood blocks.  Nowadays, linoleum already mounted on blocks can be purchased from art supply dealers. 

“Broken Heart Surgery”, a linocut by Matthew Temple of Paulding.

     The linocut process is simple and straightforward.  First the artist comes up with a design, keeping in mind that it will be reversed when printed.  The design is either drawn directly on the linoleum or transferred with tracing paper.  Then the artist uses linoleum cutters to engrave along the lines of the sketch, cutting to a depth of about 1/8 inch.  Then s/he continues to carve details into the block, using larger and larger cutters.  The part of the block that is cut away will print white; the part that remains will print black (or whatever color ink the artist chooses. 

     The “suicide method” is another way of making multi-color prints.  It is a reduction method using only one block for the entire print.  One color is cut and printed and then cut away, preparing the block for the next color.  There is no second chance, thus the term “suicide”.

     Once the block is cut, the thick, sticky printing ink (sometimes loosened up with a few drops of water) is rolled out on a flat surface, such as a pane of glass, with a brayer.  The inked brayer is rolled over the linoleum to ink the raised part of the carving. 

     There are a number of ways to transfer the ink from the black to the paper.  One is to carefully lay the printing paper across the block and then rub it with the back of a spoon to transfer the ink.  Another is to put the printing paper on a cushion of newspapers on the floor.  The inked linocut block is put face down on the printing paper and the artist steps on it lightly, taking care to apply pressure around the block to give even pressure over the entire surface.  Small hand presses are also available to apply even pressure for printing linocuts.

     Black and white linocuts can be hand colored.  Many artists also create two, three or four blocks, with one block designed specifically for each color.  This is a painstaking process that requires each block to be lined up perfectly on the paper.  To do this, the artist cuts notches in each of the blocks in exactly the same places.  When the first color is printed, the artist makes a light pencil mark on the paper right at the notch.  Then the notches on succeeding color blocks are lined up with the pencil mark as each plate is printed, so the colors will print exactly where they should.

     After the printing is done, the linoleum surfaces are carefully cleaned so they can be used again and again.  The linocut blocks themselves are interesting to look at and can be used as decorations until they’re needed to make more prints.

Published by on December 2010. Filed under Archives, Art-to-Art Palette Journal, Bugle Section. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

Comments are closed