How it’s made: reduction linocut my way…

I thought it would be interesting to write a blog explaining exactly how I make one of my linocut prints. This print, called Vale Raking Light is a great candidate for a thoroughly nerdy piece with plenty of technical detail and hopefully some helpful ideas.

Maybe take a quick quiz to see if this blog is for you before you go on reading: you meet a person at a party who begins talking about the rag content of paper. Do you a) wonder in bemused horror how much scraping your host had to do at the bottom of the social barrel to come up with this freak or b) glow with pleasure as you give up the next two hours and all pretence of socialising while you pin down why Somerset may or may not trump BFK Rives. I leave you to judge, depending on your answer, whether to read on or not…

Raking Light is a reduction linocut using traditional artists/battleship lino, printed in oil-based inks onto Fabriano Rosaspina paper using an Albion printing press. By reduction printing, I mean that the whole print is created from one piece of lino (which I’ll refer to as the block in this blog). After each layer of colour is printed, more is cut from the block until the print is finally finished and the block destroyed. This print has fifteen layers of inking in all.

I use Intaglio Printmakers oil-based inks with the addition of their extender and cobalt drier. Extender adds transparency to the inks, like adding water to watercolour paint. A scant drop of cobalt drier to a tablespoon of ink will speed the drying time of oil-based from days to hours. I use oil-based ink because I find it much more sympathetic to colour mixing: what you see is what you get. With water-based ink, the colours look edgier and often darker on paper as opposed to the mixing slab and can look chalky with the addition of white. Importantly I can work light to dark and, less conventionally, dark to light with oil in ways impossible in water-based ink. I also avoid the danger of the paper cockling with damp ink. This can be a problem with water-based inks, especially since I often work with many layers of ink.

Raking Light began with a sky spotted from the car. I lurched to a halt on the road into Aylesbury and took photos on my phone. Usually I make sketches too, but not this time, not on the A413. I used these photos to work up this design drawing ready for transfer to the lino.I assemble my landscapes in my studio with the help of source material. I’m far more interested in catching the feel of a place rather than making an accurate representation of a specific location. That way the viewer is free to make the landscape their own while I, in turn, am free to arrange the composition to my own satisfaction. You’ll see the land change shape later as the print progresses.

I made a tracing from my drawing to transfer the lino to the block. I use Polydraw plastic tracing film for all my tracings. Polydraw is completely stable, no swelling or cockling even if it is splashed with water, unlike conventional tracing paper. I flipped the tracing over to reverse it (so that the print would appear in the same orientation as the design drawing, rather than as a mirror image) and transferred it onto prepared lino using carbon paper. I prepare my lino by giving it a light sanding with fine sandpaper to key the surface and then stain it with red ink much diluted with white spirit. I wipe the dilute ink on with a cloth, leave it for a few minutes and then rub off the excess and wipe over with white spirit to finish. The carbon paper I use is office carbon and it can transfer to the print unless it is treated. To prevent transfer with oil-based inks, I leave the carbon to ‘set’ for an hour or so and then wipe over thoroughly with white spirit. This reduces, but doesn’t prevent, transfer when using water-based inks, for those I suggest making some sacrificial prints to allow the carbon transfer to fade before starting to print properly.

This photo shows the lino with the first layer of ink applied for printing. I used a combination of different rollers to apply the ink. Here I have at least three rollers on the go and am inking only where I feel it is appropriate. With this approach, you can either just add more ink between each impression, accepting that the image will become softened and blended with each application, or you can wipe down the block between each print so that the painterly application of ink is fresh in every print. I dot between the two methods depending on what I’m doing.
This is the lino showing my early cutting. The red is chinagraph pencil and the blue lines the carbon. I used the chinagraph to resolve the landscape as I went – it changed significantly right up until the end of printing thanks to how the work developed. I may start with a design drawing, but it is never set in stone and I often change and adapt as I go. I never make a colour study or plan of any sort either. This seat of the pants approach means I am constantly responding to what the work needs rather than being restricted by preconceptions.
This is an early impression showing the mix of roller-applied colour in the sky. The ink is mixed with extender at about 95% extender for great transparency. Using so much extender comes at a price: it can make the ink sticky and stringy, flicking it up onto the bar of the roller where drops can drip back down onto the print (solved by keeping and eye out and wiping down regularly). This dilution also requires a good deal more work with the roller on the lino than normal to even out the ink if you want a smooth transparent layer. I use a little ‘tack reducer’ added to the ink to make it flow better and be less sticky. Tack reducer looks like Vaseline and a small amount added to oil-based ink will help it to flow on cold days and eases the stringiness of extender-heavy inks.
Here is my slab showing the various colours and rollers. I always mix using the previous colours as a part of the new colour. This started out as thrift in my student days, but now is more a matter preference for a harmonious palette.
This picture shows the build up of the sky, very transparent and painterly. I enjoy the contrast between the definite cut line in my work and the vagaries of my inking. This makes for an edition where the prints all share the same colours and cutting, but the application of the ink varies. I have no issue with this, making numbered photos available for clients and galleries to select their preferred prints and have never had a problem commercially. If I reach a point where the variation pushes the notion of an edition too far, I will sell the prints as a series.
This series of photos shows the build up of the landscape. The land remained a quandary and, if I’m honest a bit of an irritation, until I started work on it, then it became my favourite part of the print. The first couple of layers of land had almost as much extender as the sky to give it luminosity, but as I got closer to the foreground, I reduced the extender to less than 20% and then removed it all together for the last couple of layers. I didn’t decide what to do about the tree until the end, but kept my options open by putting on some ink at an early stage to see how it looked. I didn’t ink the tree at every stage so that it would stay crisp and detailed when finally printed. I always avoid over-inking areas of fine detail if I can.

These two photos show the lino with a painterly application of bright ink that is going to print over dark ink, then the subsequent print (see how I am now ignoring the tree). While oil-based ink makes it possible to work light over dark, you need to make the lights overly bright, as the darker base layer will always knock paler ink back and subdue its tone on the print itself.

Below is the final result again showing the finished tree which I printed in one hit, highlights and all. I began with fourteen pieces of paper and ended up with fourteen finished prints. This takes a good deal of experience and nerve.

The reduction process doesn’t allow for test proofing or going back and printing more. If you are new to the process, either allow yourself some extra prints for mistakes or accept you could end up with a very small edition (I do remember going from twelve down to one back in the early days, necessitating a cry and probably some chocolate biscuits).

If you want to see the variation in inking you can look at the prints in succession here. Better still, if you’d like to buy one, click here. If you want yet more advice insight and help, you can scour my resources pages here or join me on Facebook or Instagram where you’ll find me as Laura Boswell Printmaker.

Open Season

There will be a lot of people like me in Buckinghamshire today, all scrambling to open their doors tomorrow for Bucks Open Studios. Turning a working studio into a working studio, plus exhibition space, plus shop then making it all safe, clearly signed, priced and welcoming is no small feat and I’m one of the lucky ones. I have a studio which isn’t the spare room or the kitchen table. I have enough wall space to hang my work, my son is quite old enough to fend for himself and this is my day job. I am constantly astonished by the incredible metamorphosis conjured by fellow artists on their homes, studios, local village halls and also by their ability to disguise the effort so that the average visitor sees only the artwork and none of the angst.

Mistletoe
Mistletoe

It’s no small thing to invite strangers into your personal space. I love it, but that’s me: any chance to tell people about what I do and why. Others don’t find it so easy and I do admire the shy, the quiet and the solitary who are prepared to welcome the very thing they find unsettling. Visitors, on the whole, are delightful. Family show up and sit around with coffee and biscuits as a sort of informal welcome committee, annual visitors follow work and are eager to see progress, new people explore, print lovers discuss technicalities and always, always at least one man of a certain age wants to tell me how to install plumbing in my studio or urges me to cut my blocks with a router. There is the occasional hiccough, but I can usually dine out on adverse remarks: better to laugh than cry and better still to remember that I’m the one who has put my work up for public scrutiny.

I used to find the selling the worst part: fidgeting uncomfortably as people discussed my work and whether to buy it, all the time terrified that I would have to justify my costs face to face with an actual person. Over the years I have realised that what that client wants is not a cheap price: they want my confidence. So I never justify my prices, though I will happily explain them on request, nor do I ask for any reassurance. It’s my place to admire the good taste of my customers in buying, not my customer’s place to make me feel better about my prints. I’ve also learned to let a sale go if a visitor bullies for a cheap deal; no need to be confrontational, just sure in my price. These are tough lessons to learn, but I have worked on my role of artist and, even if I am wobbly, I can at least seem serene. Open Studios is theatre after all.

The Dating Game

Recently I stepped away from having a paper diary and into the cloud world of an electronic diary. The idea of relying on a cloud to keep me up to date with the daily dance of students, galleries, teaching venues, delivery dates (not to forget cat inoculations, the dentist and birthdays) is not terribly confidence inspiring. However, it seems to work and my also-new android phone trills and buzzes with reminders and updates, telling me that I am so terribly important now.

I know artists traditionally have the reputation of being above such mundane tasks, but the fact is that, however fabulous the work, nobody loves an artist who is late or forgets to sign contracts, delivers work on the wrong day or, my personal nightmare, doesn’t turn up to teach their class. There are precious few of us famous enough to get away with this sort of flaky behaviour. It’s my experience that an artist’s reputation is as fragile as a Hardy heroine’s: once the word gets out that you are trouble, people will move on. The plus side to this is that a reputation for being on time, on budget, well prepared and generally efficient will result in work, bookings and happy galleries.

This was brought home to me today when I finally compared my Cumulonimbus’s worth of teaching and exhibiting dates with the events and teaching pages on my web site – disaster! I’ve slipped out of sync and had to spend several hours updating. That opens up the can of worms that is web site maintenance (another time I think, I’m stressed enough as it is). I guess I will have to add yet another task to the diary to update regularly so this doesn’t happen.

I don’t suppose it matters how you keep a diary; I’ve had all sorts in my time from lockable ones (two days worth of serious teenage angst and then forgotten), an eighties filofax (too big) through Moleskines (so hip) to the cloudy one. The point is to pay attention to it. I am very late to the electronic diary, but now I have it I find it has two great advantages: it chirrups until I pay attention plus I can book courses in a year or two ahead without scrawling hopefully in the back of the current year. The only thing I miss is the annual choosing of the colour…

Lucky, lucky, lucky

This blog is going to be a tricky one because I do hate to sound like someone who is having her cake and eating it, especially since to have cake is to eat cake as far as I am concerned, especially in cold weather.

I recently had a conversation which ran along the lines, familiar I imagine to most artists, makers, writers, poets, craftspeople etc, of ‘Oh so you are an artist?’ (last word pronounced in the sort voice people use for mythical creatures – though more unicorn than troll I’m pleased to say). ‘You are so lucky doing that and not going out to work’.

This is it is a conversation that crops up very regularly, especially when I open my studio to people. Let me say that yes, I am very lucky to work from home: where else can I work in pyjamas with the cat on my knee and not worry about using a stanley knife straight onto the work surface? That I agree is a privilege, but isn’t not exclusive to artists and indeed, when I was a credit controller wheedling photography professionals into paying their bills (not a huge success, I made too many friends) I did it from my spare room pretending to be wearing a suit while sitting, feet up, on the bed. Anyone who works from home is lucky, but also, if they do actually do the work, has drive and self discipline.

Then there’s the sting in the tale: is being an artist work? I think it is. It is work I love, but I don’t love it any more than the shopkeeper passionate about his news agents or the accountant fiercely happy balancing books. Truth to tell, so much of my work is admin and teaching (if I tack ‘teacher’ to ‘artist’ it often solves the problem because teaching is a real job, though conversely many creatives see it as a major cop out), meetings, visits etc that it begins to look pretty much like standard work. The difference is that the whole enterprise balances on me managing to put colour and line down on surfaces in a way that people will not just pay for, but pay enough to make it worth my while.

So yes, I am lucky to be working at a job I love in a place where slippers are dress code, but that sort of luck applies to many people, not just us artists. In answer to the statement I quoted the famous ‘The harder I work, the luckier I get’ which surely applies to everyone?