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.

Don’t try this at Home

Mounting Japanese woodblock prints and what not to do!

So, what do artists do all day? I’ll give you a snapshot into this morning…

Today I discover that an experiment I made in backing a pair of prints with a sheet of paper to unite them flat for framing has sort of worked. Sadly the bit that hasn’t is quite important: the prints are desirably flat, but the backing paper is now tightly bonded to the glass sheet I used to support the experiment.

This is a bad thing, but not insurmountable. True these are finished prints and they are now stuck fast to the wrong thing, but they are Japanese woodblock prints. This means I can sit at the kitchen table with a bath sponge and a bowl of water and dab them until the whole thing is wet enough for me to release. Japanese watercolour and rice prints look delicate, but take damping and re-damping with the insouciance of the British at a bank holiday barbeque. I have two more sets of prints to go and another avenue of mounting needs exploring.

I learned the art of backing prints with supporting paper while on residency in Japan. Imagine the scene: a big room empty but for tatami mats and sliding paper screens, Mount Fuji at the end of the garden and students kneeling attentively (this does not include me. I cannot kneel and used to carry a note excusing me from kneeling in infant school. I stand respectfully instead). What the master says makes absolute sense and we accordingly mount and back prints successfully. What doesn’t translate, once I am in my own kitchen, is the access to the right brushes and papers. Here I am lacking in wide hemp, rabbit and deer hair brushes and the easy availability of washi paper. My prints are on European paper and I have emulsion brushes from the builder’s merchants. It’s now a question of adapt or fail.

This time I decide that the glass is best lined with cling film to prevent the backing sheet from sticking. I have seen Masterchef: I know cling film has diverse uses. First I wash the big sheet of picture glass in the bath to remove the last batch of gummed paper. As the glass slips around, I consider the health and safety forms I’ve just filled in for a class I have to teach. They require me to warn students not to trip over their own belongings. Nowhere do they cover the stupidity of juggling large sheets of thin, wet glass in a hard, curved bath.

I and the glass survive. Lining with cling film goes well, but then I worry the gummed tape to stretch the paper won’t stick so resolve to cut the film to the size of the paper to expose glass to the tape. For some reason I choose to use a meat cleaver for this (I am in the kitchen after all). More suited for a father intent on discouraging his daughter’s admirers, it actually works a treat and I am able to put fresh paper onto the film on the glass, damp and stretch.

The prints need to be stuck down with rice glue. I’ve made the glue by beating the hell out of a stiff rice and water paste for a full half hour over high heat while wondering if this is for the glue’s improvement or mine. Traditionally the resulting rubber ball is then diluted again by working with a hemp brush. I use the milkshake option on the blender. The cat appears and walks about on the prints. I shut him out. He swings on the door handle and yells, so I stop and place a chair in the sun where he agrees to sit and assumes the expression of Prince Phillip watching some not-so-good tribal dancing. I coat the back of my second batch of damp prints with the rice glue and offer them up to my scrupulously drawn guide lines more in hope than expectation. When they were handing out accuracy, I veered off course into the queue for creativity. I do my best, seal everything down and leave with the cat to dry in the warm.

It’s not yet nine am. This is a pretty normal day for me and I suspect for a lot of you creative people. It’s what we do and, though it’d be nice if things ran to plan, I do like a job that keeps me on my toes…

Des Res

In a week or so I will be setting off to Japan for an artist’s residency of several weeks to further my Japanese woodblock printing skills. At present details remain sketchy: I know I am the British artist, but don’t know who my four other companions are or which countries they will represent. Interestingly this worries me far less than the thought of crossing Tokyo. Printmakers always have plenty in common; I and the noodle sprawl of the Tokyo subway less so…

On the face of it, an artist’s residency seems like a bit of a jolly. Five weeks to indulge. Indeed, ‘aren’t you lucky’ is something I have been hearing on a very regular basis. I wouldn’t argue with the fact that I am lucky, but what I see as luck may not be the same as the luck implied in the comment. Artists like me have the luck of possessing the drive to stick with a technique and work through the catastrophes, goofs and setbacks to get to a point where we can be good enough to be considered for residencies. After that, luck is out of the equation: selection committees select, they don’t tend to pull names at random from a hat (at least I’ve never been on one that’s done that, however dull the evening and close the pub).

The residency also brings responsibility. I am giving up earnings, cancelling a workshop or two and putting family on hold to go out there. I’d better have something to show for it when I get back. I’m gambling that five weeks far from my comfort zone will result in a move forward in my work. I don’t doubt it will be a marvelous trip and I am certainly not asking for sympathy. I’m more explaining that a residency has to mark a point of change for my work or I will have failed and not be lucky at all: I’ll just have been self indulgent.

Behind the scenes

Registration problems, sometimes it all goes wrong…

Like most people, I do try to present a fairly polished front to the world when it comes to my work. Certainly I do my best to be organised and efficient at the admin end of the business (investing in a desk and a filing cabinet has been a revelation and I am pathetically thrilled by having a basket on my desk with stapler and sellotape to hand. Scissors still elude me despite bulk buying, but we can’t ask for everything…)

The upshot of all this is that I tend to only show the good bits of my work: the neat little sketches with potential, the studio shots where I look in control and am not squinting at the camera in a confused leer and, most of all, finished prints. For a change I thought I would show you some heart ache. Things don’t always go well and this print has been a really good example of what can go wrong. Inevitably this was the last print in the series of fourteen due for my client with a deadline looming and almost as inevitably I developed a head cold featuring a dangerously drippy nose at the same time.

working proof showing how things shouldn't look
working proof showing how things shouldn’t look

Japanese woodblock relies on a series of registration slots called Kento. These slots are cut by chisel onto the wood along with the block for printing and are crucial to lining up all the layers of the print into a full coloured picture. They act as a guide and the printing paper fits into them and is held in place to take the impression. Get any of the Kento slots a couple of mm out and the picture will be wonky. The print here has 18 different Kento slots (some of the blocks share a Kento, there are roughly 45 to 50 different woodblocks for this picture) and somewhere along the line I was out of sync.

Trouble is that it isn’t until I start printing that the problem becomes clear and even then it is seldom obvious just which kento is the problem and with several blocks sharing a kento, it could be just one of them that is out of line. The paper doesn’t make things easy either: it must stay damp, consistently the same damp, or it changes dimension. The bigger the print, the bigger the distortion. This print is 120cm wide and the paper can change by as much as 4mm as it dries. It’s easy to control if all goes to plan, but have a head scratching crisis of alignment and the paper is against me, drying out as I try to see the break in the chain of Kentos and adding to the confusion.

In the end I did manage to get a finished print without the benefit any drips from my leaking nose, but it was a nightmare.

DSC_0234I would love you all to think that I have everything under control and things always go to plan, but it’s not the case. I do get caught out, as I have here, and I am far from perfect. It’s just that I tend not to talk about it much!

Sale of the Century

Being hard nosed about prices.

I’m always a bit worried by cultural stereotypes, trying to define people by nation or class always seems a bit ‘them and us’ to me. However, if there was ever a truth about me it’s that I am hopelessly English middle class when it comes to talking about money. I am overcoming this by blog therapy as those of you who read my blogs will have seen. I can be very brave behind a keyboard. This time it’s about discounts and cutting prices.

I do occasionally get asked to cut my prices by potential clients and this is an interesting one. Thanks to my absolute Englishness about haggling, I get all squirmy. Well, my toes hidden in shoes do: never, ever squirm visibly in front of the client. Below are my thoughts; not just or for those of us who also a) listen, however intermittently, to the Archers and b) like marmite (no really, knife from the jar, like it), but for all who struggle with being upfront about money with clients.

My best advice here is to think long and hard about this before you get into the situation and make your decisions in advance. Bit like writing ‘I do not want a rubbish time share apartment in Marbella’ on your hand in indelible ink before going to collect your amazing free gift, this gives you rules to follow which will save you getting flustered on top of the toe squirming.

My decision is to not give discounts on the whole. My work is priced very fairly for the labour and skill involved and it is priced the same wherever it sells, so that the client never has to worry they are losing out. I would also point out that for every one person who wants ‘a deal’ there are lots of people, including those who collect, who never have asked for or expected a discount. If those lovely people don’t get a deal, why should a stranger get a better price? What I will do, and to me this is one of the most pleasurable things about being an artist, is to occasionally give away a print. This takes people by surprise and I get to choose who gets one and what sort of print they get.

Rules, of course, are made to be broken, but I try never to be hassled into breaking mine. I will give a discount of 10% very occasionally for someone buying more than one expensive print if I think there is good reason, taking the loss on the frame and not the print. I also agree to allow galleries a bit of ‘wiggle’ room as they have to be a judge of when it is prudent to discount work slightly, though not across a sale of work by several artists where the only winner is the gallery.

My final comment is that the sort of people who hassle you for discounts on the ‘oh but we love your work and will buy lots more’ card almost never do. If they are an exception to this truth, regrettably there’s another disagreeable truth about them: they will always want a ‘deal’ on the basis that they are now your ‘special’ clients.

This is only my take on discounts. You may embrace a whole other system. The big point here is that you make the rules about your work and you’re allowed to do that. It may mean ignoring every fibre in your cultural soul, but firmness about pricing is best.

(Remember you can always have a nice hot cup of tea to soothe your nerves after they’ve gone)

Anti-Wrinkle Treatment

Getting your Japanese woodblock prints to dry flat.

Paper has a hard time in my hands as a printmaker. I put it through all sorts of stresses and strains on the way to making a print and still expect it to finish up as a pristine, flat sheet of loveliness at the end, though hopefully with a layer or two of colour on top.

Oil based lino prints aren’t a problem. I’ve been doing them a long time: I use Zerkal paper (like most of the printers I know) and it works a treat, staying nicely flat under the pressure of my Albion press. The clever bit for me here is keeping my filthy hands off the edges of the print.

The Japanese printing I do is a whole different story: this is a watercolour process, the paper is damp and I am constantly stretching the paper with hand rubbing in different places. The Fabriano I use, while very good tempered about taking the paint, can be very hard to dry flat, especially if the print is large.

I have very recently, after lots of stacking and balancing acts with everything from those big cookery books, the sort with just the one great recipe, to old bricks, discovered a way to resolve the problem. I now use two large sheets of birch carpenter’s ply held absolutely tight together with butterfly clamps. Butterfly clamps are a builder’s equivalent of a peg, but massively stronger and much larger. I bought mine off a puzzled man in my local market at £1.50 each. They have rubber over the gripping mechanism which protects the ply should you later want to turn it into a woodcut. Buy plenty: the more you clamp, the better.

I put my damp prints straight onto the clean ply and put another sheet over the top (this is 5mm thick ply, it’s probably best to have it fairly sturdy) and simply clamp all the way around with my butterfly clamps. It takes about two days or so to work and the prints are beautifully flat at the end. The ply absorbs the moisture, then dries out and off you go again, though you must keep it clean. Keeping anything clean for me is a major challenge which is why I go on about it so much.

There is another very occasional problem and it’s pretty much out of my control: pictures getting damp in frames and then coming back from wherever they have been shown cockled. These wrinkly prints can be both linocuts and woodblocks. With these, after stomping about a bit in temper, I remove from their frames and make up a sandwich of slightly damp blotting paper. I put the prints, oil based lino included, into the blotting paper parcel and allow the prints to get damp for about 4 hours or so. At this stage they become alarmingly wrinkly and look terrible. They then go into the ply and I dry them as before. The result is again a lovely flat print.

I can’t promise that this will work well for every sort of print, you’ll have to try it for yourself, but it certainly works for me…

Colour coded

How to handle your pallet on many layered prints

This weekend I spent printing one of my fourteen giant watercolour woodblocks for the Health Centre on the Isle of Wight. It was never going to be easy: Japanese watercolour woodblock is really designed for perhaps A3 or less, not for over a metre wide. However, the medium does, provided your nerves are steady and your arms long, allow for printing on any scale as there is no press to limit size.

West Cowes, Isle of Wight
West Cowes, Isle of Wight

The main thing, in my opinion, is to get the colours right. No good having a foreground dislocated from the background or lose the sense of distance in a squash of mismatched pigment. I’m stuck with doing this in my head as I go along because I find that the more I plan, the more the life of the print seeps away. To this end I have many, many little glass tea light holders (thank you IKEA. And while I mention the Norse god of home solutions, you can buy sheets of heavy glass with ground edges, perfect for mixing inks, for a song at IKEA just now. Just look for ‘Malm glass top’). The holders are filled with what my lovely Irish father-in-law describes as ‘Laura’s designer sh*t colours’. They get gradually more and more mixed up as I go and result in what I hope is a subtle print of correctly balanced colours. Not so easy this time with dozens of separate little abstract shapes – is it a bird, is it a plane? No it’s the back of a warehouse… You get my drift.

I do test colour and the way to do this with a Japanese print is to take a test sheet of paper (you will of course keep all the trimmings from cutting down your papers to size. Also good for posh shopping lists and guaranteed to impress when you go to pick up your sushi ingredients. Believe me, the Japanese will notice). Put a blob of mixed watercolour on one side of the paper. Take your finger and smear the blob across the paper. It is the smear, not the blob which gives the true result. You also end up with a neat reference sheet which, if you are a better person than me, you could make colour mix notes on as well.

There is a partner to the print here of West Cowes. No prizes for guessing that’ll be East Cowes and for that I have to echo the colours, though not in the matching handbag to shoes way. That would be too obvious. The trick will be to get the pictures to relate, not match. The good news is that there are fewer warehouses on the East Cowes side…