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.

Give and Take

So here’s the thing: what to do about requests for advice? It’s something I have been thinking about recently as these requests escalate. I should start by saying that I am pleased to be consulted and even more pleased that people should think that I am worth asking.

I do try to wait to be asked though. When we were sorting out our new home we found we had a neighbour who began every conversation with ‘I don’t want to give you no advice, but…’ and then proceeded to not only give us his advice, but also his opinion that, as feeble creatures etiolated by life in London, we would be doomed to failure in any practical pursuit. In fairness, we were so energized by fury that we proved him entirely wrong. Perhaps a positive result, but it was a salutary lesson in when to keep my mouth shut. I remember all too well how we planned to hit him with a spade and hide him in the concrete foundations for my Albion…

Solicited advice is another matter and I am happy to help provided I can and have the time. Mostly it is a fair exchange: I get the rosy glow of having helped out (this, I confess, is greatly helped by a thank you), the questioner remembers me as a decent and helpful artist and none of this hurts my reputation. In fact, if I check why people are buying prints, visiting me or taking a class, I often discover it is because I’m thought of as that supportive, kind person who makes good prints. Taa daa, a result the meanest bean counter would appreciate.

However there are times when I say no. I don’t like doing it. In fact I can probably guarantee that for every half hour spent fuming at my refusal, I will have had an hour of squirming guilt in the style of Alan Bennett. The refusals happen when I’m asked to advise on how to teach my branch of printmaking rather than how to print (nobody enjoys shooting themselves in the foot), or if I’m asked to advise when the person has been learning with another teacher who should, in my opinion, be their first port of call. Reasonable eh? But it does upset some.

As yet nobody I have refused to help has come back to say ‘Fair enough, thanks for taking the time to explain yourself’, but a few have taken the trouble come back to be cross. I take the opposing view and make a point of responding positively to people who turn me down. A quick message of friendly thanks and wishing them well is actually very cathartic for me and I’m comfortable approaching them again if needed. Oh and it’s probably nicer for them too. A little win-win in the face of disappointment if you choose to see things that way.

So I will carry on helping where I can, though I may ask to publish and answer questions through my Facebook page as a way of broadening my audience while helping out if demand increases. But, unlike our neighbour, I promise not to throw in any nasty comments on your upbringing. I have no wish to end up under anyone else’s Albion…

Poacher turned Gamekeeper

For the past four years I have been a part of Art in Action. Every July I have packed up a fair chunk of my studio and decamped to a marquee in the gardens of Waterperry House in the Oxford countryside where, in the company of nine or so other printmakers, I’ve done my best to recreate my working day. For those who don’t know the event, it’s a four day immersion into art for the twenty five thousand or so visitors. In the demonstration tents, artists of pretty much every discipline you can think of (and some you wouldn’t – war artists, horologists, Egyptian tent makers anyone?), work and explain and exhibit. Then there’s a market place of craft makers and art suppliers. Yet more artists run practical classes of every kind for every age group. On top of all this there are talks, music, performance art, lectures, dance and children’s activities. You get the picture and it’s a pretty big and complex one…

How complex has entirely passed me by if I am honest. To be a demonstrator is such a full on roller coaster ride that the mere act of showing up with the right stuff in the right amounts, hanging an exhibition and then printing solidly for four days while being mobbed by a bright and fascinated crowd leaves very little room for anything else. I certainly never pondered the niceties of our marquee with its solid wood screens, floors and two fully operational printing presses, or the seamless arrangements for parking, sanitation and food. Nor the constant arrival of coffee (filter, not instant), tea and biscuits all day, the delicious demonstrator’s dinner on the Saturday night. Nor the small matter of managing the twenty five thousand or so visitors and their needs. And I certainly didn’t think, as I drove away, utterly exhausted but exhilarated, about the clearing up.

That’s all about to change. In 2015 I won’t be demonstrating; I’ve been asked to be the section head of printmaking in partnership with my other half, responsible for selecting artists, organising and running the tent and generally making sure that everything printmaking goes to plan. Now I’m seeing things from a different angle.

This whole massive, complex, slick event runs on goodwill and a passionate desire to share the work and creativity of artists. It is not run for profit and it is run entirely by hundreds of volunteers. There are just a couple of paid members of staff. Think about that: just a couple of  people paid. Everyone else from the security guards to parking attendants, the sound engineers to the shuttle bus drivers, the loo cleaners to the nice people wearing ‘can I help you’ jackets are doing it for free. And they start working for free long before the event opens and go on long after it closes. And when Art in Action does finally come to an end, any money made is money ploughed into making next year better for everyone: artists, visitors and volunteers.

In this cynical old world such a mad plan shouldn’t work and yet it does, year after year, and it is hugely successful. I am entirely happy to be on the giving rather than the receiving end next year. The work has already started and I know I won’t be able to exhibit. That I’ll be twice as tired, that there will be lots of surprises, glitches and emergency lateral thinking to be done, but to be a part of something so optimistic, so unique, so fun and supportive to the arts is just too good an opportunity to miss. And I know I’m not alone in that: several hundred other people obviously think the same.

The deadline for applications to demonstrate at the show end on 5th December and must be made through the Art in Action website. Demonstrators are appointed by invitation only.

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.


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.