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.

Oil and Water Mix

The difference between oil and water based inks for lino printing.

Usually I try and keep things short, sweet and not too technical. This blog breaks the rules and is more of a report to compare oil and water based inks for lino. Not your bag? No problem: I’ve seen my friend’s eyes glaze as I feverishly discuss this kind of thing with a fellow printer. Do what they do – go have a coffee and leave me to rattle on!

Up until a couple of months ago, I have always used oil based lino inks for my reduction lino printing. I’m not one to be unduly anxious about chemicals. Personally I have never had any ill effects from splashing about with white spirit and cobalt driers. I don’t actually drink or inhale the stuff and, while it’s not exactly what Estee Lauder would have recommended, my skin is fine.

St Ives in water based inks showing my painterly approach
St Ives in water based inks showing my painterly approach

Now I am having a serious flirtation with water based inks. This has to do with the long cold winter. Frankly, the attraction of shivering my way down to the studio and smashing the ice on my water bucket every morning wore very thin, very quickly and along with that, I grew deeply tired of rolling out inks so seized with the cold that they were almost impossible to handle.

Water based ink doesn’t suffer the same problems, if anything, it is disconcertingly fluid. There are a few other differences too so in the interests of anyone who hasn’t yet decided which inks are for them, here’s what I found.

I use Zerkall paper for oil based ink. It’s a good quality good-natured paper, readily available in different shades of white and an affordable choice. I found it tended to cockle with the repeated application of water based ink and even seemed to stretch a bit at times. For water based ink I now use Fabriano Rosaspina which is a much heavier weight printing paper with a soft absorbent surface and almost card-like feel. This works very well with water based ink. On my Albion press it has a slightly embossed appearance that I really like.

The Fens in oil based inks: more defined roller marks and a glossier surface (hard to show here, but trust me!)
The Fens in oil based inks: more defined roller marks and a glossier surface (hard to show here, but trust me!)

I use Intaglio’s oil based relief ink which works well for me. In going over to water, I chose Graphic Chemical inks. These are closest in texture to oil based ink and are available in large tins as well as tubes. I was also given a set of Schmincke inks to trial for the company. These inks are much more slippery and fluid than Graphic Chemical and I tend to mix both sorts which works fine (this is just me being pragmatic as I have both sorts to hand). The beauty of both these inks, as opposed to some of the other water based ones available, is that they are cleaned off with a wet rag. I have no plumbing in the studio (only my bucket in the style of Jane Eyre) so cannot be washing with soap. Nor can I risk getting the lino too wet as I always block my lino up to the right height by sticking it to MDF. Anyone who has ever seen MDF get wet will appreciate that it swells with water faster than chick lit in a hotel swimming pool.

When it comes to mixing the water based inks, I find that I need to test them on paper to get a true feel for their colour which can look different on the glass as opposed to on the print; the colour on paper often being ‘edgier’ and more attractive than the ‘pretty’ colour of the ink on glass. I also found the use of white to be very different. With oil based ink, I use white a great deal. However the water based colours tend to go chalky with overuse of white like water colours do. I find myself using extender instead to make the colours paler.

Inking up is slightly different between the two inks. I have good rollers and that’s a plus for water based ink. Oil based will be far more charitable to the slightly naff roller than the more fluid water. Applying oil based to the block is fairly easy to judge, while water based can be a bit of a struggle to get even (though this may well just be inexperience on my part). I find I sometimes have to double print a water based colour to get a good coverage. I also pause for a few moments longer with the pressure on the press to allow the water based ink a chance to absorb into the paper. I often use several different colours and paint freehand onto the lino with small rollers before printing. Oil based colours tend to catch the texture and separate quality of the individual roller marks. Water based inks blend slightly more, giving a gentler texture and more painterly effect.

Water based ink does dry much more quickly than oil (even when the oil based has cobalt drier added), but do be warned that the colour needs time to settle. I have rushed to add a layer to a print, thinking that it was dry, only to find that the print becomes a little blurry. The other problem to watch for is paper tearing. This happens, as far as I can see, when tacky ink is repressed onto the paper in the press. Do make sure you clean off all the ink if you are leaving any areas of lino in contact with the paper that are not inked for the next part of the print.

The conclusion I have drawn from all this is that both techniques have their stronger and weaker points. I adore the heavy matt finish of water based ink and the sensual way it embosses into the Rosaspina, but I appreciate the purity and the ease of oil based inks and the simple functionality of Zerkall. If my studio ever does get above five degrees Celsius again then I will probably do most printing with oils and lash out on water based for specific projects.

True Grit

Preparing your lino.

reduction linocut

It’s not often these days that I make a breakthrough rather than a series of small adjustments in improving my lino cut. This breakthrough is so modest, simple and, now I think about it, so embarrassingly obvious that I am pretty sure most people do it already: it’s to sand the lino before using it. Give lino a very gentle sanding with a fine paper, I use the black wet/dry 600 (dry), and printing large areas of perfectly smooth thin, thin ink becomes a doddle.

Thin, thin ink is rather important for my kind of printing: I usually go to six or seven layers of colour and because I use my dip pen drawings as my pattern to cut, there’s usually a lot of very fine detail. The gloopier the ink, the more detail goes and the messier everything gets. My friend and fine printmaker Ian Phillips mentioned the business of sanding as a throwaway comment and he’s changed my life. Well, not my life; the house still needs cleaning and there’s no masseur available on tap, but it has improved my printing no end.

The other bit of preparation I find helps is to rub a bit of colour into the lino: cutting through a colour (I usually use red) into grey is so much easier than grey on grey and somehow much more satisfactory.

The print here is inspired by a poem by Carol Ann Duffy about Red Riding Hood. The connection is loose to say the least, I’m taking part in an exhibition for World Book Day next year and this is a possible entry. As you can see it is layer on layer and registration is critical. I also use cobalt dryers to speed up the drying of my now exquisitely thin ink layers. Cobalt dryer is a pretty purple liquid which I add in tiny drops to the inks (it doesn’t affect colour at all) and instead of my waiting around for days between layers, I have only to hop from one foot to the other for a few hours before I’m printing again.

Words to the wise about this sanding business though – do try and remember to do it before you do the master drawing on the lino block. I was in peril of scraping off all my pen lines on this one…