How do I start doing linocut prints?

I was only used to using rapidograph and watercolours, to a smaller degree, to create and be creative before I discovered lino printing. I decided to make a small workshop in London, where I could be taught a new technique I had not tried in the past. Although you do need some dexterity to start carving the lino to get the desired effect, you do not really need as much training as you would need from other techniques to achieve a beautiful, effortless result.

To start doing lino prints (a one-layer kind of print) you will need the next basic materials: a marker or pen, lino, carving tools, a roller, oil or acrylic painting, a wooden spoon for pressing and paper. You will also need an aired space to do the printing, enough place to let your prints dry, to cover the areas to avoid accidents, a spare rag or rags and, finally, sunflower oil for the cleaning process. You should also have an idea of the kind of image you would like to do a linocut from, and preferably have a sketch of it before you start the whole process. 

The design for the linocut

You have to be aware that at the beginning you might not be able to do that many details in your lino cuts, as you may just be starting to use carving tools for the first time. It is for the best to make a sketch, and then reproduce it on top of your lino. I personally like to draw it with a sharpie, but you could also use tracing paper to make sure your exact design is on the lino. It is important to make sure which lines are the ones you will want with ink and which ones will be “blank”.

How to do the carving of my linocut

I am using a 5 piece set of woodcarving tools. For a beginner, you can use rather cheap tools and it will still work out just fine. It will be up to your own skills the amount of details you can get. In my case, I prefer to draw very clearly the lines that I will want in the print. This way, I can carve out the “white” or empty spaces that should not have any ink.

CAUTION: Although mostly harmless, you can still hurt yourself with the woodcarving tools if you are not careful. Always work out the cutting side away from your hands, and try to push the tool with the palm of your hand very slowly.

This might be a slightly messy part of the process, as the lino you carve will come out as small threads of lino, so it is up to you what measures you take to be tidy (or not!). The time this step can take will depend on the complexity of the design. With practice you will be able to tell which shape of a carving tool will be better for you. The most common one to use will likely be the L shaped one, as with that you will be able to do most corners and details. Depicted below is the curved carving tool, which is good for when you need to carve big “negative” spaces.

The inking for the lino print

It is always important to set up your space. If you are starting you might make more mess than you are expecting to do. It is for the best to work in an area that you can easily clean afterwards. If you are going to do many prints and you want to make sure they are always centred, I would recommend you do an outline (with tape or drawing on top of the surface, for example) of where the paper should fall and where the linocut should be.

You will also need a surface in which to put the ink to fill the roller. A glass or mirror would be the best for this. The best is to press little by little the roller and make small rolling motion to get the whole roller with ink. You want the ink to be evenly distributed on your roller, as it will make the process of rolling on top of your linocut easier. When you make sure that all the ink is on top of the linocut (you can tell because it will all be shiny due to the ink), you can proceed to put the piece of paper on top of the linocut.

After you have evenly applied the ink to the linocut, you will need to carefully put the paper on top of it and press it for at least one minute to make sure the ink adheres correctly to the paper. You can use a wooden spoon, press hard enough with your hands, or buy one of the pressing weights that are sold for this specific purpose. Even the back of my wooden hair brush did a good job, although it took a bit longer than if we had had professional tools.

You have to separate the paper very carefully, so as to not damage the print. If you are not careful with maintaining the paper in place, you might get a “double” print.

The drying process

You have to try to get your prints to dry in an open or vented place, otherwise the ink smell will stay in place. I usually try to make a drying lane, by putting a cord from one place to another of a room and using clothes pins. However, you have to calculate the weight of the paper and how are you tying the cord; if you put too much paper the whole line will go down.

It will take at least two whole days for your linoprint to be dry if you used oil painting, and at least half a day if you used acrylic painting. If you do things in a tidy way, you can get very well defined prints as a result. Nonetheless, part of the beauty of linocut printing is the mistakes and the roughness of them, so even mistakes can be happy ones.

The cleaning process

The least fun of all the stages, it is recommended you start cleaning your materials after you use them. If you use oil based ink, it is for the best you use your rag with sunflower oil to clean the roller and the stamp. Do not use water at this stage, as it will make everything really messy. You should try to remove asmuch of it as possible with the sunflower oil before you do anything else. If you were to use acrylic painting, regular water should do.

Finally, do try to clean in the kitchen sink or on the outside, as you will probably not want to be cleaning white ceramic from any kind of material.

Author: laverias an anthropologist interested in art history, Latin American art, and sustainable practices. You will find her trying to pick up some free furniture from the street and re-purposing old fabric. Spanglish speaker.

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