Cover illustration from the beautiful graphic novel, Back and Forth, told in linocut illustrations, made by Toronto artist Marta Chudolinska
Recently, I decided to take a break from hand drawing and learn how to create block prints, mostly using the linocut printing technique, which is a type of relief printing.
Having taken a rare books course last year in the beautiful Thomas Fisher Rare Book Library at the University of Toronto, I was somewhat familiar with the process of relief printing, but I wanted firsthand experience, and I was curious to see how the drawing process translates into print images. Well, I was quick to learn that printmaking is an incredibly labor-intensive and frustrating learning process of trial and error— but it is also incredibly satisfying and rewarding. While carving linocuts, I was forced to map out my drawings beforehand using pen on the block, simplifying my images (which is something I almost never do), or else the detail can obscure the image of the final print; this is true especially if you are a beginner and opt to use cheaper tools and blocks with a more malleable but less durable surface.
Lino blocks are less easy to carve and cut than thicker softer rubbers, however, these lino blocks will last longer and survive multiple printing sessions over time. Sadly, these durable lino blocks are more likely to lead to actual “linocuts” 😦 Behold this heavily bandaged blogger:
For those of you reading this post who are beginner print-makers or do not know much about printing, here is a brief overview of 3 different illustration printing processes, traditionally used in making artist books, or what are now considered rare books. I will mostly focus on relief printing.
**Much of this blog post is compiled from course notes and power point slides**
Three main illustration processes
- Relief Printing: woodcuts, wood engravings—raised printing methods
- Intaglio Printing: metal engravings, such as copper engravings—engraved printing methods
- Planographic Printing: flat processes such as lithography, which rely on chemical properties (that oil will not mix with water)
Note: Silkscreen might not be considered a planographic process because the pigment is pushed though a screen, but it is a very similar process to lithography.
Early woodcut: William Caxton’s The Game of Chesse, c1474
Relief printing: This printing is done from a raised surface, much like type was used in the printing press. Traditionally, this process included letterpress, wood engravings, and woodcuts. During this process, ink is applied on the raised surface, and then the paper is pressed down on it, or the block is pressed into the paper in the case of smaller blocks; in the case of my block printing, I applied the ink by hand with a small roller. The ideal outcome is that only the surface prints, although if ink is over-applied this might lead to some unexpected but aesthetically pleasing results. Traditionally, pear was the commonest wood used, and the flat plank side of a piece of wood was cut with the grain using knives and gouges; the area cut away would be lighter, so the raised lines would be darker, thick, and angular. Achieving detail can be very challenging in relief printing, such as cross hatching, however error can be corrected by gluing on pieces of wood and re-carving. Initially, illustrations would be inked by hand with paper laid on (the way I do it now), but then later a printing press was used, in addition to type (letter blocks) which could be printed then at the same time as the illustration. Albrecht Dürer is a well known illustrator from the 16th century who miraculously developed awe-inducing fine relief print lines, but then copper engravings quickly became popularized. In the 18th century woodcutting had a revival thanks to the influence of Japanese woodcut illustrations, but blocks are more fragile than other printing techniques, and sadly do not last, so other printing techniques are much more common.
Rhinoceros 1515 woodcut print by Albrecht Dürer
Wood engraving was also a popular form of relief printing, made popular by Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) in England. During this process, wood blocks were prepared with a solution of zinc white in gum arabic, onto which the artist drew their design, or else a drawing could be pasted on the block, much like how now many images can be ironed onto blocks to be engraved. Designs are then cut into the wood block, at the grain end, with a steel graver so that they lie below type height—which results in the design being made of the white lines that the ink does not pick up, as opposed to woodcuts which pick up the design in black ink lines above the type height. Sections of the block could also be painted or washed over with ink to be toned, for more depth or detail. Boxwood was most often used for the process of wood engraving. Blocks that were glued and then bolted together made it possible for newspaper to print full-page illustrations in the 1840’s, and then by the 1860s photographs could be printed right onto blocks to be engraved. Wood engraving was popular until the end of the 19th century, when photo-mechanical processes took over.
Intaglio printing: This type of printing process uses an engraved or incised surface, and can lead to very detailed results. Traditionally, this process included metal engravings, such as copperplate engravings, and etchings. Tools are used to cut grooves in the surface of a plate, these grooves are then filled with ink, the rest of the plate is wiped clean, and then the plate is put through a rolling press. Using a great deal of pressure, in this way the paper is forced into the inked grooves during the printing process.
In drypoint engraving, the metal plate is first coated with a ground onto which the design is scratched with a needle, and then the ground is washed off; the design is cut onto the surface of a copper or zinc plate with a diamond or steel point. The design is scratched directly onto the plate using a burin (engraving tool), which leaves a dark burr of metal, and during this process the plate rests on a rounded cushion filled with sand. The plate is warmed, and then ink is applied to the surface of the plate and wiped off, leaving the lines of the design. These lines are then deepened, but the burr (the raised metal left on each side of the cuts) is not removed, although the burr can come off during the process of engraving. Thanks to this burr, a drypoint image can have softer outlines. The plate is then inked, and wiped with a cloth and the palm of the hand. Then, with the paper placed on top, the plate is passed through a rolling press, where excessive pressure can be applied.
Hand-coloured etching from William Blake’s Jerusalem (plate 51), 1820
Etching is another intaglio process. In etching, chemicals bite into a metal plate to create an image. Traditionally, a clean polished copper or zinc plate is warmed and covered with ground, which can be wax, asphalt and hartshorn), and the smoked over with a candle, which will colour it black. A tracing of the design is placed over the ground plate and pressed down onto it, and then a rounded needle removes the ground from the lined of the drawing. Once this design is carved out using the needle, the edge and back of plate are covered with acid-resistant varnish, and the plate is immersed in an acid solution which “bites” the lines, repeatedly until the desired depth is reached. Lines that have reached the correct depth can be “stopped out” with varnish to prevent further deepened etching. Artist William Blake hand-coloured his etchings to beautiful effect (Songs of Innocence and Experience, 1789), and the artist Rembrandt left ink on the plate, which produced darker prints.
Other forms of intaglio printing include:
Aquatints were first used in the 1750s, notably used by Francisco Goya (1746-1828), who combined etching with aquatint.
Mezzotints, which were quite possibly invented by Ludwig von Siegen in 1642, reproduced tones as well as lines, and were often used in reproductions of portraiture works.
Aquatint: Goya’s The Giant (1818)
Mezzotint with drypoint: Pandemonium, 1824, from John Milton’s Paradise Lost
Planographic printing: This type of printing is done from a flat surface, as opposed to a raised surface (such as relief) or engraved/incised surface (such as intaglio). Traditionally, lithography and offset lithography are planographic processes. These processes are based on chemical properties—primarily, that oil does not mix with water.
Planographic printing, first used by Aloysius Senefelder in 1796, was first called “lithography” in 1804, and by early 19th century it had spread throughout Europe. Senefelder, who first drew on limestone, began by using acid to raise the text, but later realized that he did not need to raise the printing surface; by drawing with a grease-based ink and wetting the limestone, he discovered that only the greasy ink printed on the paper. In 1797 Senefelder built the first lithographic press, and in 1798 lithographic transfers, which used a print to create a new lithographic stone, were used, and in 1799 crayons were used for drawing on stones. In 1837, Engelmann patented chromolithography (colour lithography), which was the most common method of creating colour illustrations in the 19th century. Now modern methods use photochemical reproduction for an image, with zinc or aluminum plates in rotary presses.
Lithograph: Desire by Edvard Munch, 1898
My printmaking tools:
A few finished linocuts: