To rekindle my flame for printmaking when I opened my studio a year and a half ago, I bought some lino – it offered me the chance to print without a press and obtain immediate results. My initial images included a band logo and greetings cards, and then an exciting project for the Nicholson Museum in Sydney, where I collaborated with the museum’s inspirational curator to produce a series of images based on ancient artefacts from Greece and Egypt. With each image, I felt that I connected with the artist from 4,000 years ago, the creator of the lines I was now carving.
I found the experience captivating and satisfying and now regularly use lino in my art teaching with children and adults. I have found that children as young as 7 can be trained to use the tools safely, often with spectacular results, especially with the newly available grey bendy lino. Lino-cuts have a direct and spontaneous quality – lino is quite unforgiving, so any mistakes need to be embraced as part of the image’s charm. One boy aged 10 had worked meticulously on an Egyptian cat head with accompanying hieroglyphs, only to find that he had not written them in reverse. Being the diligent student he was, he recarved the entire block.
The lino-cut is a printmaking technique creating a relief surface like the traditional woodcut. Linoleum was first used for covering floors in the 1860s, and the Die Brücke artists in Germany in 1905—13 found it to be a good way of reproducing images and particularly suitable for creating wallpaper and fabric designs. Lino is easier to cut than wood as it does not have a grain and does not split (though woodcuts have a beauty in their own right). Lino-cuts were popularised as a fine-art method by Picasso and Matisse.
Suitable images for lino are often bold and simple, but varied mark-making can make them interesting, as can inking up in several colours. I found that it was best to start on a small scale, as the lino was then easier to handle for inking. I recently met an artist who carves large-scale work, sometimes around a metre in width, which takes weeks, and she presses her prints using the back of a spoon.
First of all, it is important to design an image and experiment with its repeating properties. I often trace a drawing from my sketchbook and transfer it onto a lino block. My sketchbook is full of ideas from the world around me: drawings of my children, my chickens, plants, the landscape. It is a place where I record shapes and colours that interest me; a visual diary. I draw around my chosen image with the shape of the lino block; I then shade it according to where I will cut, as the image will be in relief. Put simply, if printing using black ink on white paper, wherever the lino is cut a white line will show, and the raised lino will print black.
I use grey lino, which cuts like butter. The familiar brown lino that many people, including me, used at school is still available, but it needs warming before use, as it is harder to cut. Once the image is drawn in pencil onto the lino, I go over it with a biro to make it show, remembering to check that anything I draw will be in reverse when printed – for example, any words or letters or numbers will need to be carved backwards!
Lino-cutting tools come with a handle and different cutter heads, which create different grooves; it is best to use a table-top guard, which prevents the lino slipping and enables a steady pressure to be engaged when cutting. I always ensure that students are told that their hand must be behind the tool, so that their fingers stay intact.
It’s worth having a variety of different papers to print on. Thick paper will need soaking in a tray and blotting dry so that it is damp to print on; thin card and cartridge-type paper do not need soaking. Newsprint and scrap paper work well for testing the ‘plate’.
It is important to have a good supply of clean rags for cleaning up. Inking the plate is done on a bed of newsprint sheets or old newspaper. I use artist quality water-based printing inks that can be washed off with soapy water. Oil-based ink can be used and cleaned off with vegetable oil (rather than white spirit or turps), but it is sticky to use and harder to clean with children.
I like to use non-toxic printmaking methods that are non-hazardous to health and the environment; reducing the need for solvents in my art practice creates a workspace that does not smell and is safe for children to work in and means that the process has a low impact on the natural environment. It is worth noting that any rags used with oil-based inks are potentially flammable so need to be disposed of safely. Acrylic paint can be used if no printing ink is available, but the depth of colour will be compromised.
I ink the plate with a small roller, waiting for the magical sound when the ink is just the right level of tacky and not too sticky; this comes with experience. When ready, the plate is placed face up on a clean sheet of newsprint and a sheet of printing paper is placed on top. I use a hand roller to press the image from the plate onto the printing paper: the back of a spoon can also be used, or ideally a printing press. After ensuring an even pressure and coverage with the roller, the exciting moment comes to peel back the paper to reveal the print. This unique print will need drying flat, which may take a few days. It can be over-printed with other colours or hand painted – a very enjoyable process. •
Caz Greenwood lives in West Hoathly, Sussex with her husband Olly and three children. She works as a professional artist and runs an art club for children and adults. She is also a trained Montessori teacher at Trefoil Montessori Farm School. (Accurate at the time this issue went to print).
First published in Issue 34 (Winter 2013) of JUNO: