How to create a linocut block print, part one: drawing the design and carving the block.
Do any of you fellow crafters out there remember linocut block printing from the 70’s? I wasn’t born yet when this art form was in its heyday (in fact my mother blames my arrival for the demise of her budding linocut career), but I remember learning about it in art class.
Without delving into too much art-historical detail, linocut is the evolutionary pinnacle of centuries of block printing developments. It’s a block of wood, covered in a layer of linoleum, which is easy to carve and inexpensive to use. It dates back to the turn of the century, but experienced an awakening of sorts as it became readily available to even casual crafters by the 60’s and 70’s.
While linoleum in most of its forms is usually considered passe these days, I am seeing lots of fun block prints showing up all over the place.
Remembering how much fun it was to carve into these little blocks, I set out to try it again for myself. I’m no Albrecht Duhrer, for sure, but the results have been fun and very artistically gratifying. You get to draw, then carve, then print in bright colors. What more could you ask from an art project?
If block printing sounds like fun to you, I thought I’d share with you this step by step guide to make your own. It’s a simple, but rather long process, so I’ll be breaking this into two posts.
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Linocut Block Printing Part 1: Drawing & Carving
First, gather your supplies.
- Pencil and paper for sketching designs
- Tracing paper
- Graphite or carbon paper
- Lino Grip or another grippy material so your block doesn’t slide all over the place while you’re carving
- Linocut block
- Gouges and carving tools
You can get every one of these supplies at your local craft store, for about $30. I snitched mine from my mom’s 40 year-old set. Thanks Mom!
First you’ll need to come up with a design. I keep a sketchpad for drawing exercises and sketching out ideas. I decided that a retro design was the way to go with this project, so I sketched out a cute little vintage camper, one of my current obsessions.
When you’re sketching or choosing a design to print, it’s important to think about which parts will be printed, and which parts will be left white.
In block printing (a form of relief printing), you carve out the white part (or negative space), and the part that’s left is what will print. This can be a little tricky, so it’s good to start with bold designs where you can easily see the patterns.
Next, you’ll need to transfer your drawing to your block. There are various ways to do this, but to me the most straightforward is to trace the image onto tracing paper. Then lay your tracing paper on top of a piece of graphite paper, which is laid on top of the block.
Using a stylus or pencil, trace over the outlines on your tracing paper and it will transfer those lines through the graphite paper onto the block.
Once your image is transferred to the block, you are ready for carving.
Remember! Your image will print as a mirror image of how it looks on the block. Be sure to transfer it on backwards if the direction matters.
Cover your work surface. This is important to help keep your block from sliding all around, and it protects your table from errant carvings if (or when) your gouge slips off the block. I use 3m paper, which is grippy on both sides. They also sell a similar material at Hobby Lobby, called Lino Grip. Or, you can duct tape over a piece of cardboard for the same effect.
Fit the smallest gouge blade onto the handle. Start by carving the outlines.
- Carve away from yourself, and keep your fingers out of the trajectory of your gouge.
- Use your non-dominant hand to steady the tip of your gouge.
- Start carving lightly, with shallow grooves. You can always go back later and take out more material, but if you carve too much, you’re stuck.
Once your outlines are in place, use the larger blades to carve out the rest of the negative space. You should be left with a block that looks like this:
I love all the patterns made by the blades! I think this is a very cool piece of art in itself, but we’re only halfway there. Join me in next week’s block printing tutorial as I show you how to print from your block onto the finished product.
Hang in there with me – it’ll be worth it in the end!