Inksmithing part 2: mastering the craft

Never one to shy away from a challenge, I have been working on just the piece of art to perfect the craft of inksmithing that I began several months ago.

Spring Return Sketch

The sketch of my artwork “Spring Returns” hanging on the window of my studio.

This block has been in development for about a month, and was one I knew from the beginning I would print in color. Much of my artwork is printed in black, but I wanted this block to have a softer, more nostalgic look. I was looking for a sepia-type color, a beautiful earthy brown on a natural colored paper.

It was the perfect print to go down that road of making my own ink once again. So, I dug out what I learned from my last inksmithing adventure, and got to work with the dry pigments I had in my art studio.

This weekend, I completed “Spring Returns”, one of my most complex blocks to date. The block features a bird in a leafless tree, with a tangle of branches and several buds obvious in silhouette. It’s based on one of my photos, and I love the graphic look of the darkened tree against a bright sky. The birds and the buds remind me of springtime before the leaves bust out.

Linda Cote at the Rimrock

I work on the block at the Rimrock Hotel Show in April.

I took this block with me as my demo at the Rimrock Resort Hotel recently when I was there to show my art, and demonstrated how I cut my blocks and create the piece I print from.

I don’t normally take my blocks with me to shows, preferring to work in the solutitude of my studio, but I loved the way carving the block in front of others became the opener to talk about the joy of being a printmaker. The physical demonstration certainly helped others better understand the somewhat unusual art of making prints.

Progress carving the block

Cutting this block required reading glasses; the detail was so fine.

To mix my own inks, I again started with only Burnt Plate Oil (#3) and dry pigments. This time, I used a recipe that was more pigment than oil, and found that although I needed to mix it more vigorously, the final result was much closer to printmaker’s ink than the last time I attempted this.

The other nice thing I discovered in the process of making my own ink — this ink is a combination of burnt umber and raw sienna pigments — was that it allowed me to create a rich brown that  printed with slight variations. Manufactured ink is much more consistently opaque (an effect I actually want when printing black prints) but the more “oily” nature of homemade ink allows the color some transparency while maintaining a very rich pigment color.

Below is my process. When pulling the final prints, I noticed some areas where the natural-colored paper shows through more than others. These lighter and darker areas are not imperfections, but rather the artwork saying: “This print is hand-printed”. It is not an exact reproduction every time, and each print is unique.

And that, of course, is the charm of any hand-crafted piece of art. Each of my “multiple originals” (I came away with only 12 in this series) is indeed an original print, made by a person, not a machine.

Progress detail

A close-up of the block: each area I don’t want to print needs to be cut away with many cuts.

Progress detail

My block begins to take shape.

Progress detail

The block, almost done after hours of carving with three kinds of blades.

Progress detail

The block is almost complete.

Inksmithing materials

The materials ready for inksmithing: Burnt Oil #3, two kinds of dry Kroma pigments, a palette knife, gloves, high-quality mask and glass plate for mixing and rolling the ink.

Beginning to mix ink

I’m ready to start making my own ink. At this point, safety gear is important because dry pigments can be easily inhaled, and/or absorbed into your skin.

Dry pigment

The dry pigment is spread on the glass. Next, I add a little bit of Burnt Plate Oil (#3) to mix the pigment.

Working the ink

The ink takes a lot of “working”; back and forth with the palette knife until it is well mixed and an even consistency for printmaking.


More dry pigment (burnt umber + raw sienna) is mixed in with the palette knife until the color is just right.

mixing the ink

I finish mixing the ink, still wearing the mask and gloves to protect against inhaling dry pigment.

Ink is rolled

Inking the block the very first time. Ink is rolled on the block for every print I pull.

Block, partially inked

The block, partially inked. The grey color is the graphite of the sketch on the block, and will be covered by the ink.

Burnt Plate Oil #8

As I print, the ink feels a bit dry. I add Burnt Plate Oil #8 … it’s so tacky it reminds me of pulled taffy!

Ready to print

The block is inked with the homemade ink and ready to print.

I pull the print

I pull the print by hand from the block: a beautiful earthy color.

The final print: "Spring Returns"

The final print, hanging to dry. (Finished Size: 11″ h x 7″ w)

Hanging to dry

“Spring Returns” prints hang to dry in my studio.

Detail-"Spring Returns"

“Spring Returns” – detail.

20 responses to “Inksmithing part 2: mastering the craft

  1. Stunning! Such detail… I’ve done a few of these (eons ago), and I can appreciate the technical virtuosity. Lovely design. 🙂

  2. Hi Linda. I just made a “Blogs You Need To Read” side menu, and absolutely put yours on the list. I always look forward to reading and learning from your posts.

    • Thanks so much, Drew! That’s really nice. I also learn lots from you. It’s definitely mutual! (And thanks for the Versatile Blogger nomination a while back. Still getting organized to respond!) Cheers, Linda

    • Thank you, Lesley! I’m following your blog, too (thanks for the link to mine). It’s funny, they do take time, but because printmaking is sometimes a puzzle for my friends/clients who aren’t artists, I feel it’s my “job” to also explain my processes. It’s also brought me great connections with others who are printmaking like yourself. It’s all good! (Like your style, too!) Thanks for reading and following.

      • I am an artist who appreciates a lesson in patience. I have struggled my entire life with taming my pace – often having to go back and re-do. Frustrating myself endlessly. I know I benefit most from artists as yourself who are willing to share.

  3. Really interesting. I feel inspired to have a go at making my ink if I can find the burnt plate oil in the UK. I love the colour of your print and your delicate design. I’ve learnt so much thank you.

    • Thanks so much for reading (and for following my blog)! I hope you do find the burnt plate oil — I have found it from art stores who carry serious printmaking supplies so hope you are successful! It’s a really interesting way to make ink, although it ends up behaving very different from store-bought tubes (which I still use). Glad this inspired you!

  4. Awesome print! Thank you for this detailed post. Have you heard of making printmaking in with tubed oil paint instead of dry pigment? I’m an oil painter and have so much paint that I hate to purchase more dry pigments. Perhaps I would use a specific viscosity of burnt plate oil that would work with tubed oil paint? Any info is much appreciated!

    • Thanks Christina! The course I took only dealt with using pigment + burnt plate oil, so I’ve not tried mixing burnt plate oil with straight oil paints. However, one product I have used with oil paints is the Daler Rowner Georgian Oil Block Printing Medium which is mixed with the Georgian Oil paints to make a printmaking-type roll-able ink. I have no idea if it would work with another brand of oil paints, but if you can find it, give it a try. It worked fairly well with the Georgian brand oil paints, but I’ve since found the oil-based printmaking inks in a variety of colours in the Caligo brand, which is what I use mostly. I see you’re in the US, but here’s a link to the product on a UK website — I’ve been told by a couple Canadian art suppliers that it’s been discontinued, but haven’t followed that up myself! Hope that helps!

  5. Pingback: Inksmithing: an exciting trip down the rabbit hole | Musings From The Studio·

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