I just finished hand-printing my largest art print to date, and although I am really pleased with how it turned out, boy did I have challenges with it.
It was one of those art projects that, when conceptualized, seemed straight-forward enough. But, as I got into it, it kind of slid off the tracks.
My first challenge was using linoleum as the base, instead of my go-to material for carving, my favorite printmaker’s rubber. I find the printmaker’s rubber responds to my intricate art carving designs beautifully – I can get fine little lines and incredible detail in its surface which is softer than linoleum. When printed, it produces lovely clear lines and dense ink coverage for my prints.
But, unfortunately, my favorite medium is not easily found in sizes larger than 12” x 12”. For my newest print, I wanted to explore one of my favorite subjects: aspen trees nestled in the forest floor. The print was conceptualized as a wide horizontal format measuring 15.5 inches across. So the printmaker’s rubber was out.
I was, however, able to get linoleum in this size. I’ve used linoleum before, but it is stiffer and harder to carve. Linoleum is a common base material for printmakers. And yes, it’s the same material used for floor coverings in the late 1800s. By 1905, German artists discovered that it made a terrific printmaking base medium, and it’s still used by printmakers as an alternative to wood today.
Typically lino-cuts are printed using a press because their hard surface generally needs a fair bit of pressure to transfer the ink from art to paper, but they can be printed by hand, which is my method. I absolutely love the tactile process of making art prints by hand. But, it would also be really difficult to get a heavy printing press up to my third floor studio!
For this print, I designed a two-color reduction print, meaning that the final print would be made up of two layers: a grey layer and a black layer, but would be made from the same lino base art.
I carved the art into the linoleum for the first ink layer (the grey) and printed my run of art prints. Once they were dry, I went back to the same lino art, and carved MORE of the artwork away to leave only what I wanted to be black on the final print.
Here is my grey-only print: it is quite subtle, which was intentional because the forest shadows can be playfully elusive.
Here is the black-only print (this is just the black, not printed over the grey) which shows the last layer of the two-color print.
Although the black-only print is interesting, I think this one-color print does not have the same impact of the final print (shown at the bottom of this blog) which is a combination of the two colors.
My trouble started at the second layer stage. I had a heck of a time getting the black ink to cover the grey underneath solidly. Partly it was because the lino surface is so hard that I almost needed a mechanical printing press to get the ink transferred from the base art to the paper. Presses apply an enormous amount of pressure that is hard to replicate by hand.
To make the transfer when printing by hand, I use a tool called a bamboo baren. This Japanese-designed tool allows you to press heavily on the back side of the paper while it is contacted with the inked artwork.
At one point I was literally on my tippy-toes pushing into the back of the paper. Still, my print came up a bit mottled. I had to be careful because although the pressure is important, if you apply too much weight, you can actually rip the print. Definitely not what I wanted.
Then it hit me. Linoleum (unlike rubber) is somewhat porous, and tends to drink up the ink. On a smaller print, this would not necessarily be obvious, but this print had a square-inch coverage of almost 74 inches for each print, and much of it was dense black. So, I needed a lot more ink to cover the surface of the linoleum than I typically use.
So, I glopped it on. I rolled the ink on the linoleum with my brayer, then picked up more ink and rolled it again. The block was packed with ink … but not so much that it filled in my carved image. And, eureka! That did it.
The next print I pulled was beautifully black and the ink coverage was exactly what I was looking for. Mind you, in the process of getting to that point, I ruined eight prints, but then that is always a risk a printmaker takes. My final “pull” weighed in at 14 fine art prints in this edition. (A larger scan of this print can be found on my Facebook page here.)
There are so many moving parts when you are creating a print by hand: once carved, you cannot put a piece back if you make a mistake on the base art. Your ink needs to be thin, but not too thin; thick but not too thick. Weather and humidity all affect the way the ink will roll on the block, and how long it takes to dry. And, then if you are making a multiple-colored print, there is the method of registering each layer so they line up perfectly on top of each other.
I have to admit it clenches my stomach sometimes. But, when it works, I am over the moon. This of course, encourages me to create again … and the next one might just be a little bit more complicated.
When I make “mistakes” or the process doesn’t go well, I am not happy. But then again I know … if I’m not pushing the boundaries, I would be miserable.