The Wondrous Linocut Adventure, Part Three

In last week's installment of our ongoing linocut adventures series, I showed you a three-color print I'd made using three different linoleum blocks. Today, we'll make another three-color print, but this time using only one block.

Of all the relief printmaking techniques, I've probably used the reduction method the most, largely because it's the most economical. Aside from the finite edition, the main drawback is that it limits the colors I can use, as they start to run together after a while, but for my work, which generally uses only three or four colors, it's perfectly fine. Setting out then, this project started out being the most straightforward, but over the course of the week, it became one of the most illuminating.

With the exception of white-line linocuts, I've always used brayers to print my work, resulting in an even, consistent application of ink. Yet many of the nineteenth and twentieth-century masters of woodcut, including Arthur Wesley Dow and B.J.O. Nordfeldt, among others, did not work in this way. Rather, they hand-painted watercolors onto their woodblocks, reveling in the variety of brushstroke application to give each print a unique character.

Arthur Wesley Dow, The Long Road, Argilla, 1898, color woodcut on paper. Image courtesy of

B.J.O. Nordfeldt, Moonrise, 1906, color woodcut on paper
What I love about these works is how they synthesize the painterly character of monotyping with the structural framework of woodblock printing, resulting in a hybrid of spontaneity and order. For these artists, it wasn't the consistency of an edition that counted, but rather the creative variety within it.  I decided to set aside my brayer then, and attempt this approach myself.

For the first color, the blue sky, I really didn't need to carve anything out, so I just painted directly on the block, approximating the skyline. It wasn't exact, but any inconsistencies would be covered up with the church, for the most part.

Afterwards, I carved out the sky to make way for the church.

Now it was time to paint in the church. I actually painted and printed this area twice, to ensure that I would have a relatively solid, opaque building. I found there were too many white spots if I only printed the block once.

I alternated my brushwork throughout the process. In the first printing, I often used a broad, sweeping stroke to suggest movement within the composition.

For the second printing, I used a more stippled approach to approximate the texture of the church's adobe walls.

Here's what the print started to look like after adding the church:

Next, it was time to add the dark brown that would establish the modeling on the church. Using a piece of transfer paper, I traced the shadows from my original drawing onto the block, showing me exactly where I would need to cut to ensure a clean registration.

After I had transferred the image, I carved out the highlights, leaving behind the shadows.

Finally, I painted on the shadows, and printed them onto the paper. Since the color was considerably darker than the main body of the church, I only needed to print it once to produce the desired effect.

Here's the finished print:

Having tried this myself, I can understand why Nordfeldt and his contemporaries preferred hand-painting their prints. I enjoyed the variety I could achieve with my brushwork, and liked how I could change the sense of texture or mood within the edition. With a subject like an old adobe church in particular, I liked being able to evoke its distinctive surface within the printed matrix. I don't consider myself much of a painter, but printmaking is where I feel the most freedom in terms of taking advantage of the medium's qualities.

Painting the plate by hand as opposed to using a brayer also eliminated one of my ongoing frustrations: leftover bits. When you carve a block, inevitably raised areas remain within the negative spaces, due to ribs created by gouges. When you use a brayer to coat the surface with ink, you have to run the brayer over the entire plate in order to evenly coat the surface. This means that you inevitably run over these ribs with various colors, which can make the final print look sloppy.

One of my multi-block prints. You can see examples of the leftover prints in the lefthand side of the blue sky, where there's a streak of tan.
The only way to really solve the issue is to carve away the background altogether, which some artists do. Or, you can paint the image by hand, as I had done.

I definitely intend on using this method again in the future, and rely less often on the brayer. If nothing else, it's good to know I have this expanded toolbox when it comes to relief printing, and that it can be more versatile than I had fully realized.