The curse of the greedy printmaker

Gentle readers, please hear my confession.  I am a greedy printmaker…  Here is my story:

One of the biggest challenges for me in printmaking is getting the block and the paper to line up the same way each time.  Printmakers call it registration.  Even 1/16th of an inch off can make the print look blurry and the edges show the raw colors I have been using rather than the gentle color blends.

Registration has plagued many printmakers, even Picasso.  If you look at his Bust of a Woman (after Cranach, 1958) you can see his problems with registering a six-block linocut.  He nearly abandoned linocuts, but learned from printmaker Amera about the technique of reduction printmaking.  After that, his registration improved.  But it is interesting that his first attempt, even with the misregistration, is highly valued.  Not so for me.

I’m working on a large horizontal block (13 x 28in).  I have tried many techniques to ensure that my prints register.  With 8 to 10 layers for each print, this is essential.  There is nothing worse than printing a run and realizing that you are off, even slightly.  That’s where I get greedy.

My current registration jig.

This is my current registration jig.  For each new block I make a template with thick cardboard and cut a hole just the size of the block.  I use a silkscreen pin and tab system, where the metal pins are taped on the template, and the plastic tabs are taped on the back side of the paper.  I make sure to give myself lots of paper on the side with the tabs, so I can tear off the part that was taped.  To register, I put in the block, then click in the tabs and lower the paper.  With smaller prints, this system has been very effective.

Printing the seventh layer.

This is the large block I’m working on.  I have had to tape an “L” shaped ruler to one corner to make sure the cardboard stays stiff.  This is the seventh layer of ink, and today I discovered that there was a mysterious 1/16th of an inch of extra block printing on one side.  The other side of the block registered perfectly.

I was heartbroken, because misregistered prints become the test papers for the next print.  Each time I pull the print off, I hold my breath to see if one of my “babies” will continue, or be relegated to the scrap pile.  I have been trying solve the problem by aligning the block by hand, shaving off a minute part of the offending side, and wiping off the ink slightly.  Sometimes it works, and sometimes not.  It is a mystery that I would love to have solved.

Printmakers don’t mean to be greedy, but when all of your papers are hanging before the first color, there is so much potential…

So printmakers…any advice?


5 Replies to “The curse of the greedy printmaker”

  1. Hi Maurice,
    Thanks for the link to your blog explanation. I started using the pins and tabs because I had them left over from a class. My problem is that my blocks are always large. So glueing them down to the bookboard template might make the whole thing too unwieldly to carve. I think part of my problem is that I have to take the block off the press to ink, carve, etc. I'm thinking of making some sort of corner jig with something hard — like Sintra.
    The mystery I mentioned in my blog is that I seem to have made the block larger! Have you ever had lino compress and stretch? The problematic edge is the last part printed. A mystery!
    Thanks for sending me to your site. It gives me some new options to think about.

  2. Elizabeth,

    Is it possible your pins are slipping a bit? I'm not familiar with screen printing pins but the registraton system you use seems to be similar to mine (adapted from the one here: I find that as I move through my colours, the holes in my paper tend to stretch a little and the registration can slip. I totally agree with you, even a tiny fraction is a tragedy.
    I'm not sure if lino can shrink but if so, wouldn't you have the same problem regardless of the size?
    Anyway, I hope you solve the mystery soon…

    I love your work BTW.

  3. Hi Katka,
    I have plastic tabs that click over metal tabs, so I don't think it is the paper moving. I actually abandoned the pin and holes in the paper method because I had such problems with the paper stretching.
    I think now that perhaps the cardboard of my template was compressing, and the edge of the lino was being compressed and stretching as well. I've made a new reusable jig with plastic used for signs, cemented down the metal pins and am using the least amount of pressure I can. My blocks are so big that I think they magnify the pressure. Whew! I'll write again about how the new set-up worked with my two new prints.
    Thanks for visiting my work. I found your website and really enjoyed your work — I'm especially partial to your close-up forest pieces, as they remind me of your famous BC artist Emily Carr.
    Happy printing!

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