The miracle of the mask

 I am often asked “what is a reduction print?” A reduction print is where one block is used for the print (instead of carving a block for each color.) After each layer of ink is printed, some more of the block is carved away. I like this method because it is easier for me to register the work and it creates complex and surprising colors. Plus my work is large enough that carving a block for each color would definitely give me carpal tunnel.
Elizabeth Busey, Coming of the Zephyr. Linoleum Reduction Print, 15 x 24in, 2012.

The problem arises when the block is almost completely carved away. You can see to the right that very little of the block for Coming of the Zephyr remains. Even with a small brayer, it is nearly impossible to only ink the raised parts. Some ink gets on the lower carved away part, and sadly this does show up on print. The time spent carefully wiping the stray ink is frustrating.

I learned a solution to this problem from Karen Kunc, a printmaker from the University of Nebraska. She showed us how create a stencil using brown kraft paper. Simply print the block onto the paper, and then carefully cut out around the printed areas. I like to reinforce the areas with clear packing tape before I cut. With the stencil over the block, no ink gets on the part of the block that is carved away.

I used a related stencil for my print Vernal Paradox.

Elizabeth Busey, Vernal Paradox. Linoleum Reduction Print, 14 x 28in, 2012.


For this print, I worked on one end of the print, and then the other. I used some thin cardboard that is shipped with my paper. I cut away just around the end of the printed area. For each layer, I needed to create a new stencil as more and more of the block disappeared. You can see this stencil has already been used, and is ready for a new layer.

Making a stencil only takes a few minutes, and makes the process of printing much more accurate and enjoyable.

9 Replies to “The miracle of the mask”

  1. This was a huge help to me in my last print. I'd used masks before but somehow not exactly like this. This technique really eliminates so much frustration.

    Thank you for posting this.


  2. Elizabeth, your artwork is beautiful! I’ve just started learning how to make block prints, and the need for masking came up this week when I was trying to print only a small portion of the block (I had carved away most of it). To accomplish this, I inked the block then laid torn pieces of paper around the raised portions – not only tedious, but also ineffective.

    So, I “came up with” the idea of cutting out a stencil using paper or thin plastic sheets. Today, I found this article explaining how to do it! Thank you!

    My question is: do you have to make a new paper cutout for every copy? It seems that the ink (even if dried) would transfer to new sheets of paper, and also that the paper mask would warp/curl due to the paint. How do you do this for multiple prints?


    David (in Seattle)

    1. Hi David,

      You are right that having to create a new mask for every printing would become tiresome. I use brown paper (like a grocery sack for example) and cover it with clear packing tape. This keeps things fairly rigid, and allows me to clean off parts of the mask that get inky. Make sure to reinforce both sides of the mask with the tape.

      I’ve also used mylar (a clear bendable plastic film) to create masks when I’m doing monoprints. You can easily clean this off as well. This has the advantage of being able to see through the film and make sure the mask is aligned.

      With either method, you can make marks on the side of the block and the mask to help it line up correctly. Be sure to give yourself a little grace here, as getting the mask in the exact same spot each time is hard. No sense in making printing frustrating.

      Let me know if I didn’t answer your question.

      Happy Printing!

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