Deciding which color layer comes next

Deciding which color layer comes next is a very serious decision for printmakers. Especially those of us who create using the reduction method. In the past, I have used test sheets on less expensive paper, or the reverse sides of spoiled prints, to make my color decisions.Each of these strategies has a problem.

Less expensive paper can cause ink to behave very differently — often sitting on top of the surface rather than being incorporated into the paper. Further layers don’t print the same way as on my good Rives BFK. The reverse side of the spoiled prints have a particular texture which actually interferes with the next inking of the block and creates problems for the actual edition.

Creating color test strips for layers

My latest linocut has nine color layers, so accuracy has been important. I now print color strips as I go along to help me. I save the long narrow pieces of paper that remain when you tear down paper for an edition. I use a similarly sized piece of linoleum for my test block.

test color strips
My color test strips for recent linocuts have nine layers of ink, and evidence of lots of testing.

After I print the first layer of ink on an edition, I ink the lino scrap the same way as my block and print it onto my scrap paper. I leave a bit of white paper at the top so I can hang the scrap paper with the edition to dry. When I am deciding on the next color, I use my palette knife to “draw down” some of the color over my first printing layer. I keep in mind that the layer using the knife will be a bit darker than when it is actually printed. When I’ve decided on a color, I can wipe off these draw downs.

linocut topography warm colors
Pandora’s Paradise. Reduction linocut on Rives BFK. 12 x 12 in (image size) Edition of 12, $300.

Nine color layers mean lots of testing

In Pandora’s Paradise, you can see the color decisions I made for each layer. After I print each layer, I make sure to ink and print on the paper scrap in the same way. For this linocut, I used a modified blend roll, using the heel of my hand to blend some complimentary colors. (Read more about this in a previous blog.)

Occasionally I have a color that isn’t exactly what I expected, but as we know from color theory, how it appears will change with the next color. I just remember to print each new color on my color strip, and eventually I find my way.


If only every mistake could be fixed with Bondo

The English language needs a word for that chilly feeling of regret that washes over you, followed by the hot flush that confirms that you just made a terrible mistake. In relief printmaking, this comes when you have carved away a portion of your block that you had not intended. This happened to me recently, and after I discarded the possibility of having a toddler-style tantrum on the floor, I turned to Google.

Thankfully, me eyes soon rested on a blog post by Erich Neitzke on how to use Bondo to repair a linoleum block. My only experience with Bondo comes from my childhood, when I would help my father use Bondo and fiberglass mesh to patch our 1967 Volvo. After reading Erich’s blog, I headed to the hardware store to give Bondo a try on my block.

Can of Bondo
Yep, they still make Bondo. You shouldn’t need the fiberglass kit.

My trouble came from my carelessness when using a mask or frisket to block out part of the linoleum. A mask is simply a packing tape covered piece of tracing paper that physically covers part of the block so the roller can’t deposit the ink. The result is an ink/no ink line. The actual mask that I created was slightly different from the lines on my tracing paper drawing, but I had forgotten this, and merrily began carving away the incorrect lines. This would mean that there would be a strange white space between my yellow sky and purple mountains. There was no way to glue back the pieces of linoleum with Superglue, which only works on minute areas where the linoleum is somewhat attached.

Masking tape around the mistakenly carved linoleum.
Masking around the area means that you will have less area to sand later.

Armed with my Bondo, I first masked around the area I wanted to fill with blue tape. I mixed a small amount of the white compound from the can, with a tiny amount of the brick red paste from the accompanying tube. I used a Dixie cup as a container and a popsicle stick for mixing and spreading. Make sure to use gloves and have proper ventilation. (Don’t do this inside.)

Bondo is spread over the area.
Press the Bondo firmly over the area, and don’t scrape down too deep. You want it to be a little bit higher than the block at this point.

I quickly spread the Bondo firmly into the channel I wanted to fill and scraped down some of the excess. You will want to leave a raised mound that you can sand. Bondo cures, rather than dries, so I was able to start sanding after an hour.

The linoleum has been patched by Bondo, but must be sanded.
Remove the masking tape. Now it is time to gently sand by hand.

After removing the masking tape, I began sanding with 220 paper. I was careful not to sand too far down, as then I might get small lines around the filled area that might print. This patch will work if you have relatively small areas to fill, or if you fill in several steps. It might be hard to fill an area that is not surrounded on most sides by linoleum.

Pencil marks now show the correct place to carve.
The correctly carving marks are transferred to the block, with a written reminder.

After the sanding, I carefully transferred the correct marks to the block, and reminded myself where to carve. It is always better for colors to overlap slightly than to have those unsightly white lines. You can always carve away more later.

After two colors, the Bondo area is still holding well. My diptych of cumulonimbus clouds was saved. If only other problems were so easy to solve with a simple patch and some sanding.

Key blocks bring everything together

I enjoy getting lost in cities — at least on foot. I delight in the unexpected finds that are off the typical tourist trail. But sometimes life demands a predetermined order, and my life has felt like that of late. I have been wanting to do another linocut featuring the undulating forms of rice paddies, and my current project demands structure in the form of a key block.

A test print of my latest linocut on newsprint. I’m wondering whether the large dark areas, when printed with an opaque green, will read convincingly as planted paddies.

For printmaker who use multiple blocks, a key block is a familiar element. In Japanese printmaking — especially Ukiyo-e — the key block carries all of the final graphic information and is usually printed last in a dark color. Printmakers will also use this block to transfer information to other blocks so they will know where to carve away for each color block. April Vollmer has written a terrific book on Japanese printmaking called Japanese Woodblock Print Workshop if you want to read more about this technique.

No key blocks for reduction printmaking

I never use key blocks with reduction printmaking. First, remember that I am only using one block. Sometimes the final stage of a block will look as though it is a key block, as I usually print the darkest color last. But I didn’t start with this last stage in mind; rather, the block evolved throughout the process.

The last layers of my reduction work often look like this — where only the orangey part is actually printed. Not like a key block at all.

My latest linocut has a key block though. I will be using hand dyed silk to create the floating world imagery that my imagination has been clinging to. With these dyes and the silk, colors can flow easily into one another in way that is impossible to create using my typical techniques. The large blocks of dark ink are where I am considering having some rice that remains to be harvested, while the other areas are reflected water.

Carving as therapy

Carving a key block during this particular week has been a tonic. It is my equivalent of cleaning my house — a repetitive activity that has a tangible result at its end, but requires reduced thinking during the process. Like a working meditation, my mind can wander, my breath can slow.

Now I wait for longer paper to be delivered and prepare to allow the silk dyes to flow unimpeded through the fabric. A peaceful process for a peaceful image.



How do you get your blocks?

I so enjoyed meeting the people that came through my studio last weekend during Bloomington Open Studios Tour. I will unveil the completed solar flag project in my next blog. This week has been filled with reassembling my house and getting ready for the Columbus Arts Festival. And creating an enormous block of linoleum.

One of the most frequent questions asked last weekend was “Where do you get your blocks?” The following images are my way of explaining just how I create my oversized linoleum blocks.

great big box

I first order the linoleum from either McClain’s or Graphic Chemical. I order three foot wide rolls and can specify how long a roll I would like. Shipping is expensive because linoleum is heavy!

measure twice

When I decide the size block I would like, I cut a piece of linoleum slightly larger than my desired size. I use a box cutter and a metal straight-edge to score through the burlap backing and partially cut the linoleum. After that it folds easily on the seam you have created. Remember to measure twice — linoleum is expensive and you can’t glue pieces together.


The next step involves spraying both the back of the linoleum (with the burlap) and a piece of 1/2 inch medium density fiberboard with #90 spray adhesive. Newsprint is essential around the edges, or you may forever trap your house cats on your sticky floor. This is serious adhesive.

I have to quickly and gracefully slap this heavy linoleum onto the MDF. It really sticks, so there is no second chance. I am working here with a 25 x 40 inch piece of linoleum, and it is quite an athletic event. I then have to hoist the glued linoleum block onto my press, cover it with newsprint, and run it through the press several times to make sure it is as flat as possible.

great big table saw

Finally I have to wrestle this heavy block off the press and into my car. I have access to a huge table saw, and my awesome husband helps me trim the block to its final size. Cutting MDF is a messy job, and he is a dear to help me with this.

So that is the story of how I get my blocks. Look for my new large linocut of clouds to be started soon.

Are there any good stories of how you get your materials?

This printmaker is grateful for the humble flax

I have been methodically carving my latest linocut looking at cloud formations, but I don’t have too much to show for it…

Cloud 1 three layers
Three layers of very transparent ink are just the start of this linocut celebrating clouds.

This linocut has three layers of ink on it, but the differences in layers are intentionally subtle. I achieve this through the use of what printmaking ink manufacturers call tint base. It is the substance that holds all of the tiny pigment particles together and allows them to be evenly distributed on my glass table with my rubber brayer. The base is also responsible for drying so that the pigment will stay adhered to my paper, even when there is very little pigment. Tint base is very important.

I use a great deal of transparent base in my work — I will order several cans at one time to keep it in stock. Gamblin — the creator of my inks — uses burnt plate oil as the binder, with the addition of some calcium carbonate. I wondered what burnt plate oil actually was, because in the can the transparent base looks like spun honey, and doesn’t look burned at all.

Burnt plate oil is linseed oil which has been heated to 425 F degrees (or has ignited) and has become thick and viscous. Linseed oil has a drying tendency — it forms polymers — and therefore is used as a binder in paints, inks…and linoleum! The wood pulp and cork particles of linoleum are ably held together with linseed oil. The only thing that is not linseed based in my process is the cotton paper.

Europe was closed to flax exports after a genetically modified variety was discovered in shipments, but the continent is opening up after poor weather in Russia and Kazakhstan dried up sources. File photo. (date last used May 23, 2013) Building a new flax processsing facility in Angusville, Man., is one of several moves Grain Millers Inc. is making to serve health food markets in North America. File photo. (date last used March 21, 2013) Irish flax processor plans to relocate, rebuild plant. File photo. (date last used December 6, 2012) If flax growers can get their crop sequence right and properly manage the mycorrhiza population in the soil, there may be potential to save money on fertilizer. File photo. (date last used August 2, 2012) Western Europe accounted for about 70 percent of Canadian flax exports but some analysts expect to see demand from the U.S. File photo. (date last used September 15, 2011) The flax is in full bloom at plots in the Northern Adapted Flax Variety Development Project plots near Vegreville. The goal of the project is to develop flax varieties better adapted to the northern Prairies.
The flax plant has a gorgeous blue-purple flower that yields the all important flax seed.

Linseed is also referred to as flax, a plant that was used in its wild fiber state nearly 30,000 years ago in the Republic of Georgia. There is evidence of domesticated oil seed in Egypt 9,000 years ago. The seeds and resulting oil are edible, and the fibers can be woven into a strong, if scratchy fabric. The amazing thing about flax is that it made its way into the artist’s studio.

I searched for the genesis of burnt plate oil, but found nothing definitive. There is a spirited debate on-line regarding whether painter and printmaker Rembrandt used burnt plate oil for the impasto parts of his paintings. I can imagine a careless studio assistant getting distracted, only to turn around and see his pot of oil on fire, and later being intrigued by the new consistency of the oil. However it happened, I am grateful for the humble flax plant which brings me not only my printmaking inks, but my linoleum as well.







Showing how you do what you do

I sometimes envy painters. They can demonstrate their magic in real time. Full disclosure: I did watch Bob Ross painting his landscape scenes when I was home with babies. He was so calming and effortless in his movements as he drew craggy peaks out of black gessoed panels.
I have the same challenge on Friday, October 2nd. I am the visiting artist at First Friday Evening Science of Art at the WonderLab Museum of Science Health & Technology here in Bloomington. The entire evening will be printmaking — including letterpress and real leaf printing. And me.
Carving with my trusty Foredom drill makes short work of a small block.
For me, demonstrating on-site is tough. Watching someone carve linoleum can be a dull as dirt. I certainly can’t drag my press with me. We had a wonderful time printing two-layered linocuts at my Open Studios tour in June, so I decided to do a variation of this for the WonderLab event.

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The best kind of feedback

Feedback. Everyone needs it, including artists. When you are in an art class, you receive lots of feedback in the form of critiques. Or in my case — just blank stares because I don’t use any black ink in my relief prints. (What was wrong with me?)
Feedback now comes to me during a much more sympathetic monthly gathering. My art group, of which I have been a participant for perhaps ten years, is a group of women who meet to share whatever is going on in our lives creatively. Everyone has some sort of formal art training — I probably have the least. People work in two and three dimensions, some market their work while others choose to create just for themselves.
Experimenting with a honeycomb shape, with the addition of colored pencil.
I brought my latest experiments to this month’s meeting. I enjoy taking experiments because then the question about what to do differently is so much easier to discuss. It is hard to pick apart finished work among these artist friends.  One suggestion that I’ve been toying with regards the honeycomb-patterned linocut. It was suggested that the white in between the hexagons was too pronounced. It created a figure/ground problem. What if it was just a lighter color — even a lighter layer of the work? The next day I amended the above linocut with colored pencils. I wanted to make the viewer think about why these shapes were included, not wonder why they were looking through chicken wire! Perhaps a full fledged honeycomb linocut is in the works.

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From limestone to linoleum and back

It began with a Facebook message. Bloomington area sculptor Dale Enochs wanted to know if he could come to my studio and see my printmaking process. It is not often that an accomplished artist wants to see my studio. During our visit and subsequent conversations, I learned that Enochs was revitalizing an interest in printmaking that had started during college and graduate school, where he admits he was fascinated by tools and materials.
One of the things I did was sing the praises of linoleum. Unless you need the grain of the wood, linoleum is easier to carve than many types of wood and holds edges better than rubber. I gave Dale two square of linoleum to try out, and worried I had led him over to the dark side. A few months later, he gifted me with this diptych, entitled Dialogue. I shouldn’t have worried.
Two linocuts of silhouetted faces with energy running between them.
Dale Enochs. Dialogue. Linocut on paper. Ready for a frame and a place in my house!
Enochs has been a sculptor for many years, and his stone and metal creations grace many buildings, homes and outdoor sites throughout the world, and right in our town. His installation Elemental Indiana fills two giant walls in the ticketing area of the Indianapolis International Airport.

Continue reading “From limestone to linoleum and back”