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.