Reduction Linocut Process

How are reduction linocuts created?

I am often asked how reduction linocuts are made, and it can be quite hard to explain using just words!  It's much easier to show how it's done with step by step photos.

A couple of key points (in case you can't be bothered with the whole explanation!):

  • I am a traditional printmaker - I carve the images into linoleum by hand, using specialised cutting tools, and then I print them on an etching press.  My original prints are all hand-signed and editioned (numbered)

  • In reduction linocuts, each colour you see in the final print is added by rolling the print through the press with that colour on the lino block, so if there are 4 colours (other than white) in the print, the print has been through the press at least 4 times (sometimes more, because if I'm not happy with a colour combination once I lift the paper off the lino, I will change colours and do it again!)

    I've set out below the steps I followed in making my "Little Creatures - Squirrel" reduction linocut. 

    Step One - design the image

    This was my original design for the print.  

    As you can see, the design doesn't have to be a perfect drawing!  The most important thing is that the lines I need to carve are clear.  The colours used here aren't necessarily the ones I am planning to use in the print either - it's more important that they stand out from each other clearly, so I carve the right bits at the right time.

    Step Two - transfer the image to the lino block

    I transfer the image to the lino block using old fashioned carbon paper.  The image will be reversed when it is printed, so it's important to think about which way you want your image to be facing when you trace it (very important if you have text in your image!  It needs to be a mirror image!).  

    Here is the lino block with the image transferred onto it.  As you can see, I have glued the block to a piece of Masonite.  I have also glued on two "guide pieces" of lino.  These are used to make sure my paper will be placed on the block in exactly the same place every time, so all the colours in the image are registered properly.  If you don't get that right, the image can look like one of those magic eye 3D pictures! 

    Step Three - start carving!

    The linoleum block is carved with specialist linocutting tools.  These are very sharp and you pretty quickly learn to always carve away from yourself in case of slip ups! 

    The first thing I carve is the areas I want to be white (the colour of the paper).  In this case, I wanted my squirrel to have a nice white belly, and the background to the floral design on his body will also be white.  Here he is, with his white bits carved out.

    Step Four - print the first colour

    I love playing with colour combinations and I wanted to create the squirrel in at least five different colour schemes, so I printed this first layer in musk stick pink, red, lime green, turquoise and blue.  Usually I have some final colour combinations in mind, but not always. I am not formally trained in art, so I love starting with beautiful base colours and then seeing what works with them and what doesn't as I build the colours up on each print.  If the colours don't "sing" together, I just reprint in another colour - and the layers this creates often produces some of my favourite effects. 

    The ink is mixed/warmed up on a smooth glass surface and then spread thinly on the block with a roller or "brayer" (which is shown in some of the later photos).  The photos below show the first cut of the squirrel block inked in red, the block on the press ready to print and then the print created as a result.  



    Here are all the colours I printed the first cut of the block in.  If you count them, you will see that I printed the image 26 times.  That is the total number of of "Little Creatures - Squirrel" prints in existence.  I can't make any more, because the block is gradually cut away as the print is created and can't be used to create anything but the final colour layer.


    Step Five - carve the lino again and print the second colour (and repeat this step until print is complete)

    The lino block is then cleaned and a little bit more of the image is carved away.  Put simply, you cut away any areas that you want to appear in the colour you just printed.  You then print the block again in a different (usually darker) colour. Repeating this process creates the layers of colour you see in the final print. 

    Each "Little Creatures - Squirrel" print has been manually rolled through the printing press at least 3 different times (once for each colour that makes up the image).  Some went through 7 or 8 times, as I played with the colour combinations. 

    On the left of the photo below is one of the pieces of paper that was printed in red with the first carve of the lino block ("a").  In the centre is the lino block ("b"), which has now been carved a second time (to remove anything I want to stay red in the final print, eg the leaves on the body of the squirrel and the flowers on the ground).  Above the lino is a test print, which shows how the lino block prints now that it has been carved a second time.  On the right is a piece of paper ("c") that was originally the same as "a", but now it has been printed with carve 2 of the lino block.

    So "a" + "b" = "c"!!!  Clear as mud?!

    Below is another example of the second carve being printed, this time in red.  On the left is one of the prints that was printed pink in step 4, and has now been printed with the second carve, in red. The block, inked in red, is shown on the right. 

    See how the colours and patterns build up?  It's awesome!!   One of the best things about this process is lifting the paper off the lino once it has been through the press with a new colour on it - it's so exciting seeing how the colour combinations turn out!!!

    Here are all the prints after they have been printed with the second version of the block.

    And, finally, here is a photo of the third carve and print.  On the left is the red and pink print from above.  In the centre is the lino block, carved a third time.  Above the block is a test print showing how carve 3 of the block prints (compare it to the block above - the flowers on the squirrel's body have gone, and the background of the leaves has been cut away on the ground).  And on the right, the final print ("c").  Again, "a" + "b" = "c"!!  Yay!!


    And here is the final "Little Creatures - Squirrel" family!!  The Squirrels that are left are available for sale here.

    Now that the final colour has been printed, the image above can’t be reproduced from the block again, as there is generally not much lino left on it!  This is why it’s called a “reduction” linocut.  Here is the squirrel block after the final carve. 


    There is often even less lino than this left on the block - for example, this is all that was left after the eleventh and final carve of my Show Pony print! It's just his mane, tail, hooves, eye and a few decorative details!

    Step Six - editioning

    Once complete, I number each separate colour combination with I, II, III, IV etc (eg "Little Creatures - Squirrel I", "Little Creatures - Squirrel II").  Each print generally has a number on the lower left side, which indicates what number it is in the edition and how many other prints were produced in that particular colour combination (eg 1/3 is the first of 3 prints made in that colour).  If there is only one print made in a particular colour combination, "US" is written on the lower left side instead of a number.  This means "unique state" - that is, it is the only print of its kind.

    How long does it take?

    Depending on the size of the lino block, the number of prints in the edition and the number of layers cut away to create the final image, the reduction process can take weeks or even months to complete.

    Here is one of the squirrels, all framed up and very happy with himself!