"Children of Lir" Linoblock

April 05, 2012

The Swan Children of Lir ~ Linoblock by ShaylynnAnn

This March, we did the an awesome project in art class. It's called linoleum block printing, and was truly something different-- you essentially carve your own stamp into a very graphic piece of art. It was ubiquitous in the old days, before computers and printers, and was favored  by graphic designers. (I was extremely delighted to learn that M.C. Escher-- my favorite artist-mathematician-- made linoblocks, along with woodcuts and various other kinds of "mechanical graphic art".)

These days, it's an antiquated technique. No longer do you need stamps to create multiple copies of artwork. We now have cameras and computers. It's no longer used by graphic artists and designers, because we have things like Photoshop and Illustrator and InDesign. I love those softwares, and I love computers, and I love cameras, and I'm a bit of a technology geek, but it makes me sad that linoleum blocks have been regulated to historical art classes.

The watercolor I based the print off of.

I don't know how much I've said about my art class, but a local artist teaches classes in her basement. I had found information about a linoleum block contest (no, I didn't place) and brought it to her to ask about it, since I'd never heard of the technique. Turns out, she did some in college and  was great enough to get us the supplies and teach us how to do it.

The day that we decided to start this project, I had no idea what I wanted to do. So I pulled out the 30 Day Drawing Challenge notebook and grabbed my favorite watercolor from it (see above). Yeah, it was pretty hard to come up with an 8X10 black-and-white design based off of a 4X6 watercolor... But I managed to get the entire drawing done in an hour. I transferred it to the linoleum block by coloring the back of the drawing with a pencil and transferring the graphite.

The picture is an illustration of the Swan Children of Lir. It's a beautiful and haunting Irish fairytale... I wrote about it here and included links to various telling of the tale.

Since I think linoblock printing is so cool, I want to share some insight on this technique...

Picture from Dick Blick
The above is a picture of the tool that I used to carve my block in class. It's specially designed with all sorts of tips (that were way to big for all the details I used).

The above are pictures of the tools that I actually used. I brought the block home to work on in all that free time that I have, but there weren't linoblock tools to spare. I took this opportunity to draw all over the photograph with my Wacom tablet, but here's a text translation of my tools:

  • Linoluem block. A sheet of linoleum mounted on a block of wood.
  • X-acto knife. I can't image doing a linoblock without a scapel knife. I used it extensively for the lines in the water-- each line   (yes, each and every individual bajillion lines-- I'm crazy and obsessed with art) was outlined by two angled cuts with the xacto and then "popped out" with...
  • Screwdrivers. You use what you have! And in my case, I had a case of flathead screwdrivers in a variety of sizes. For small and medium-sized areas, I traced the shape deeply with the xacto knife, then slid the screwdriver underneath and "popped" the linoleum out. I also didn't like the way that the cut-outs were really rough (especially when I used the "real" tools), so I used the screwdrivers to burnish the cut linoleum. I am crazy.
  • Hair dryer. Great substitute for a heat gun. I used it to warm up the linoleum to make it easier to cut (but gave up on it because it took so long-- no easy cutting for me, because I'm too impatient, lol!)
  • Horsehair brush. Remember the box of old drafting tools I found this in? Super useful for brushing out bits of obstinate linoleum.
  • The drawing. 
  • A phone. To talk to a friend to while I slaved away, duh.
  • Book pages. Yup, those are the very book pages that went into the book page skirt.
  • Not pictured-- glue. Elmer's works. Because sometimes, you accidently cut out things like eyes because they are so tiny...
  • Also not pictured-- trash can. I tell you, the carvings pile up!

A closeup of the detail.

My favorite part was probably the problem-solving... it really takes a lot of thinking. You don't only have to worry about whether the art is good, whether it tells a story, whether the proportions are right... you also have to try and "shade" in just black and white, "think backwards" (because you are "drawing"-- that is, carving-- the negative space), figure out how to leave the right spaces uncut, AND pay attention to the fact that the entire image will be reversed when you are done!

This is the only in-focus picture I got of  the printing process.

It was fairly simple...

  1. Get good, thin paper. My teacher bought special printing paper that cost a dollar a page... it didn't work very well. You know what worked the best? Some kind of thin, newspaper-like (with some of the texture of rice paper) that my grandma gave me. The edges were yellowed with age and the cover of it said "79 cents". It's from a local store that went out of business ages ago.
  2. Spread printing ink out and rub it with a brayer. The printing ink is a gel-like substance. You have to rub it until it makes just the right tone of "squeek squalsh squish" noises.
  3. Transfer the ink to the block. It's harder than it appears. You can't have too much ink (it fills in the holes) and you can't have too little. You have to cover the whole thing in layers. And I found that it's best to roll the brayer (both in the ink and on the block) in the same direction. It keeps the ink from gridlocking. At least that's my theory. But it does help.
  4. Press the block to the paper. Believe it or not, our little press did barely anything. No help, really. You have to get gung-ho and use ELBOW GREASE, and a LOT of it. Use something flat and push and rub and kill your arm!
  5. Clean the block every 2-3 prints. Easy but messy if you use water-based ink.

I pulled 14 prints in all. Some had too little ink, some had too much, the first few had bad ink (old stuff that was too dry), most of them didn't completely transfer the large area in the sky, etc. It took 7 prints before I pulled a really good one. 

The best part? Lifting the paper up, seeing a good print peel from the block, smelling the wet ink...

I know that this whole things sounds time-consuming and difficult-- and it might sound like I'm complaining. I'm not. I quite inexplicably LOVE linoblocks. LOVE LOVE LOVE. They are AWESOME. It's such a different technique, I've never done anything like it before. I hope to do more-- when I have time. Because it is time-consuming.

One last note-- is it just me or does my Irish fairytale illustration look a little Japanese? It must be the lines in the water.I just did some googling, and it turns out that technique is often used in Japanese woodcuts (another thing I'd like to try).

WELL, I just wrote a book. (fellow geeks, I just thought that sentence in the accent of the 10th Doctor).
 Hope you don't mind my rambling!

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  1. WOW that is so cool! I have (well had i guess:)never heard of those before!

  2. Linoluem block printing is SO cool! I did one a few years ago and I LOVE the technique. However, I'm no artist and mine looked nowhere near as amazing as yours! It's gorgeous Shaylynn!

  3. How did I not know you watched Doctor Who? YOU WATCH DOCTOR WHO?!?! Excuse me while I freak out for a bit. ............................................................................................................... Ok I'm back. But siriusly, how did I not know this? Oh, and very, very cool art by the way.

  4. Thanks guys. :)

    Kat-- How did *I* not know *you* watched Doctor Who??? Siriusly! That's amazing! :) Although I must admit I'm in it mostly because of David Tennent's acting (sometimes the aliens and their constant lets-overcome-the-Earth! gets annoying). :)

  5. So glad you shared this... I love lino printing and it is such a great medium especially when you then add hand painting... love what you have done...xx

  6. ...quiet awesomeness! ~ thankyoU for this s.s. share! ~ blessed be!...

  7. You did an amazing job. Your illustration is AMAZING!!! Maybe some day I will try this technique... Thank you for sharing all the process, It was fun to read ...and I learned at the same time ;)

  8. gorgeous wonderful
    and i read every word
    very inspiring too

    thank you for sharing all the details


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