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30 July 2016

Misadventures in Lino-cutting

A couple of weekends ago I happened across a couple of art books in a charity shop that piqued my interest. One in particular has grabbed me like a fever...

"Melbourne Woodcuts and Linocuts of the 1920's and 1930's" was first published in 1981. It was put together by a gentleman called Roger Butler as he joined the team at the National Gallery of Australia. The copy I have here is a 2003 reprint by the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery and it is BRILLIANT!

Inside is a taste of lino-cuts primarily produced in Australia in what appears to have been a renaissance of lino printing... a golden couple of decades. What I think I see here is a wonderful melting pot of techniques fed by immigrants to Australia from all over the world, traveling backwards and forwards with ideas, desperate to discover and create. I'm totally inspired! Ha ha.

It was maybe on my 50th reading of the book that I decided that I had to have a go at lino-cutting. How hard could it be? There was only one way to find out...

I remember doing a lino-cut once at school. I recall taking chunks out of my fingers as I fought with a hessian-backed crumbly old lino tile. I can't for the life of me remember what my design was or how it all turned out. Suffice to say... I never did another. What a travesty!

Having watched numerous "how-to" videos on Lino-cutting I quickly realised that actually, you don't need too much equipment to get started with lino-cutting and I immediately started ordering parts off the internet. Pictured here are some of what has arrived so far. More is on the way. Oh dear... I made that fatal mistake of drinking beer while shopping and have ordered lots of things that I'll probably never use. Last night I came to the conclusion that I had enough to practice with. What follows are all the things that I learnt in my first lino-cutting adventures...

The first thing that any budding lino-cut artists needs is a design to cut. I dipped into my extensive comic back-catalog and pulled out an image I created for my Dead Hand comic. I'm calling this one "Blood is thicker than mud". If you want to know why, then you'd better go and read the comic. My artwork of this period is very much of a style that looks like lino-cuts and I wondered if it would translate.

The lino block I chose to use was a tiny test block which measures 7.5cm by 7.5cm. It's not what I was expecting. The lino is about 3mm thick and made of a very pliable, soft rubber. I worried that I was going to cut through it. One side is super smooth and the other has slight roughness to it. My guess was that I needed to use the smooth side as the cutting face.

Knowing the size of the block, I printed a reversed version of my design and stuck it to the block with some Remount Spray adhesive. It felt like I was cheating a bit here, not drawing the design onto the block by hand but I was desperate to get cutting. I haven't seen anyone else doing cuts this way, so I kind of expected to hit challenges with this approach... and I did.

Here you can see me mid-cutting. I bought a range of blades and three handles, but I only ended up using 3 blades on this piece: a flat knife blade that I used to cut the paper with, and two gouges for taking out the plastic.

I had to be very careful with cutting the paper, so that I didn't rip it, or move the design too much on the block. The adhesive worked well, but as you can see it was a delicate operation and I did muck up here and there.

One lesson learnt here is that I think I should have sharpened my blades before starting. These are just cheapo ones that I figured would be sharp enough, being new. In hindsight, I should have sharpened them anyway; The v-shaped one in particular was a sod to cut with. The harder it is to push, the easier it is to cut something you don't want to cut.

See the table rest I'm using. This was a great idea. It has a lip that fits over the edge of the table and keeps it in place. An improvement I may make to this is to make a triangular block that I can stick in the corner so that I can cut the block at an angle.

I've seen people giving advice about cutting on non-stick cloth to prevent the block from moving. That might be another solution, but that idea isn't really exciting me too much at the moment.

It was about this point that I realised that I had a pretty major flaw in my plan.

I was becoming more adept at cutting, but I was struggling to get any kind of detail in my cuts. I'd started with the biggest areas I wanted to cut out for a reason, thinking that these would be the easiest places to learn my new skill. Here I am using the smallest gouges I have available and even these are too thick for the design. If I was struggling with the big easy bits, how on earth was I going to cope with fussy detail of the face and hand?

Well, the answer was pretty obviously going to be to either not cut the centre at all and produce a silhouette, or to simplify. I chose to simplify. Either way there is an important insight here in how to make a lino-cut friendly design.

I'm wondering now whether I could pinch one of my blades to make it narrower? That's an idea I should test out. I would love to have the option for some detailed cutting when I need it.

I was just checking on some extra blades I'm waiting on and spotted this.

Ha ha!

Artists... You've got to love them!

Back to lino-cutting...

The finished block doesn't look like much does it. I peeled off the last of the paper and tidied it up a bit. Would I be brave enough to print with it? Damn right... 

I'll start by saying that I did hesitate here; My paper hasn't arrived yet. I wanted to use thick cartridge paper, but all I have to hand is shiny crap printer paper. Never mind, I couldn't come this far and stop now.

The ink I'm using is absolutely fantastic. I guessed that it would be a key factor and paid a little more for a 120ml tube of Schmincke Ivory Black. I have a lot to learn about printing, but the finish when dry is perfect! I love it.

Some of the lessons here was to use a lot less ink than I did and to not drink beer while printing. The paper didn't help; It was very slippery. I got one good print and bailed.

These are the five prints I made last night before calling it a day. Bottom left was my first. There was far too much ink on the block here and the paper slipped. The one on the right was me at the end just seeing what would happen if I pressed the image a second time without re-inking (pretty much what you'd expect).

The other three prints are close to what I'd want. YEEHAW! 

I let them dry over night and the ink has come up beautifully rich. Here's a close-up of probably the best print I achieved. Lovely. I definitely need to do more of this! 

I'll leave you with the wonderful sounds of Ralph Stanley. It was a sad day when he passed away last month, but his legacy lives on. RIP Ralph.

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