the crow - a gothic lino printing journey from start to finish
A big part of my philosophy at stellabox is to inspire others to create too.
This purpose of this particular blog post is to hopefully demystify the process a little bit for new lino printmakers by walking you through the creation of one of my newest prints, the crow, from start to finish.
I spent a lot of time when I first started printing hunting around the internet watching videos and reading about the process and I would have found it super useful to have lots of details in one place. Create what you want to see in the world is how I look at it.
This post is written with the absolutely beginner in mind so I’ll try to explain everything in as much detail as I can. As with all art, there are lots of different methods and techniques in printmaking but the following are ones that I’ve found work best for me.
The crow is a fairly straightforward black and white design using traditional grey hessian-backed lino. I have a separate blog post that details all my tools and suppliers which can be found here.
What tools did I use to make this print?
Pfeil tools (L 11/0.5, L 8.3, L 11/1 and L 15/2)
Grey hessian-backed lino (A4 size)
Japanese rubber roller (100mm)
Caligo safe wash etching ink in carbon black
An ordinary kitchen wooden spoon
A sharp pencil
A photograph or design to base my print on
I use a small table-top printing press by a company called Woodzilla
Acrylic paint (optional, I'll explain why later)
Masking tape (ideally two different sizes or colours)
Snowdon printmaking paper
To begin with, it’s best to have a good idea what you’d like to actually print.
For this print, I used a photograph of a skyline with a crow in taken by my lovely friend Jan. This is the first print I've made using a photograph but something about it really sparked my imagination and I knew I had to turn it into a print.
Transferring the image
To transfer my design onto the lino, I used tracing paper. I used masking tape to secure the tracing paper on top of the photograph, as shown in the video below, and then used a sharp pencil to trace over it.
Once the design was on the tracing paper, I flipped the paper over and used masking tape to secure it on top of the A4 lino block. After scribbling over the entire sheet with a pencil, I peeled off the masking tape and revealed my design.
The next step is optional and one that I didn’t do here but have done for prints in the past. I sometimes brush the lino with a coat of paint to seal the pencil marks on the block to avoid them being smudged or removed by my hands as I'm carving. To do this, I dilute a light coloured acrylic paint with water (this doesn’t have to be fancy paint at all as you’re not actually using it for any artistic purposes). I then cover the surface of the block with a thin layer of this watered down paint using a big brush and then let it dry thoroughly before I start carving. When I first started out, I had instances where my hand smudged the pencil mark on the block as I was carving, leading to lots of panic as I struggled to reconstruct my design! You want this paint layer to be thin enough that you can still see your pencil design on the block.
Carving the design
After transferring my design to the lino block, it looked like this:
I was now ready to begin carving. I outlined the square part of the photograph and then began carving the branches. I used a small 'v' shaped tool with varying pressure to carve the branches and they were then finished with a light feathering motion to give the impression of the empty branches disappearing into the sky. The video below is from the start of the carving process and the photo beneath was taken a couple of hours after I began carving.
Due to the amount of branches and the detailed criss-crossing of the trees, the print took quite a few hours to carve. The crow itself was carved using a combination of a small ‘v’ shaped Pfeil tool for the outline and a small ‘u’ shaped Pfeil tool to clear the middle of the bird, as shown in the timelapse below;
After I had marked out the border of the print, it was time to clear it. By clearing, I mean removing all the other area of the lino that I didn't want to be printed, in this case it meant cutting away and levelling all the lino outside the square that the trees and crow sit in.
I cleared out the top layer of lino (as you can see in the video above) using a much larger ‘U’ shaped tool and I then went back and carved another layer down. The purpose of this second clearing is not to ‘hit bedrock’ (as I call it when you carve so deep you reach the bottom of the lino block), but rather to make the lino as flat and level as possible to avoid 'chatter marks'.
Chatter marks are a very personal choice to each artist. Personally, most of the time I prefer a clean print with just the design I have carved on the page and nothing else. Other artists prefer the lines created when ink catches on ridges of lino and I've seen beautiful prints covered in chatter marks on purpose so it's very much a personal preference. If you prefer the cleaner look, it’s worth spending the extra time levelling these unwanted areas at this stage, rather than spending a lot of time wiping ink off your block when you come to print later.
Here is a close-up of the block after I’ve cleared the second layer and the crow, but I still have branches to carve:
Preparation for printing
After many hours carving, I was ready to do a test print. I always set aside an hour minimum to do this as even if I only print one copy, it takes time to set up your workstation and then clean it and your tools down afterwards.
Before I started, I prepared my little press for use. This involved using thin strips of masking tape to mark out on my press where my A4 lino block was going to sit in the press and then using a wider strip of masking tape to mark out where my A4 paper was going to sit in relation to it. You can see this demonstrated in the printing video below.
The first step was to roll my ink out. This part is always a little bit of wizardry as there's no set formula for how long to roll your ink or how thick, it's just something that you will learn through trial and error over time. I would recommend spending a good 20-30 seconds rolling out your ink though. If you listen carefully, there's also a little popping sound you can hear the ink making when it's ready to use. Test prints are just that, an initial print to see if your ink is the right consistency and if the block prints as you want it to. I roll my ink onto my desk as it's a glass desk that I specifically chose so I wouldn't need a glass sheet to roll my ink onto.
Next, I inked up my lino block, making sure all parts of the design were black. I carefully placed the A4 block into the area marked on my press with the thinner masking tape and aligned my sheet of A4 over the top within the area marked by the wider masking tape. After using the printing press, I also used a wooden spoon to rub the back of the print for several minutes (using small circular motions) to make sure I had transferred all the ink onto the paper. Printing solid areas of colour is one of the trickier aspects of printmaking so please don't be concerned if you can't get solid coverage the first time you try.
I then peeled the paper off the block and got to see the results of all my hard work finally! The video below shows you the inking and printing process and below that there are a couple of photos of the inky block and the finished print:
There you have it, 'The crow' as a finished print. If you're interested in learning more about printmaking and art, you'll find many more blog posts from now on on everything from lino printing to Etsy to social media, with a few surprises thrown in too. You can watch more of my process videos on Instagram at /stellaboxdesigns or sign up to my mailing list here to keep up to date with blog posts, discount codes and much more.
I wish you lots of happiness on your printmaking journey.