a linocut with watercolor of a rose in a bud vase, a glass of white wine and a plate with green apple slices on a striped cloth
Viognier & Apples 6.5 x 4.5 Linocut with Watercolor (available here)

Linocut Ideas for Beginners

Have you ever made a linocut print? Linocut ideas can be hard to come by if you’re not sure where to start. Visitors to my booth at art festivals say they recall making a linoleum block print in grade school – or printing from rubber erasers, potato stamps, apples or carrots. But what is the grown-up version of a linocut?

The fun thing is this: no matter how old the person is when discussing grade school printmaking – they remember what their first print was. A gecko, a spider, a dog, etc. And they tell the story with a smile.

Printmaking can be a simple process. With a few supplies and a bit of instruction, you can make multiple prints at your kitchen table. This post will help you find ideas for still life subjects to carve from a sheet of linoleum.

a tiny linocut of a cat drinking from a birdbath, printed in black and painted with watercolor
A tiny linocut of a cat drinking from a birdbath, printed in black ink, and painted with watercolors

Gather Your Linocut Ideas

If you’re looking for ideas to make a linocut print, I have an approach to share that’ll result in a whole series – especially if you like still life.

The sliced apples and rose linocut print above was the result of a scoop through the kitchen to collect items with bright colors. You can do this too.

For the print above, I gathered a dinner napkin with stripes, a green apple, a dessert plate, a wine glass and a bud vase.

I snipped a rose from the yard, sliced the apple, poured water into the wine glass, and arranged the objects on the napkin by a sunny window.

The photos I took of the arrangement were snapped with my cell phone camera, with the flash turned off, from a variety of angles very close to a window for good light.

a tiny scrap of linoleum carved into a portrait of a girl with a bird on her shoulder and a house in the distance, by Belinda Del Pesco
A tiny scrap of linoleum carved into a portrait of a girl with a bird on her shoulder and a house in the distance. See the finished print in my Etsy Shop.

Still Life Linocut Ideas

What you don’t see in my composition in the linocut at the top of this post is the clutter [dinner dishes] all around the still life arrangement. Peripheral messes won’t matter in your still life arrangements either, if you use artful cropping.

use your cell phone camera to find linocut ideas
The mess of dishes or clutter around your printmaking subject won’t matter, because you can use your cell phone camera viewfinder to locate artful compositions of simple printmaking subjects.

How to Set Up a Still Life Photoshoot for Linocut Ideas

Look for a little sunshine coming through a window. Arrange one or two still life objects on a patterned cloth napkin, and snap photos with your phone.

If you don’t have a patterned napkin, you can slide gift wrap paper under your still life objects for added pattern and interest.

Consider arrangements of normal items from around the house as Still Life props:

  • A plate, napkin and cutlery makes an interesting geometry for a linocut.
  • A scattering of lipsticks, nail polish and a compact with a brush blush.
  • A cup of tea next to a book with a set of eye glasses on the book casting shadows.
  • A tape dispenser, a pair of scissors, a container of glue and a trio of sharpened pencils.
  • A bottle of ink and a quill pen next to an envelope, stamps and paper.

It doesn’t take a lot of items to create a compelling layout in a sunny spot for a great linocut. Move your phone’s viewfinder around to see views of the arrangements from the top, sides and at the horizon line.

You may already have some great compositions for a linocut in your phone’s image storage.

Looking Through Photos for Linocut Ideas

In the photo above, I’ve searched for the word Flower in the Photos app on my Apple computer. All the images snapped with my cell phone are stored in the Photos app, so I can search for subjects, colors or people.

In a search for the word flower, the results of a still life photoshoot come up. The red roses against a window were photographed from different angles in the sun, with a variety of items added to the scene.

By looking at the resulting pictures as thumbnails, you can see the compositions without all the details. Focusing on the shapes will help you discern which layout will make a more compelling linocut.

printmaking brayers and ink on a studio table
reduction woodcut still life of an avocado pit sprouting, a sea shell, a cassette deck and a group photo, by Belinda Del Pesco
Avocado Pit Still Life 5 x 7 Woodcut & Watercolor

Linocut Reference Photo Design Tips

Arrange your still life objects, and pull out your phone or a camera. Start photographing arrangements from a variety of angles and distances.

Squint often to reduce the details into shapes, and look for compositions in your grouping that suggest:

  • Diagonal lines
  • Circular clusters
  • X-patterns
  • Asymmetry. 

Use the viewfinder of your camera to survey compositions, or preview your arrangement with an Artist’s Viewcatcher.

Play with shadows.

Take lots of photos.

Move objects out of the frame, and rearrange the remaining things in the viewfinder. Take more photos. 

Zoom in on just one or two of the items in your arrangement, and snap photos of parts of that item with artful cropping.

Put something back into your shot, and remove something else. Take aerial views, ground-up views, horizontal views and diagonal views with your camera.

the beginning of a still life linocut with linoleum and markers
Move with your camera all around your still life set up and look for interesting shapes, shadows and compositions to get ideas for your print
a rectangle of linoleum on a table with a black marker nearby
A sheet of fresh linoleum, sanded and cleaned, on a length of well-used non-skid, ready for a drawing with permanent marker
Here is a video demo of the set up, and carving space on my small studio desk. There are also tips on cutting into the linoleum. Have a look….

Experiment with Linocut Idea Images

Once you’ve selected image candidates to make into a linocut, consider using editing software to translate the photos to black and white. 

Looking at your reference photos in monochrome will help you visualize them as single color, black and white linocuts.

You can also crop the photos to get more interesting compositions, or overlay parts in a composite of multiple photos. (Example: Put a window in the background behind your still life that didn’t have a window in the shot, etc.)

From one arrangement of items pulled from your house, you might end up with 25 linocut ideas, as well as sketching and painting fodder if you enjoy other media too.

a sketch of possible still life arrangements showing variety with the same four objects
Playing with the arrangement of sliced apples, a wine glass and a bud vase… After you set up your still life objects, play with arrangements through the viewfinder of your camera. Maybe even test your arrangements with some simple little shape-sketches like these tiny thumbnail sketches.

Sorting Your Linocut Ideas

The photos snapped for the linocut at the top of this post have been used over and over, in other media. Take a look at this watercolor, and this pen and ink study, and this monotype, for example. One photo session with your phone could result in a goldmine of linocut and painting ideas.

If the objects collected for your linocut still life arrangement are significant to you in some way, or they follow a theme, they’ll be even more fun to carve or paint.

Take for example an all white item grouping (eggs in a white bowl). Perhaps an arrangement of themed items, like binoculars, a folded map and sunglasses.

Or gardening clippers, and a seed packet with a glass of lemonade or a piece of fruit.

You could assemble all the same objects – like spools of thread – artfully arranged in a stack.

How about a selection of daisy flower heads on a sheet of paper, in the sun, so the petals cast shadows?

Or a variety of leaves arranged in a heart pattern, etc.

Example video: have a look at this clever linocut of cameras by printmaker Hannah Forward.

Whatever you decide, have so much fun with it!

a linocut of a craggy old pine tree, printed on a dark blue background and a white crescent moon
Linocut can be very flexible: make stand alone shapes like this tree silhouette, and print it alone on a variety of backgrounds, or overlapped in a repeated pattern to create a forest.

Gather Your Linocut Supplies

To begin a linocut, gather your reference materials; a drawing, a photo or a still life – or a clear view of a landscape or interior scene from life. Cut a sheet of linoleum to the size you need, get a permanent marker, some fine grit sandpaper and your carving tools

It’s also helpful to have some non-skid shelf liner to rest the linoleum on. Perhaps you can even acquire a bench hook, so your hands are never bracing the block, and getting in the path of the blade while you’re carving.

A plywood bench hook, also known as an S-brace
This is my wooden bench hook, made by a friend as a mother’s day gift many years ago. You can make one too.

Prepare Your Linoleum Block

Before starting, use some fine-grit sandpaper wrapped over a block, and lightly sand the uppermost surface of the linoleum block. Sanding removes any bumps or blemishes, as well as the sealer used by the manufacturer keep the material from drying out.

Sketch your drawing with a permanent marker, or transfer it with acrylic varnish from a print-out from your computer. (Do you know how to do that? If not, let me know in the comments and I’ll explain.)

linocut ideas for still life prints
An unmounted sheet of battleship gray linoleum in the process of becoming a linocut. Carving all but the drawing.

Drawing the Design for Your Linocut

Using permanent marker, draw your linocut design on the sheet of linoleum, thinking before you apply each line about black and white.

You’ll be carving everything from the linoleum material  EXCEPT your drawing, so use your marker to draw the dark parts of your reference image.

Leave the brightest, white parts alone, since you’ll carve those away, which will result in white paper showing through on your print.

carving a linocut of a man in front of a stag on the couch on a lap desk
Carving a small linocut – removing all material, except for the drawing.

Linocut Planning

Look at your reference photo in advance, and ponder which parts should be drawn (printable), and which parts should be left out (carved away to show the white of your paper), etc.

If you’re adding any words to your print, be sure to lay the lettering out backwards because the text (and your entire image) will print in reverse.

If you’ve never made a linocut print before, choose a relatively simple design so you can get the feel for both cutting and printing. And give yourself permission to mess up; everything new takes a little practice.

linocut printmaking and rolling ink out on the carved block
Using a rubber brayer to roll printmaking ink onto my carved linoleum block

Rolling Out Ink for a Linocut

Rolling ink on the block (above). And speaking of rolling ink, there is a great video tutorial on McClain’s website for inking a block in a blended gradient with printmaking inks.

I love their tip of using tape as a guide to keep the roller aligned with the block. If you have any tips to share about inking, or block registration, please leave them in the comments at the bottom of this post!

printing a black and white linocut
After a trip through the press, pulling the linocut off the print
a black and white linocut of a still life with wine, apples and a rose next to the carved block it was printed from
The print on the left and the inked block on the right; this was printed in an edition of 30.
This is a video demonstration of a four color reduction linocut, printed without a press, with non toxic inks.

Printmaking Inks that will Re-Wet

If you plan to add other media to your print after it dries – especially wet media like watercolors or acrylics, be sure to select an ink that dries permanently.

Many water-based inks in art supply stores re-wet when you attempt to paint them, which leads to a big mess of muddy colors and lost details in the print.

Do your research to find inks you can paint on, and be sure you’re printing on a paper heavy enough to handle additional wet media without buckling, warping, or bleeding through.

Be sure to read the fine print on your inks if you plan to add wet media: Speedball water soluble inks will re-wet.

Are you Going to Make a Linocut?

I hope you decide to dive into this wonderful printmaking method, and your adventures are fruitful and fun.

For a little more inspiration, here is a link to a Pinterest board I’ve curated – all devoted to linocut and woodcut – for your linocut idea harvesting.

If you have any questions about the particulars of linocut process, leave a note in the comments. You might find other readers of this blog will reply and help too. We all get better at art together. ๐Ÿ™‚

Thanks for stopping by, and I’ll see you in the next post!

Belinda

a framed linocut of sliced apples on a plate next to a bud vase with a rose in it, and a glass of white wine, on a striped table cloth
Viognier and Apples framed and ready to adorn a wall

P.S. Here is a cool article about Wayne Thiebaud’s self-curated exhibit at SFMOMA

P.P.S. If you’d like each new post over here to magically arrive in your inbox, you can sign up for a subscription (free) here.

Here is the first video (below) in a playlist of linocut relief print videos to help you get started with this versatile, fun form of printmaking!

Step by Step Demonstration on a two-color Reduction Linocut Print

Art Quote

I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.

Looking I mean not just standing around, but standing around
As though with your arms open.

Mary Oliver
Click the kitty to visit this free online mini course – Six Tips to Paint More
a woman in profile, wrapped in a jeweled cape, printed as a linocut, and hand colored with watercolor and colored pencil
A woman in profile, wrapped in a jeweled cape, printed as a linocut, and hand colored with watercolor and colored pencil

11 thoughts on “Linocut Ideas for Beginner Printmakers”

  1. Hi there, Kim! Thanks for the feedback, and I hope you really DO pull out your carving tools! But then again, you’re on fire with your beautiful watercolors, so maybe that’s the bestest road for you this season!

  2. Hi Belinda. I’ve been teaching myself (and have watched some of your youtube videos – very helpful, thank you.) My issue is that I can’t draw. I’m heavily dependent on photographs and struggle a bit simplifying an image for the linocut. Any suggestions? Thank you.

    1. Hi Anna, Thanks for the feedback! I’m glad the video tutorials are helpful to you! On your reference photos, have you tried making xerox copies of them in black and white, slightly “posterized” to remove details?

  3. Hello there Belinda. I really enjoyed you first video (I think) on linocut printing (How to make a Linocut for Beginners: Set Up Tips). I am just getting started with linocut printing. In your blog above you mention “making a transfer with acrylic varnish from a print-out from a home computer”. I’d love it if you could explain your process! Thanh you for all your help!

    dAle woOd

    1. Hi Dale, Thanks for the compliments. And welcome to linocut printmaking! You’re going to have a blast! To transfer a photo to your block, print an image (black and white) that will fit the block. Paint an even, thin coat of liquitex gloss medium on the block, and while it’s wet, lay the photo printout face down on the wet surface of your block. Press all air bubbles out and then weight the paper to the linoleum with a stack of books using a layer of tin foil or something to keep the medium from leaching through the paper onto your books. block at the bottom, face up, coated with medium, then photo face down, then tin foil, and then heavy books. Leave it for 24 hours or so, till the medium dries completely. Remove books and foil, and use a kitchen sponge to wet the back of your printout paper – being careful to *not* get any moisture on the burlap back of your linoleum. It shrinks and will curl the plate. Once the paper print out has been moistened, start rolling the paper away by rubbing your fingertips against the verso. All the paper will clear from the block, leaving just the printout ink. ๐Ÿ‘๐Ÿผ

  4. Hi Belinda, when you print, it looks like you put the paper down first and then the block down on top? Why do you do that instead of the reverse, which is more common? I put the inked plate down, then the paper and a thin piece of plexi (akua brand) on top. I also register the paper. How do you register your prints?

    1. The plate was super soft e-z cut rubber and the cylinder on the press put an impression on the surface as it rolled through, leaving a skip in the impression. I had to cut a stabilizing jig from mat board and sandwich the plate face down inside it to get a clean print. Normally, I print face up too. ๐Ÿ™‚

Write something.... pretend we're neighbors, and weโ€™re painting watercolors together in the garden....