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Linocut Ideas for Beginner Printmakers

linocut still life of sliced apples, a rose and a glass of white wine on a striped plate and table cloth

Viognier & Apples 6.5 x 4.5 Linocut

Linocut Ideas for Beginners

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

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

Using a wooden baren, with a foam core and masking tape registration jig to make a reduction linocut.

Simple Tools, Particular Sequences

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 print subjects you can carve from an unmounted sheet of traditional gray linoleum. Read on…..

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

Gather Your Block Print 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 at the top of this post 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 bright 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. See the finished print in my Etsy Shop.

Still Life Linocut Ideas

What you don’t see in my composition for the finished 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. Don’t clean the house. Just arrange your props, and start taking photos.

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.

Linocut Reference Photos

In the photo above, the reference image for a linocut is in the viewfinder of my cell phone.

If I snapped that photo, and printed it to draw an artful linocut design on a block, you’d never know about the clutter that surrounded my original subject.

A vinyl-coated wire closet shelf and a pack of wooden clothes pins works great as a print hanging rack to dry ink.

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 (or use gift wrap paper underneath a still life), and snap photos with your phone.

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

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 photo shoot are in the results. The red roses against a window were photographed from different angles backlit by 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.

Viognier & Apples 6.5 x 4.5 Linocut with Watercolor (available here)
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:

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.

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 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 setup, 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.

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, this pen and ink study, and this monotype, for examples. 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 an all-white item grouping (eggs in a white bowl), or 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!

Linocut can be very flexible: make stand-alone shapes like this tree silhouette, print it alone on a variety of backgrounds, or overlap them 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.

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 to keep the material from drying out.

If you’re on Facebook, take a look at this post by Dick Blick on the variety of linoleum they carry, and some of the characteristics of each type.

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.)

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 a permanent marker, draw your linocut design on the sheet of linoleum, while keeping black-and-white design elements in mind.

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, without any drawn lines on the linoleum. You’ll carve those away, which will result in the white paper showing through on your print.

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. Sometimes, it’s helpful to increase the contrast in your reference photo with photo imaging software, and print it in black and white.

If you’re adding any words to your print, be sure to lay the lettering out backward 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.

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!

After a trip through the press, pulling the linocut off the print
The print on the left and the inked block on the right; this linocut was printed in an edition of 30.
This is a video demonstration of a four-color reduction linocut, printed without a press, with nontoxic 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. 🙂

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

Belinda

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