Linocut Ideas for Beginner Printmakers

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 is fun, and I’m always delighted to bring it full circle, to re-introduce the process to an adult who hasn’t carved a block in a few decades. All you need are a few art supplies, and a linocut idea for an image you’d like to print in multiples.

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

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.

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.

(What you don’t see in my composition is the clutter [dinner dishes] that was all around this still life arrangement, but that won’t matter in yours either, if you use artful cropping.) 🎯

Linocut Reference Photo Ideas

Once you have your still life objects, pull out your phone or a camera, and 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 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.

a monotype of a vintage scene featuring an elderly woman with a brownie camera on a tripod, trying to focus on two little girls
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

Experiment with Linocut Idea Images

Once you’ve downloaded the images, while reviewing them on a larger monitor, 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, etc.)

From one arrangement of items pulled from around the 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.

Sorting Your Linocut Ideas

The series of photos I 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 sunny afternoon session with a few colorful objects and your iphone camera could result in a whole pile of new art. Especially if the objects collected for your linocut still life arrangement are significant to you in some way, or they follow a theme.

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 a shadow?

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!

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, a sheet of linoleum, a permanent marker, some fine grit sandpaper and carving tools.  It’s also helpful to have some non-skid shelf liner to rest the linoleum on, and perhaps even 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.

Prepare Your Linoleum Block

Before starting, use some fine-grit sandpaper and lightly sand the uppermost surface of the linoleum block to remove any bumps, blemishes, and the sealer they use to 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 if 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.

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 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 plate (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.

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 permanent.

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 and 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 even 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 the process, leave a note in the comments. I reply to all comments, and 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

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

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

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

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
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