The best advice I was given, when embarking upon my first ever lino block design, was from esteemed printmaker Cameron Short of Bonfield Printmakers. I had seen Cameron's exquisite work in a magazine and had a gut response that this was what I wanted to do. His craftmanship is on another level entirely, but he was happy to help me; a complete beginner. After I managed to get in touch we had a long phone call about the joy of getting back to making things by hand. It was everything I needed to hear at the time.
Various lino blocks by Susie Hetherington
Cameron set me off with some advice about the materials to use, but the overriding message was just one of encouragement. He made it sound pretty simple and intuitive... a learning process that would almost take care of itself. It was a relief to hear I didn't need to know exactly how to make each cut, and what each tool would do. I realised pretty quickly, that lino is a medium you just learn by going for it. People cut differently. You learn what works for you. Somehow, block printing can be as unique as drawing; one person's approach and results will be different from the next. Precision (or lack of), expression, design... it all comes from within us, and lino is just the delivery mechanism. Lino doesn't suit everyone, but it is addictive to others. Giving it a go is the only way to find out whether it works for you.
My first ever block was in repeat. Perhaps that was a bit ambitious for someone who had never carved before, but it demonstrates how pattern was the original driving force behind me picking up a gauge. I drew a blackbird amongst wild Hyacinths in our front garden; the long stems leading off the bottom of the block to join the top. I was already thinking in terms of fabric. But, fast forward some years and lots of learning later, my advice to others is to keep it simple to start with. If you love pattern then a simple step repeat doesn't necessarily have to join. The best advice is probably just to start with a one off, stand alone print rather than a repeat pattern. Advice I would have ignored!
Printing my first ever lino block. I was heavily pregnant at the time and stood on the block for better pressure!
I now occasionally teach lino printing workshops, and I have seen some excellent results from complete beginners. I have distilled some of what I teach into a step by step guide to anyone who would like to give it a go.
Results from complete beginners on one of my workshops.
- If working from a photograph, pick something with a big contrast between light and dark. Your first design is best as one colour, so you need to think what areas are inked and what is not. Looking at simple examples of lino printing online will help you get your head round it. You can either cut away the background and print the detail, or the other way round; cut the detail out of a printed background. The demo I show here uses both scenarios, and in fact they work well together.
- Try something simple first!
- Easy carve/soft lino is sometimes easiest for beginners. It is available in a number of places in a variety of colours; just buy a little pack and have a play. Sometimes the lighter coloured lino makes it easier to see your design and imagine the contrast as you carve, but grey lino creates a good contrast when cut. There are pros and cons to all so just give any a go.
- Tools can be pricey, but to start with you really don't need more than one or two. A simple V shaped gauge is my most used tool, closely followed by something U shaped. Starter sets with one handle and multiple, interchangeable blades can be good to start with, but they won't be as sharp as singly purchased Japanese tools.
- You will need a small roller (an Essdee roller is perfect) which you can get online or from nearly all art shops. One tube of ink will do, and I recommend something water based to start with so that it is easy to wash up with just soap and water. I tend to print in black and think about colour later.
- Inking up with a roller requires a smooth, wipeable surface. I use an old glass fridge shelf, as it is easy to take to the sink to wash.
- Any paper will do but you will see the surface you print on has an effect on the results. A smooth, thinner paper is probably best.
- You can draw your design to paper and trace onto the block, or you can draw straight onto it. I often use a Sharpie pen, and colour in all the bits I want inked.
- The most important thing is you need to THINK IN REVERSE. If it matters which way your print faces, you need the block to be the opposite way. You can achieve this by flipping the image you draw from, or using tracing paper to transfer onto your block. But maybe start with something that doesn't need a specific direction (e.g. a flower motif, or a bird that can face either way, rather than complex typography!).
A demonstration from my step-by-step beginners guide to lino printing that you can download as a PDF by following the links below
The best way to show how to do a simple block print, step-by-step, has been to show you in photos. So I have prepared a couple of downloadable guides: one about transferring your design to your block and the more important one, how to carve and print.
However, I am controversially going to suggest you can ignore all my advice and just dive in! I am not one for following instructions, or cooking from recipes much. It takes some of the fun away. So don't be afraid of just making a start and trying things out.