Dead Celebrities of 2016: First successful linocut

Last week I completed a linocut block of Merle Haggard, and pulled some terrible prints from it (see previous post). Panic began to creep into my heart as I realized I had no idea what to do! Thankfully printmaker Julianna Kirwin is a kind and generous soul. We had a brief lesson yesterday at her Mountain Road studio where I learned a number of things and had a ball with breyer, paper and press.

Julianna’s process involves drawing in her sketchbook–see her work in progress above–and then building the drawing in cut paper. This transition, from sketchbook to cutting, allows her to shift elements around in the composition, and anticipates her use of the same thinking later in the process, as she shifts shaped lino blocks above printed spaces. Great idea! Also, the paper-cutting technique seems to mesh well with the way she cuts blocks–directly, boldly, clearly.

When the drawing feels right, Julianna uses tracing paper to latch onto the bones of the drawing. She may end up cutting up the traced drawing, as she did in “Joy Harjo,” above, to play with the composition. After reinforcing the traced lines with a drawing pencil, she flips the trace over onto a lino plate, and then re-traces the image, thus transferring the drawing onto the plate. 

I learned that Caligo Safe Wash inks are far superior to the student-grade Speedball ink I’d bought for my failed attempts to pull prints. They’re oil-based, but clean up with soap and water, and most importantly, they don’t dry out in 15 minutes here in the high desert. 

I learned that my rolling technique wasn’t so bad, actually–rolling with a calm, even pressure, and picking up just a dot of ink before rolling it across the inking surface long enough to coat the whole breyer (middle right, above). It’s a matter of embodied feel, as so many things in visual art production are, but I learned that we’re looking for an even texture on the breyer (far right, above), giving it a velvety sheen and a texture like that of Formica itself. 

I learned that when inking the block (left, above), that same calm, even pressure used to ink the breyer is absolutely necessary. I ran the breyer over every square inch of the block 3-4 times, mindful of the problems under-inking caused in my handprinting experience. 

The biggest learning came in using Julianna’s venerable and tricksy Dick Blick press. Press prints are better! We printed on Stonehenge paper, and had some problems: because the block is so thick (1” or so), the press “doinks” the paper right when the roller hits it. This caused a jump on the bottom of one print, and a kind of shifting on the next, where small details like Merle’s beard hairs got obscured. So we switched to rice paper–and that solved that! Much better.

We made two prints before I had to wrap it up. There are some small problems with under-inking in the lower left corner, but also so really crisp details on even, deep blacks. Great!

Cleanup required some focused, but not obsessive work with Julianna’s orange-based cleaner–not available on Amazon as it turns out. We’ll see if Amazon’s substitute for this stuff works as well. 

I can’t wait to make more prints! I huge Namaste and Thank You to Julianna for helping me break through some anxiety about the feasibility of the Dead Celebrity project currently underway with my sister, Lee. 

Julianna recommends Linocut Boy, an English artist/teacher/illustrator, for excellent advice on the medium. 

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