The Easy Guide to Blockprinting
Block printing is one of the most accessible forms of printmaking. An ancient medium whose use goes back centuries, it is versatile and offers just the right amount of challenge.
The necessary supplies are relatively cheap and don't take up too much room, the learning curve is slight, and once you get the hang of it the possibilities for projects are endless (for both the crafty and fine art minded).
This article will cover everything you need to know to get started: essential materials and their different types, technique and tips for success.
Choosing the Right Block
The first step one needs to take to get started in making block prints is deciding whether to use linoleum blocks or soft, rubber type blocks (often referred to as Speedy-Cut or Safety Kut).
Both will run you about the same in terms of price.
Linoleum blocks are the traditional material of block printing artists. They are quite stiff and hard to cut into but offer a high level of detail and durability/longevity. You will be able to make far more prints, with greater detail, before the block starts to crumble and fall apart. Linoleum blocks are the best choice for professional artists but overall are harder to use if you are just beginning due to the level of control and pressure they require.
Safety Kut blocks are made from an ambiguous rubber-type material, akin to erasers. They are soft and flexible and significantly easier to cut into than linoleum blocks. Safety Kut will hold a decent level of detail but will sometimes tear when too many small cuts are made. It is generally a better choice for a beginner.
Alternative sources for blocks can be pieces of wood, erasers (great for small stamps), pieces of foam and basically anything you can cut into safely.
The next step is understanding the different types of linocutters. Speedball makes a great set with a handle (actually a compartment to hold all the blades) and about six different cutters. Each cutter/blade has a different function.
V Blades are in the shape of a sharp V and are ideal for detail (especially the smallest size), outlines and fine lines. Large V's can be used for cutting out large areas.
U Blades are a wider, U-shaped cutter that work best for cutting large spaces.
The Knife blade is a specialty blade that is used for cutting outlines and creating a "stop line" to avoid cutting outside the border. This keeps the lines fresh and clean.
Speedball also makes a line of hook-shaped safety blades called Linozips. These are operated by pulling rather than pushing and reduce the risk of slippage and accidents. They are perfect for the beginner, kids or anyone who feels a little out of control using a regular blade.
Tips for Successful Cutting
Once you have your block and cutting tools, you are ready to go. Bonus: some essential tips to make it easier on yourself!
- Always use sharp blades. This is probably the most helpful bit of advice, especially if you are using linoleum blocks. Sharp blades make cutting easier, faster and safer.
- Use a bench hook. This will keep your block in place so you don't have to hold it with your other hand. It can also double as an ink plate.
- Use graphite paper to transfer your image (if you drew out a template on paper first). Remember that whatever you draw on the block will be printed in reverse!
- If you are using linoleum blocks, heat them with an iron before use. This will soften the linoleum and make it easier to cut. Just make sure you put a piece of scrap cloth in between the iron and block.
- Go slow. If your hand slips, it isn't the end of the world but it can be frustrating if you make an unintentional mark. Focus on every cut you make and be conscious of the pressure, it will make control a lot easier.
Choosing the Right Ink
Before the time comes to print, it is necessary to choose which ink is best suited for your needs.
Generally speaking there are two different types of ink: oil and water based.
Water based inks offer the easiest clean up (soap and water) and dry very quickly. They are the most convenient to use.
Oil based ink dries slowly but offers better tack, making cleaner prints and giving you more prints per coat.
For small blocks and stamps you can always use an ink pad for the fastest, most-user friendly application.
Time to Print
To make a print using your block, you will need three things: an ink plate, a brayer and a baren.
Ink Plates are any flat surface you use to roll out your ink. Speedball makes a bench hook/ink plate combo tool, but you can also use any flat sheet of glass or smooth plastic. Using re-purposed materials is a great way to save money (I use a piece of glass from a broken picture frame).
Brayers are rubber rollers attached to a handle and can be soft or hard rubber, or foam. They are used to apply the ink evenly to the block.
To coat the brayer, squirt a line of ink (I usually do a line slightly longer than the length of the brayer) along the top of the ink plate. Roll the brayer over the ink, drawing it down along the plate and coating the entirety of the brayer.
Work the ink into a thin rectangle with a good amount of tack, and apply evenly over the face of the block. Figuring out the right amount of ink to use may take some time, so use cheap paper to do tests before making a final print.
To make the print, lay the paper over the block and use a baren (a rounded, flat surface with a handle) to burnish the paper and achieve an even print. If you don't have a baren, using a spoon or your fingers is adequate for smaller prints. Peel back and set aside to dry!
Ideas for Blockprinting
Learning how to do blockprinting allows for a wealth of projects. Here are some to get excited about:
- Design a personalized letterhead and stamp on nice paper to make your own stationary
- Fabric design: Using screenprinting ink or fabric paint and print on fabric. Make your own placemats, curtains, picnic blankets, pillows etc.
- Handmade cards
- Create a small block with your name and website/phone number and print on business card sized cardstock - handmade business cards
- Cut down Safety Kut to small sizes using an Xacto knife and make tiny stamps
- Try doing a series of larger block prints as you would a series of drawings or paintings
Blockprinting is a rewarding skill that one can pick up in an afternoon. So get going.