Introduction: Color Linoleum Print Using Multiple Blocks

Relief printing isn't limited to black-and-white. Some of the world's most renowned relief images are printed in glorious color, and with a little effort and creativity, you too can be making your own color prints.

There are several ways to make color relief prints. Today, we'll look at the multi-block method. This approach requires the most material, but the advantage is that you can make as many prints as you want, whenever you want.

Today's example depicts the Church of San Francisco de Asis in Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico.

Step 1: Materials

Here's what you need to get started. You can find these tools at your local artist's supply store or online:

  • Linoleum cutter and blades
  • Artist's linoleum
  • Block printing ink
  • Brayer
  • Paper

Helpful hints:

  • Speedball produces a nice linoleum cutter kit that includes a handle and several interchangeable blades. The blades vary in size and produce different types of cuts, from fine, delicate cuts ideal for detail, to broader, shovel-like ones better suited to carving out larger areas of material.
  • Artist's linoleum is available in a variety of grades, from very soft, eraser-like textures to firmer surfaces. If you're just starting out, use the softer grade. If you'd like to create more detailed images, use a firmer texture.
  • The consistency of block printing ink is similar to butter. A whole spectrum of colors is available nowadays, but if you want to be economical I recommend getting just the three primary colors (red, yellow, blue), black, and white, and mixing different colors yourself. I'd also suggest getting water-soluble ink, as this is easier to clean.
  • Brayer: This is what you use to roll out your ink. To minimize mess I put my ink on my piece of Plexiglas.
  • Paper: You can use all kinds of paper for printing, but you'll want something strong enough to handle the pressure of your hand rubbing over it.

Step 2: Optional Materials

Tracing paper and transfer paper aren't necessary, but can be helpful when getting your designs onto the linoleum block.

Step 3: Create Your Design

  • To use the multi-block printing method, you're going to carve a separate block for EACH color you want to use. The example we're looking at here requires three linoleum blocks: one for the blue sky, one for the tan church, and one for the brown shadows. If you're new to multi-block printing, try not to use too many colors at first.
  • Once you have broken down your design into the colors you want to use, transfer the outline for each color onto a block. If you don't want to eyeball your work, insert a sheet of transfer paper between the linoleum block and design, then trace over the design with a pen or pencil. This will transfer an exact replica of your initial design onto the linoleum. Repeat this step for each color. See the photograph above to see the different color blocks used for this particular print.
  • When making your design, have it facing in the opposite direction from how you'd like it to appear in the final print, as the image will get reversed during the printing process. This is where tracing paper becomes helpful, as you'll be able to flip the image easily.

Step 4: Carve Your Blocks

  • Using your linoleum cutter, carve out the negative spaces on each block. For each block, you're only going to carve away the areas that you don't want to have printed a certain color. To take our three-color example, for the blue sky block, we're only carving out the sections that we don't want to appear blue. For the tan block, we're only carving out the areas that we don't want to appear tan, and for the brown block, we're only carving away the areas that we don't want to appear brown. See the photograph of the three blocks as examples.
  • When carving, apply mild to moderate pressure to move the blade forward and through the linoleum. Be sure to carve away from your body at all times. Linoleum blades are very sharp, and you don't want to accidentally cut yourself.
  • When carving out large areas, try overlapping your cuts to ensure that you've carved out the area thoroughly.

Step 5: Ink Your Blocks

  • Using a spatula, stirring stick, spoon, or similar tool, take a scoop of your printing ink and apply it to a smooth, flat surface. I like to use Plexiglas because it makes for an easy clean-up afterwards. The photographs here were taken from a different print I made, but they illustrate the same principle.
  • If you're mixing your own colors, stir them together on the Plexiglas plate with a spatula, stirring stick, or similar tool. Remember the following color schemes:
    • red + yellow = orange
    • yellow + blue = green
    • blue + red = purple
    • blue + red + yellow = brown (shade will vary according to how much of each color you put in. For a warmer brown use more red or yellow. For a cooler brown use more blue).
  • Take your brayer and roll it over the ink. Push the ink in different directions until you've flatted it into a thin, leathery surface, and have covered the roller in an even layer of ink.
  • Take your coated brayer and roll it over the block until you've covered the entire surface in ink. Reload the brayer with ink as needed.
  • For multi-color blocks, I recommend mixing and printing your colors one at a time. Water-based inks dry quickly, so it's easier to keep track of one block instead of several at once. If necessary, spritz your printing ink with water if it starts to dry out.

Step 6: Print Your Blocks

  • Lay a piece of paper over the block. Rub the paper by hand to transfer the image. Repeat this step for each of your blocks on the same sheet of paper, until you printed all of them.
  • Since you'll be printing multiple blocks on the same sheet of paper, you'll want to make sure that each block is placed in the exact same area on your paper, otherwise the print will look messy. This alignment is called registration. To help ensure registration, take a pencil and draw around one of the corners of the first printing block. When you print subsequent blocks, you can line them up with the corner you traced to make sure they all are printed in the same place. As you print your blocks, the outline of the block shape will also leave an impression on the paper, which can help you guide your blocks into the same spot.
  • You can use either damp or dry paper for printing. Dry paper usually involves more rubbing and ink for a successful printing.
  • If you don't want to use your hands, you can also set the block on the floor, stand on it, and rub the paper with your feet. If you try this, make sure you're wearing socks, otherwise your feet might stick to the paper.
  • If you're printing multiples, or an edition, I recommend printing your edition one color at a time rather than making an entire print all at once. That way you only need to mix one color per printing session, and your ink has time to dry between printings.

Step 7: Finish Your Print

Once you've printed all your colors, feel free to make any touch-ups using a small brush or similar tool to clean up the image.

Now you have made a color print! With a little practice, you will be making your own editions in no time. And with the multiple block method, you can always go back and reprint any images you want in the future.

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Bio: I am an art historian working in the wild and wondrous world of museums. When not curating exhibits or researching collections, I enjoy making and ... More »
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