An introduction to: Relief Printmaking

Drawing is a means of translating your observations and ideas into meaningful marks - it is raw and immediate and as children we draw before we can write. While drawing can be an end in itself, it is often a beginning and as you draw more you might start wondering how to take your drawings further, making images that go beyond the practical exercises of life and portrait studies. While painting is a common port of call newly fledged artists often shy away from printmaking because they don’t understand what it is, so in this new blog series we’ll be digging into the mysteries of print to reveal the treasure trove of potential in this vast genre of image-making.

Each Sunday over the next few weeks we’ll be looking at three families of printmaking: Relief, Planographic and Intaglio. As printmaking tutor Scarlett Rebecca begins her new Printmaking from Home course next week (there are two places left – email ([email protected]) for details!) we’ll begin with Relief.

Main Image: 'Once We Were Fish and We Will Be Again II' by Scarlett Rebecca (2 block linocut using caustic etch, 2019)

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So let’s begin with a definition - what is printmaking?

Printmaking is the activity of making prints and a printmaker is somebody who engages in printmaking. In these articles we’ll be focusing on fine art printmaking, rather than commercial processes, but it’s worth noting that many artists work with a professional studio to produce their prints, as this video of Paula Rego at the Curwen press illustrates.

Printmaking is the transference of ink from a matrix to form an impression. Most dictionary definitions fail to fully encompass the variety of processes in the many families of print - while printmaking often involves a press, there are many forms of hand-printing and while it often involves the reproduction of an image there are many monoprint processes that create unique outcomes.


So what is Relief printmaking?

Relief printmaking is the print process in which raised areas of a block are inked – the block can be created reductively by carving away non-image areas, or additively by building up a surface. To ‘pull’ a print (to make a print), you typically place paper on top of the inked surface and then pass it through a press under medium pressure or burnish it by hand to transfer the ink to the paper, creating a printed image which is the reverse of the image on the block. Relief printmaking can be traced back as far as 500-220 BCE in Egypt and China.

A jigsaw linocut being printed

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How about the different types of relief printmaking?

Within the family of 'Relief' there are several different sub-categories of printing:

Linocut is relief technique where a sheet of linoleum is carved into and then ink is rolled on to the surface of the block. Lino is soft and relatively easy to carve with little resistance. Traditional hessian backed lino is a composite of linseed oil, pine resin, cork and sawdust, and is available in varying thicknesses and toughness. Vinyl and rubber lino are also produced for easier carving.

Mirror Mirror by Wuon-Gean Ho (Linocut)


Etched lino is a development of linocut in which a caustic soda solution is used in combination with acid resists to corrode the surface of the lino to create more characteristically organic and less predictable marks.

Blackfriars Flare by Steve Edwards (Etched Lino)


Woodcut is a relief technique using a block of wood where non-image areas are carved out using gouges and chisels, along the grain of the wood. Tougher and more durable than linocut woodcut often integrates the woodgrain of the block in to the image making.

Man’s Head in Woman’s Hair by Edvard Munch (Jigsaw woodcut, 1896)


Wood Engraving is a relief technique that utilises the hard end grain of the wood. Very fine lines are incised into the wood using very sharp tools called burins. It is similar to metal engraving but except that the raised surface of the block is inked, rather than the engraved lines.

Woodland Outside Florence by Eric Ravilious (Wood engraving, 1925)


Collagraph is a technique used in both intaglio and relief printing. A block is created using a combination of found materials of varying thicknesses and textures which are glued to the block and sealed. When it is printed in relief the highest areas that come in to contact with the roller will hold ink and print.

Figures in a Landscape by Charles Shearer (Relief printed collograph, 2004) 


Letterpress is a relief technique in which movable type is inked and printed in combination with carved blocks in a press. Letterpress prints are recognizable for their embossed characteristics.

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Printing on a press

Platen Presses are the most common type of press used for relief printing, ranging from huge Albion presses (middle) to presses originally intended for book binding, like the nipping press (left). Etching presses can also be used for relief printmaking (right).


Relief printing at home

Great results can be achieved printing relief prints at home using a baren, or the back of a wooden spoon. This huge linocut by Jamie Temple was printed by hand using a baren.

Red Horizons by Jamie Temple


So, to sum up - relief is for life, not just for Christmas (cards)

Relief is often the very first form of printmaking we engage with – when you make a potato print as a child you are making a relief print, cutting away to make the image and printing from its raised surface (this is one of the few times when use of a platen press will be detrimental to the outcome of the print). While many of us might make a linocut Christmas cards each Christmas, this barely scratches the surface of what is possible with relief and shouldn’t restrict our ideas of what is possible with a medium of such vast potential. 

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This blog post was written by Jake Spicer using technical notes by Scarlett Rebecca. It is part of an ongoing series exploring printmaking for the Draw Patreon learning resources . Our 4 week Printmaking at Home: Relief course will be running from the 9th November-5th December, open to all abilities – you can find out more here or sign up to the Draw newsletter here for details next years repeat.

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By becoming a patron, you'll instantly unlock access to 282 exclusive posts
6,239
Images
2
Links
8
Writings
90
Videos