Why Linoleum?

There are a few materials that have been traditionally used for coating with ink and pulling prints by hand. The most common, linoleum and wood, have no intrinsic quality that makes them suitable for inking and pressing paper onto to make a print. Any flat surface will do, in fact there are many other mediums (steel plates, copper, even potatoes!) that are used one way or another for making prints.

Two types of linoleum, mounted and unmounted

I’ve never cut wood to make a print. In the 1850s-1860s, referred to now as the “Golden Age” of illustration, woodcuts and steel engravings were the main methods of reproducing images. The most common wood used was from the Boxwood tree, a fine-grained hard wood. Since wood has grain, which can be a problem for cutting fine lines, engravers would use a piece of end-grain wood so they were always cutting across the grain. Boxwood trees did not grow large, so the largest square piece of end-grain wood may have been 4”x4”, only large enough for a small drawing.

When a larger drawing was needed, they would often screw together four pieces of Boxwood, the artist would make the drawing directly on the wood blocks (often painted white to mimic the appearance of paper for the artist’s convenience) then the pieces would be disassembled and given to four engravers to actually cut the wood. They would then be reassembled to make a master metal printing plate through an electroplating process.

This division of labor for the purposes of speedy production was not unlike the modern practice in comic books of dividing the work between a penciler and an inker!

Today, artists can still buy wood specially made for woodcuts. However, the days of having an endgrain piece of wood are long gone; the wood available for artists these days has to be cut with extra care because when cutting with the grain, it’s easy for the wood to splinter.

This is not to say that it can’t be done! However, I took a liking to cutting linoleum when we learned it in high school art class. I’ve come back to it from time to time and always liked the feel of a good sharp gouge sliding through the lino. Other than the relative hardness between wood and lino, of course the main difference is that lino has no grain. Cutting in any direction is exactly the same!

I do think about experimenting with woodcut someday. It’s not impossible but I’m pretty happy with the challenges of cutting linoleum for now.

If you’d like to comment on this or any of my posts, you can email me at dickens@mooneyart.com

Author: mooney2021

I am a commercial artist and illustrator from New York and now retired. I'm also a longtime Charles Dickens fan and I've embarked on a project to illustrate his great BLEAK HOUSE.

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