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Linocut printing for a bright future

In which the author explains his reasoning for exploring analog methods of distributing information with ink and linoleum, and provides a guide on how to do so yourself if so inclined

I have made my income using computers for my entire adult life. Designing graphics, writing code, and making websites. I think a lot about what would happen if our world suddenly shifted (for any variety of reasons) and we lost our easy access to computers or the internet.

Put bluntly; when the apocalypse comes, will I be good for anything?

One could make the argument that I have gotten good practice organizing teams of people to accomplish things. Whether that thing is a website or a new well for the village doesn’t really matter.

Most endeavors require making lists, planning, organizing, convincing stakeholders, and building consensus. Those things will be handy whether computers exist or not. (Right?)

Through some combination of Red Dead Redemption and this decade’s resurged interest in hand-painted lettering a thought struck me: signs. No matter what happens in our world, we will almost definitely need signage. “Rice/corn traders 1 mile”, “farmer’s market Saturday”, “don’t go over there that guy is crazy”, “Moonshine for sale”, “museum of the fall of mankind” or whatever.

As a result I’ve been experimenting with different methods of distributing information with analog methods. The easiest and most common is graffiti. People have been writing what they think (more often, their names) on walls in New York for a long time. A phrase written large enough in the right spot in the city can be seen by thousands of people in a day, no electricity required.

The same way some people stock up on rice and beans and ammo I’ve been stocking up on linoleum, ink, and chisels.

Linocut printing is a really interesting medium to me as a means for the easy distribution of information and imagery. It has a long history of successful usage. Descending from a long lineage of woodblock printing used by a range of printers from medieval monks illustrating their bibles to Japanese artisans depicting elaborate samurais and mountain views. The desired image is painstakingly carved into wood– in reverse. Ink is applied, covering only the uncarved parts of the wood. Paper is laid on top and gently rubbed, absorbing the shape of the image.

The advent of linoleum- a robust material that is much easier to carve than wood- results in better curves, more detail, and quicker carving.

I grew up in a house filled with posters from Bread & Puppet. The aesthetic is also prevalent in the patches or pins I would get at the anarchist book fair. Everything is a little squared off and angular, proportions are sometimes a little off to aid with carving. They are always simple, with a lot of contrast. They are often icons, very clear-cut and identifiable. The medium requires that you boil things down until you are only left with the necessary.

Unlike a drawing, you can make as many copies as you have ink, paper, and patience. This is a powerful technology.

In a world different but very similar to ours I can imagine that our networks have been broken and we are left to fend for ourselves, city by city and town by town. I have a lot of faith in my neighbors. I have seen people stand up and do amazing things, thankless anonymous generosity when the city needs to come together. I grew up listening to these stories about Manhattan on 9/11. I was older and understood better when reading news reports about the aftermath of Sandy, when individuals in the city were left to fend for themselves. And I saw it myself, in brief spurts, in Occupy encampments in Oakland and New York, where food and medic tents were always available.

“Medic”, “Water here”, we always need signs is what I’m saying.

Making a linocut

Creating your image

The easiest method I have found for creating an image that you want to print by hand is to start the drawing on tracing paper. It is cheap, plentiful, and to iterate you can lay one sheet over the other. You can rearrange things slightly until everything is proportioned to your liking. (You can also use a projector to project the image onto your tracing paper or the reversed image directly onto the linoleum)

The design for the 30th anniversary print, created in Illustrator for easy iteration and reversing

Once I am happy with the design I retrace over the outlines pressing hard with a soft pencil. When the tracing paper is flipped and laid on top of the linoleum you can see the reversed design. The pencil side is touching the block, so you can carefully rub on your outlines. This leaves an imprint of the lines and you hope that enough pencil residue is left that you can properly trace them.

Each of these steps is a little “lossy” as they say, every re-tracing of your form simplifies and alters it slightly. I see this is a net benefit, a gift of the medium. Embrace the fact you have 3-4 chances to alter things slightly– just so– to suit your vision.

Once I have retraced in pencil, I will make any adjustments (I can still erase at this point!) looking at it for a while. Once I can’t look at it anymore I’ll start going over my lines with a thick sharpie. Thin sharpies can lead you to create thin intricate designs that might not actually be accomplishable for a beginner.

Carving

I fill in all of my shapes so that I can disconnect my mind and follow a simple rule. If it’s the color of the linoleum: carve. If it’s a color: don’t carve.

Speaking of disconnecting one’s mind, this is arguably the best part of the whole process. In creative work, I find the most rewarding parts are when I can get into a state of flow. Carving out linoleum is the cheapest and quickest way to reliably achieve that feeling of flow, at least for me.

You focus on very mechanical and physical things; the placement of your fingers, the angle of the linoleum, the millimeter between your blade and the line it’s supposed to be following. These thoughts fill your head, leaving little room for the anxieties that regularly occupy your mind.

By the way, the carving process takes a while. On a recent 11 x 18 poster-sized project, I forgot exactly how long and ended up carving from noon to 10pm on day one, and 10am to 6pm on day two. That is not very long to create an object that can be used to distribute information in huge quantities without electricity but it’s not a short amount of time either.

The carving stage, starting with smaller blades and working up to wider scoops for big areas. Ideally carving in the same direction maintains consistency and looks better, but it isn’t always possible.

This leads one to think very deeply and carefully about the things that deserve being committed to linoleum. If it took two days to carve out your 280 characters on twitter it would likely be a very different place. This is another gift of the medium.

The method of distribution is shaping the content. It simplifies it (it is easier to carve one word than two, so it is worth the time to think of that superior word) and it clarifies it- in intent, design, form, and execution. Every step is pushing towards simplicity, whether the creator wants it or not. That is a powerful type of medium that is hard to explain– I hope I am doing it justice.

Modern photographers have explored a similar phenomena with film. In a world where, unlike our grandfathers, we can shoot 10 photos a second in continuous bursts and then sort through them for the best photo later- is there really a “decisive moment”?

Film, on the other hand, has it’s inherent god-given limits. There are 36 shots on this roll. They are in black and white. If you aren’t focused or your settings aren’t right you aren’t going to know about it until later and there isn’t shit you can do about it then. So it pays to think ahead and plan and practice your craft and execute at exactly the right time.

I don’t think that is necessarily a better way to create, but it is undeniably a different way. It produces different work. Creating good work is sometimes simply making things differently than the current fads in lighting or composition or subject. If you had to go to the darkroom every time you wanted to post to instagram, it would be very different (but maybe not better!)

Printing

The process of printing a linocut, once you have assembled your mise en place, is astoundingly easy and efficient. I have also done the field research and the entire process of laying out ink, laying the paper, rubbing it, and slowly unpeeling the print can be conducted by a reasonably intelligent child. I say this as a form of the strongest encouragement to try it yourself.

A few prints on watercolor drying on the clothesline

The linocut I had created- the largest one I’ve done yet– was created for the 30th anniversary of the summer camp owns and runs in New York’s Hudson Valley. I attended my entire childhood and made lifelong friends there. The 30th anniversary seemed like the type of thing that would make the cut (sorry) for committing to a physical form. I also thought it would be cool for people to print their own posters– each one comes out one of a kind (just like us, aw!).

You spread the ink out on a very flat and smooth surface- I bought a speedball device that doubles as a hook for your desk, holding the linoleum close without you having to hold it from slipping (very handy).

I got some color speedball block ink in tubes from the local art store, Bushwick Artist’s Supply, aka the best art store I have ever set foot in. They have everything I could ever want in a manic creative frenzy from clear elmer’s glue to circular watercolor paper to mack brushes and 1-shot lettering enamel.

You put down a big splotch of yellow and big splotch of blue and start rolling them out. It is fun to watch the color blend and everyone who printed their own enjoyed mixing the inks.

Depending on how you load the brayer and lay the ink down you get a different result. Lots of blending of the colors gets a bright forest green. A more relaxed and gentle roller might get discrete sections of yellow and blue that blend while drying and look amazing. It is hard to do wrong.

Because the prints are so easy to make, as long as the paper is relatively inexpensive, I try not to be too precious about each individual poster. If something goes wrong we can easily make another. One person moved their poster around after laying it down and ended up with a final result that looked like a shadow effect of the text which looked awesome. This is a medium that rewards synchronistic “mistakes”.

The best method I found for drying is clothespins and a line. Real printers have cool drying racks and elaborate lever setups for this- but I did all of my printing outdoors and did my best to keep things simple.

I was amazed at the speed with which I could start turning out prints. Arriving with a shoebox containing the ink, the roller, the ink surface, the linocut and some paper I just needed to find a flat surface. It takes about 2 minutes to lay everything out and to put down newspaper for spills. Another 2 minutes to get the ink ready, and you are likely making prints anywhere in the world without electricity in less than 5 minutes.

Plus, it draws a crowd. People seem to have an innate respect for any message that comes from a physical process. Once you explain the carving they look again, tracing the letters with their fingers and imagining the time and work that went into bringing them into existence.

It was a really interesting experience watch children make prints. They would lay down the ink and then together, we would line the paper up, with them carefully pulling things into symmetry. As you rub the paper you can begin to see the shapes of the letters emerge, and I taught them to carefully check and go over any areas that looked like they needed more work.

As they lifted the print up they all smiled. They had a clear sense of making a physical object. They had put the work in and all of their choices and mistakes were reflected in their creation. I really liked that they got that without even needing to carve it. It comes from putting the work into making something exist that didn’t exist before.

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