Reduction Linocut Prints

Reduction prints use the same lino block to print all of the colors in an image. Interestingly, though I have read that Picasso invented this technique in the 1950's (see Karshan's book, Picasso Linocuts 1958-1963), this myth has been debunked. Check out Alisa Bunbury's conference paper, "Not Picasso's invention - a foray into the history of reductive linoprinting" for the fascinating history of the process. I also wrote a blog post that includes a video of Picasso's reduction linocut method.

Two-Color Reduction Linocut

Two-Color Reduction Linocut

The process starts with carving a design into a new lino block and printing the first color on each sheet of paper in the edition. Then the printmaker carves more of the same block away and proceeds to print the second color. The process of carving and printing continues for each additional color until the final layer is printed. Typically, one prints from lightest to darkest color. After completion of the print, another edition can never be made because the block has been carved away during the creation process. In the camping print pictured above, I printed the amber color first, followed by the black layer.

Here are a few other examples of reduction prints: Last Run and Uke.

Two-Layer Reduction Print

Two-Layer Reduction Print

10-Step Reduction Printing Process

Start on my process of making a linocut page if you want the basics of making lino prints.

  1. Lay out the design, backwards.
  2. Carve the linoleum (or wood) block.
  3. Decide on your edition size. Make enough because you can’t make more later.
  4. Print it with ink.
  5. Carve more of the same block away.
  6. No turning back now.
  7. Print another color, usually darker.
  8. Continue the process for each layer of color.
  9. If you make a mistake, think of a workaround or start over. 
  10. Looking good? All done? Awesome. You now have your final, and only, edition.

Of course, this tutorial lays out a straightforward one-block reduction print. It's also possible to reduce two blocks for one print or combine this technique with others to produce a wide range of work.

How to Deal with Linocut Mistakes

Since you're using the same linoleum block for all the layers in the print when using the reduction method, dealing with mistakes is just something you have to face. Maybe you can tweak the image and work around the mistake. Or, in the worst case, you might have to call it quits and start over - it happens sometimes. But, before you toss that block across the room, here my two preferred ways of dealing with mistakes.

Glue a piece of lino into the area you accidentally carved

Let's face it, it's not uncommon for your hand to slip and accidentally carve an area you hadn't intended. Ideally, you will find the exact piece that you carved out and can glue it back into place. In lieu of that, though, you can get a scrap linoleum block and carve out a similarly shaped piece and glue it in. 

Sizing up the new piece of linoleum to glue into place.

Sizing up the new piece of linoleum to glue into place.

I've had the best luck with clear super glue. Surround the area around the repair with tape to protect it from any glue that might accidentally get on it. Put a drop or two of glue on a piece of a paper and dab a toothpick in it. Put a little glue on the block where you're making the repair and then some on the scrap you're putting into the hole. Then press the piece firmly in, wipe away any excess glue, cover it with a small piece of wax paper (to prevent anything else from sticking to the repair) and weigh it down with some heavy books. Let it sit until it's dry and then sand the repaired area with fine sand paper. Leave the tape on while you're sanding to protect the surrounding areas of the block.

Carve a second linoleum block to print over a mistake or fix a compositional issue

Yosemite Waterfall Linoleum Print

Every once in a while, particularly as your layers in a reduction print start to add up, you wish you hadn't carved out a particular area so soon. Just because a print started off as a reduction, doesn't mean you can't get a second block and throw that into the mix.

This happened to me on print I did of a waterfall in Yosemite National Park. Take a look at the trees and water towards the bottom. When I started on the third layer I realized I wanted to add some depth to the image so I got a second block and overprinted the trees and water with a light gray layer. Then I continued with my original block, carved its third layer, and finished the print.

Check out my linocut techniques, tools and supplies page for details about designing, carving and printing a lino block.