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Linoleum/relief printmaking can be a great project to include in your curriculum. I found my high school classes usually enjoyed relief printmaking and for students who enjoy processes, it can be especially rewarding. There are a lot of high-level thinking skills involved for students. For teachers, relief printmaking requires a lot of prep, materials, and workspace considerations.
What material is best for relief printmaking? For younger students, you might use styrofoam trays that meat is packaged in. For older students, the most popular type of relief printing is lino or linoleum printing. Linoleum can be bought in rolls, pre-cut packs, etc. You can mount them or not. There are also options similar to linoleum like rubber blocks. The advantage of the rubber blocks is that they are easier for students to carve. The downside is blocks are more costly. Because of the linoleum’s hardness, you can get more fine details. Linoleum is the most environmental option as linoleum breaks down completely. The alternative rubber blocks are PVC, a synthetic polymer, or plastic.
Warm linoleum for easier cutting. I always keep an old iron or two in my art room, often bought at a yard sale. I set up an area for ironing their blocks to aid in the carving process. Believe it or not, you do need to review how to iron with students, including leaving the iron upright after finishing. A hairdryer is another option and something I also keep around my art room. And lastly, if it’s winter, you can lay them on a heating vent or even sit on top of the block to use your body heat to warm the linoleum.
Don’t buy more linoleum than you need. Linoleum hardens with age and can become dry and brittle so don’t buy more than what your students will use in a given school year. If you inherit an art room with a supply of hard linoleum, try heating the linoleum to see if it can come back to life. You can also try to soften them with linseed oil. Rub a small amount of linseed oil into it and let sit, even overnight, and repeat if needed. If they are too old, you can monoprint with them or use them as mats for cutting on top of them with an Exacto knife.
The linoleum will print the image in reverse. Linoleum printing prints mirror images to the block. It can be confusing, especially if text is involved. A good way to show students this concept is by printing a stamp with a word on it (can be bought or made for this purpose).
When students develop their sketches they can use carbon paper or transfer paper to trace the image onto the block if it doesn’t matter that it will print in reverse. If there is a word in the design or they simply which to see the sketch printed in the orientation they sketched, they can flip the paper over onto the linoleum and shade over the lines. This pushes the pencil onto the linoleum lightly. Another way is to flip the paper over and use a light table to trace the image onto the back. Then use transfer paper to transfer the image onto the block.
Bandaids! Teach students to never carve with their hand in the path of the blade to prevent injuries. Teach students to use the bench hook to help hold their block down. Inevitably, students will learn the hard way and there will be some accidents. Keep bandaids on hand for minor injuries. Giving the nurse a heads up is never a bad thing. As students are carving, I will walk around and periodically say, “Check your carving position. If you slipped with your tool, would you injure yourself? If so, correct your position.”
Safety Tip. In addition to reminding students to care away from their bodies, a tip I saw recently was to buy cut-resistant food gloves. These are metal mesh gloves that protect people, typically in the kitchen, from cutting themselves. Having right-handed students use their left hand will help students stay safe while carving linoleum.
Press or no press? Linoleum prints can be made by using a press or by hand printing, typically using a baren. A baren is a smooth disc-shaped object, normally with a handle that you grip onto, which can be used for hand printing. If you have a press, go for it. If not, there are many who prefer hand printing. You can use a purchased baren OR make a homemade baren from wood drawer knobs, details here. A simple wooden spoon works well also or even a clean roller.
You can set up a printing station if you have room or provide each table with all the materials needed for printing and let a table group share.
Mistake? Fixing mistakes in a linocut can be tricky. You cannot go back and reverse the cuts that you have made, but there are some other options. Some mistakes can be corrected by cutting out the area and gluing a new piece in. See that demonstrated.
Save ink and create a rubbing to troubleshoot. Often we do a test print to see what a block print looks like when printed and then go back and make refinements. You can instead use a graphite stick and create a “proof” of your block print. See that demonstrated.
Water-based inks for the win! I think most teachers agree that water-based inks are the most practical choice for the art room. Being able to clean up with water makes it simple and healthier for all compared to solvents needed for oil-based inks. I’ve used Speedball in the past for my inks.
Keep baby wipes on hand. After printing, wipe any excess ink off of the plate with a baby wipe. If the blocks aren’t mounted, cleaning in a sink will hasten the linoleum disintegration. Clean gently by wiping excess ink with baby wipes for the longevity of the block.
Recommended Books. I suggest these two books for your collection. Linocut for Artists and Designers by Nick Morely and Block Print Magic: The Essential Guide to Designing, Carving, and Taking Your Artwork Further with Relief Printing by Emily Louise Howard
Explore Variations. I generally ask students to create a black and white print, a colored print, and a two-color print (by printing a solid uncut piece of linoleum fist and then printing their cut linoleum in a second contrasting color). Other possibilities include a print on a colored sheet of paper, a gradient print, printing twice with the second print being offset, adding color by hand, and masking off areas for two-color prints. etc. You can also print on fabric, I recommend Speedball Fabric Block Printing Ink.