Get Started with Lino Printing

Lino tools.
Rich Townsend / Getty Images

Lino printing is a form of fine art printmaking where the printing plate is cut into lino. Yes, lino as in linoleum, as in the floor covering. The lino is then inked, a piece of paper placed over it, and then run through a printing press or pressure applied by hand to transfer the ink to the paper. The result, a linocut print. Because it's a smooth surface, the lino itself doesn't add texture to the print.

Linoleum was invented in 1860 by a British rubber manufacturer, Fredrick Walton, looking for a cheaper product. Lino is made from linseed oil and Walton got the idea "by observing the skin produced by oxidized linseed oil that forms on paint." Very basically, linseed oil is heated in thin layers which thicken and become rubbery; this is then pressed onto a mesh of coarse threads to help hold it together in sheets. It didn't take long after the invention of lino for artists to decide it was a cheap and easy material for printmaking. Lacking any art historical tradition, artists were free to use it however they wished, without facing negative criticism.

  • 01 of 10

    When Was Lino First Used for Printmaking?

    Linocut printing

    Marion Boddy-Evans

    The use of lino to create art is "primarily attributed to German Expressionists such as Erich Heckel (1883-1944) and Gabriele Munter (1877-1962)"2. Russian Constructivist artists were using it by 1913, and black-and-white linocuts appeared in the UK in 1912 (attributed to Horace Brodzky). The development of color linocuts was "driven by the influence of Claude Flight (1881-1955)" who taught linocut in London at the Grosvenor School of Modern Art between 1926 and 1930.

    Picasso is known to have produced his first linocuts in 1939 and continued doing so into the early 1960s. Picasso is often credited with inventing reduction linocuts, where a piece of lino is used multiple times in one print, being recut after each color has been printed. But reduction lino "seems to have been in use by small-scale commercial printers for some time before [Picasso] made it his own. It was one such printer of posters who suggested to Picasso that he might find it an easy way of keeping the various colors in registration with one another."

    Matisse also made linocuts. Another artist famous for his linocuts is Namibian John Ndevasia Muafangejo. His prints often contain explanatory words or narratives in English on them.

  • 02 of 10

    Types of Lino for Printing

    Different types of lino for lino printing

     Marion Boddy-Evans

    By itself, lino doesn't look very inspiring. It's like a rubbery bit of cardboard that, if you put your nose to it, smells of linseed oil. Traditional lino comes in a dull grey known as "battleship grey" and a goldish ocher. If cold, it can be tough to cut. Placing it in the sun or near a heater for a while softens it and makes cutting it considerably easier.

    Unsurprisingly, lino that's softer and easier to cut has been developed by art materials companies. You can tell which you've got because traditional lino has a mesh of string on the back, whereas softer-cut lino doesn't. It's worth trying different types of lino to see which you like using the best. Some people prefer the fine control traditional lino gives; other people like softer synthetic lino for the ease of cutting curved lines.

  • 03 of 10

    Tools for Lino Cutting

    Lino cutting tools

     Marion Boddy-Evans.

    The most basic form of lino cutting tool is a plastic handle which can hold any of the various shapes of blade available. If you get serious about lino printing, you may find wooden handles more comfortable to use for extended periods, and consider having multiple handles so you don't have to stop to swap blades.

    Which shape blades you prefer is definitely a matter of personal preference. Each is designed to give a different style of cut, from narrow and deep to broad and shallow. Introductory lino sets usually include a few blades, but if you're buying them separately remember that (with patience) you'll be able to cut away a large area with a narrow blade but not easily make thin cuts with a broad one.

    The most important thing to remember about the tools you use to cut lino is to keep all your fingers behind the blade, to cut away from your other hand not towards it. Think about what the tool is designed to cut, an accidental slip and you could make a nasty gouge in your hand. It's tempting to hold the far edge of the piece of lino as you're cutting, to stop it moving away from you. But what you want to do is to press down on the near edge, behind where you're cutting.

  • 04 of 10

    How to Fit a Blade into a Linocut Tool

    Lino cutting tools

    Marion Boddy-Evans

    Fitting a blade into a linocut handle isn't complicated. You simply unscrew the handle sufficiently to insert the blade, checking the semi-circular hole to see which way up it needs to be. Hold the blade carefully between your fingers a little way in from the end if possible, and be careful you don't slice yourself on a sharp edge. Don't try to shove the blade in the hole. If it doesn't want to fit, unscrew the handle a bit more.

    Do check you have put the correct end of the blade into the hole, not the cutting end. On some blades it's considerably less obvious than others. Then screw the handle tight and it's done.

    Continue to 5 of 10 below.
  • 05 of 10

    Cutting Lino for the First Time

    Cutting lino for printmaking

    Marion Boddy-Evans

    The two crucial things to remember are that you cut away what you don't want to print, and you need to be careful you don't cut your fingers.

    While it's obvious what you cut away on the lino will not be printed and what's left behind is where the ink will be, it's surprisingly easy to forget when you're busy cutting the lino. Because we're used to pushing a pencil across a surface to get the marks we want, and pushing a lino-cutting blade feels very similar.

    Aim to be pushing the blade forward rather than down. You want to cut a groove, not a tunnel all the way through the lino. How deep to cut is rather a Goldilocks moment. Too shallow and it'll fill up with ink that'll then print. Too deep and you risk cutting a hole in the lino (which isn't a total disaster, simply leave it or cover it up with a bit of tape on the back or blob of quick-drying glue). Once you've printed a few, you'll soon get a feel for what's just right.

    Curved lines are easier to cut on soft lino than hard, as are shorter. A little practice and you'll be able to stop and restart the line you're cutting without it being noticeable. As with all art techniques, allow yourself time to see what you can do with the tools and materials.

  • 06 of 10

    Experiment with Mark Making Using Different Linocut Blades

    Markmaking with linocut tools

    Marion Boddy-Evans

    Differently shaped linocut blades obviously produce different types of cut in the lino. Sacrifice a piece of lino to try the various blades, to begin to get a feel for what you can do with each. Try straight lines and curved, short and long, little stabs, jerking the tool sideways as you cut. Close-together lines (hatched) and lines going across one another (cross-hatching).

    Cut away two squares of lino using first a narrow blade, then a wide blade. You'll find the wider blade gets the job done faster, there will also be fewer ridges to clear away between your cuts. Why try both? Well, sometimes you may want a little texture within a cut-out area, and then a narrower blade would be the one to pick. Also experiment with deeper and shallower blades (V and U shapes) to feel how they cut.

    Remember to always use the blade away from yourself. Keep your other hand behind the blade, don't cut towards it. Turn the piece of lino around as you're working so your hand holding it down is always behind your hand with the blade in it.

    Ultimately you'll likely use only two or three favorite shapes of blade. It doesn't matter which you use, pick whichever gets the lino cut where you want it.

  • 07 of 10

    What Lino Print Supplies Do You Need?

    lino printing supplies

     Marion Boddy-Evans

    To make a lino print, you'll need:

    • A few pieces of lino
    • Lino cutting tools
    • Paper
    • Printing ink 
    • Smooth surface for rolling out ink
    • Palette knife
    • A brayer
    • A baren (or anything smooth you can use to apply pressure, such as a wooden spoon or another, clean brayer)
    • Optional: A Printing Press
    • Optional: Drying Rack
    • Optional: If you hands aren't up to cutting lino with a blade, try using a Dremel 

    The Lino-Printing Process: Once you've cut your design into the piece of lino (creating the printing plate), you spread a thin layer of ink evenly across the lino (inking up), lay a sheet of paper over it, and apply pressure to transfer the ink to the paper (printing).

    When it comes to choosing paper, it's worth trying all sorts. If it's too thin it'll buckle, but will remain useful for doing test prints. The Smooth paper gives a more even print, but textured paper can produce intriguing results.

    Printing ink is stickier than paint and benefits from being manipulated with a palette knife or rolled back and forth a bit before you start using it. It's one of those things you learn by doing, to get a feel for the ink. Don't only look at it; listen to the noise it makes under the roller too. You can use oil paint if you're not going to do much printing, but the results aren't as good as with oil-based inks. Acrylic paint will need either a block-printing medium or retarder added to it otherwise you won't have a long enough working time.

    Using a brayer to ink up smoothly, without ripples or lines in the ink, is far easier than using a brush. If you're using a foam roller, watch out for it adding unwanted texture into the ink. Every now and then, scrape up the ink with the palette knife, back to the center.

    If you've got access to a printing press, then definitely use it as it's easier and faster! But it's not essential to have a press as you can get a good lino print with hand pressure. Apply pressure to the back of the paper in smooth, circular movements across the whole area. To check if it's been sufficient, hold down one corner and carefully lift up a corner to see. Again, practice will give you a feel for it.

  • 08 of 10

    Single-Color Lino Prints

    Single color lino cut print

    Marion Boddy-Evans

    The easiest style of lino print is a single-color print. You cut the design once, and print it using one color only. Black is usually used because of its strong contrast to white paper.

    Plan your linocut design on a sheet of paper, or on the block itself, before you start cutting. You can do it with a pencil in a sketchbook, but you may find using white chalk on black paper easier. Remember, what you cut away will be white and what you leave will be black.

    Also, the printed version will be reversed, so if you've any lettering you must cut this out backwards. Or if it's a recognizable scene you'll need to reverse the design on the block so it prints the right way round.

    For your first linocut, aim for strong lines and shapes. Don't get too fussy with detail. A single-color linocut needn't have only outlines, remember to think about negative and positive spaces too. If you accidentally cut a bit you didn't intend to, see if you can rework the design around it. If not, try using superglue to stick the piece back on or fill it in with some putty.

    Continue to 9 of 10 below.
  • 09 of 10

    Reduction Linocuts (Multiple Color Lino Print)

    Reduction linocut printing

    Marion Boddy-Evans

    Reduction linocuts are printed from one piece of lino, cutting it again for each new color in your design. All the prints for an edition have to be printed before you move on to the next color, because once the lino is recut you can't make any more. Depending on how many colors you use, at the end there may be very little of your lino block left uncut.

    The first cut is for any areas in the design to be left white (or the color of the paper), and you print it with color #1. The second cut takes away those areas in the design you want to be color #1 in the final print. You then print color #2 on top of color #1. (Ensure the ink is dry before printing the next color.) The result is a print with white and two colors.

    You can keep going for however many colors you wish, but the more you use, the more carefully you need to plan. One wrong cut, or one forgotten cut, could ruin the design. Add to this the challenges of ensuring each color is correctly registered (aligned) when you print it and I'm sure you'll begin to see why reduction linocut is also known as suicide printing. However, when things do all workout, the results are tremendously satisfying!

    As with anything new, start with a simple design and get a feel for the technique first. Plan your design using layers of tracing paper, one for each color, before you start cutting. (Remember the paper color too.) When you've recut the lino, do a test print on a separate sheet of paper to ensure the cut is how you want it, before printing onto your actual prints.

    Ensuring that the colors are aligned properly takes a little practice, so always print some extra prints to allow for misprints. You can do it by eye, carefully putting the paper down onto the block. More reliable is to make a registration sheet with outlines of where to place the linoblock and where to place the paper. You put the inked lino in place, then carefully align one corner of the paper with your marks and gradually drop it down.

  • 10 of 10

    Art Project: Make a Lino Print

    Lino printing

    Marion Boddy-Evans

    The challenge of this painting project is simple: create a lino print. It can be any subject, any size, any color or combination of colors. The challenge is in tackling the technique, giving something new a try.

    1. The History of Linoleum, by Mary Bellis, Guide to Inventors (accessed 28 November 2009).
    2. The Printmaking Bible, Chronicle Books page 195
    3. The Complete Manual of Relief Printmaking by Rosemary Simmons and Katie Clemson, Dorling Kindersley, London (1988), page 48.