Relief print by Elizabeth Catlett

4th Newsletter - Relief Printmaking

Linocut above is by Elizabeth Catlett. Sharecropper, 1952


I thought I’d use this newsletter to start talking about printmaking (my favorite medium) & highlight some art kits since the holidays are coming up & we’re always looking for creative gifts, at least I know I am! As opposed to a painting, where there’s just one, you can make many prints of the same design relatively quickly. There are several types of printmaking, many of which you can do at home. We have relief, letterpress, silkscreen, collagraph, chine-collé, lithograph, etching, risograph & more! I'll focus on relief today. 



Sometimes called block printing. “Block printing” usually means you’re printing on textiles, but could be paper. Linocut, woodcut, rubber stamps, even potato prints are types of relief printmaking.

You are carving away the areas you DO NOT want to print & leaving the areas untouched that you DO want to print. Short, explanatory video from the Museum of Modern Art.


Relief print of a black & white snake & red tools

Simon Vaeth



Letterpress is a type of relief printmaking, but different enough to deserve its own heading. Here’s a video. This is what’s called, “setting type”, but you can add images or print one large block. You need a press for this one, so you can’t do it at home.


Letterpress print of large overlapping letterforms

Hatch Show Print

But here’s one you CAN do at home!


I’d start with a rubber material called Speedy Carve because it’s softer & easier to carve. You could also go straight into linoleum. They sell linoleum for this purpose, mounted on wood or not mounted. You can also use old linoleum flooring you might have in your basement, as long as it hasn’t gotten brittle. It’s a natural material, so doesn’t last forever. If you’re doing this with little kids, you can try styrofoam & a pencil instead of carving tools.

Materials (I provide everything in the relief printing kit)

  • Substrate/Matrix/block: the linoleum
  • Carving tools/linoleum cutters: The blades come in different sizes & are called gouges.
  • Bench hook: Not absolutely necessary, but is a good safety purchase. I have an optional one that doubles as an inking plate in my kit.
  • Inking plate: Metal or glass works, anything really smooth & non-porous. Could be a tabletop if you’re okay rolling ink onto it.
  • Brayer: The rubber ones from Speedball are great. 4” is a common size.
  • Ink: I recommend water-based to start out, but you might eventually want oil-based water-miscible inks. I also usually use an ink retarder to slow the drying time because I am a slow worker & the Chicago winters are dry.
  • Baren: You use it to press down on your paper to transfer the ink from the block to the paper. You can buy one or use a metal or wooden spoon.

I’m going to talk about a 1-color print here, but more is definitely possible. Start by thinking about your design. If two shapes touch, will you need to carve a space between them so it’s not a big blob? Cut your paper to the same size as your block. Don’t make your lines too skinny, it will make it difficult to carve. I often have first -time high school students go over their lines with a Sharpie, just to make sure they’re thick enough. You can also draw directly onto the block, just be aware that it will print backwards!


Collection of relief prints that are all basically the same: of a potted plant in 3 colors

The final prints

 This was a 3-color reduction print, but we're just going to focus on one color.


Transferring your design

Go over your lines with a soft pencil or press hard with a regular pencil so it will transfer to the block. Lay the paper on top of the block. It’s helpful to rub the back of your paper with your baren or spoon. Make sure your paper does not move as you transfer, otherwise, you will get a double image. It will be backwards on your block, but right-reading once you print. This matters a lot for text!


image links to video of me transferring my charcoal drawing of a plant to the Speedy Carve block.


Video of me transferring my drawing to a Speedy Carve block. I used a charcoal pencil just because I wanted to try it, but it's not necessary. (Instagram)


Carving your design

Use your linoleum cutters to carve out the WHITE areas of your design. Leave everything that is in pencil. It can be helpful to use your #1 V-gouge to create an outline & then use a larger gouge to carve the rest. I kind of like it when you can see the cut lines, so I pay attention to how I’m carving. Too clean looks weird to me ;).


Photo that links to a video of carving the Speedy Carve block


Video of me carving the block (Instagram)


Getting your ink ready

Start with a dime-size amount of ink, add a small amount of ink retarder if using. Roll it out, using your brayer, onto your inking plate. Roll vertically & horizontally, but don’t drag the brayer, you don’t want your ink to look scaly. Small, uniform beads that sound sticky are good. Roll it onto the carved block.


Photo that links to a short video of rolling out ink for a relief print


Short time-lapse of rolling out ink (Instagram)


Printing your design
Lay the printmaking paper on top of the block. Press with your baren or wooden spoon. Make sure your paper doesn’t move!
Lift a corner to see how you’re doing. Don’t leave, the ink can dry during the transfer if you take too long.


Photo that links to a video of Printing a relief block


(Instagram). This was a 3-color print, so this is the printing of the 1st layer which is all we're talking about right now!


Practice, practice, practice!

Check out my relief printing kit & the DIY fabric stamping kit. Both have everything you need to get started. 
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