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Twiddlin’ Thumbs, Bloody Fingers – A Look at Lino

I think it’s fair to say an unprecedented number of people in this country are twiddlin’ their thumbs at an unnatural frequency and speed, and as we know, the devil makes work of idle hands, and twiddlin’ is idlin’, don’t forget! So, as an unqualified exorcist I am going to help you, yes you, smite the devil and kick him out of your life at this strange, strange time!

Before you do anything else, you first have to stop twiddlin’ your thumbs, they will only get tired if you keep doing it, and for what I’ve been doing, and what you might choose to do, one has got to have fresh and frisky thumbs, not tired and achy ones! This is because lino printing, yes, lino printing, is somewhat dangerous and can often lead to injuries of the hand if one is not paying proper attention or one has fatigued phalanges! Do you HEAR me?! TAKE CARE!

Lino printing, like pastels and collage, is one of the many techniques I was taught at school but ended up hating without much reason. These last few months I have been revisiting these personally relegated art forms in the hope of taking a positive new view. It has worked with pastels, I haven’t yet tried collage, and, yer know what, it’s worked for lino printing!

Lino printing, or linocut,  began when some old fella back in 18-whatever didn’t have anything to do and got caught looking at a puddle of linseed oil.  He must’ve been really bored because when he was looking at it he keenly observed that when linseed oil oxidises it produces a strong dry film. This led the fella to venture forth and develop a process whereby he purposefully heated puddles of linseed oil into thin layers of rubbery film which he then, being an absolutely merciless capitalist looking to destroy the woodblock printing industry, pressed onto pieces of rough jute which helped hold together these wonder sheets. This fella, knowing how much artists lick their lips at a cheap, cheap bargain presented his handy new product to folks straining under the price of blocks of apple wood, and in one fell stroke not only did he do over the tradition of ukiyo-e woodblook printing, he also changed kitchen floors forever. Just kidding about ukiyo-e, but no doubt, this is a fine example of creative destruction within a capitalist system.

Lino printing is a form of relief printing which means the artist (you) cuts in to the plate (the lino) where you don’t want the ink to go. This can be confusing because you are working in opposites, but you get used to it quite quickly. Making a lino print is quite easy, all you need is a gung ho go get em’ attitude (not really), a piece of lino, some lino cutting tools, printing ink, and an ink roller. With all these things in your possession, and an image in mind, you can cut into the lino (where you don’t want the ink to go).

There are two main types of lino to choose from, the original OG which looks like an unappealing grey slab of hard rubber, and the second which is the newer, softer, creamy gold kind. From working in the shop it is clear most people go for the softer version, but don’t write the original off, it has its advantages. The original is certainly tough, and you do need strength to use it, but with a little bit of a warm up on a radiator or a sit in the sun (depending on time of year) the slab will slightly soften. This type of lino allows for finer detailing, crisp edges, and more texturing. As it is so tough you are less likely to slide into another patch of lino you didn’t want to cut out. However, there is one key detraction which is that you are more likely to slide off the lino and into your hand. I have only ever hurt myself using this tough lino, but that doesn’t mean I haven’t used it since! I’m a risk taker! It’s better to burn out than fade away, baby! 

The softer lino is much easier to use, especially for children who might struggle with cutting into the grey kind. This lino lends itself well to smooth curved lines, and you can easily glide through it. However, it is very easy to accidentally glide too far and cut into a bit you didn’t want to take out. But then again, you are less llikely to take out a bit of your finger.

To cut into your lino you need a cutting tool. This is normally a plastic or wooden handle which will hold a variety of different blades. Differently shaped linocut blades produce different types of cut in the lino – broad, thin, deep, shallow, pointed, rounded. A basic set will have about four different sizes, and will definitely have you covered, but there are many more if you feel like carrying on. 

The great thing about lino printing is that whilst you’ve only cut out one image you can make hundreds, and rather than all being the same, it is surprising how different each print can be. With each new colour used the image changes, and so it does too when you over ink or under ink the lino. The paper you choose to print on is also important, when it is smooth you’ll get a truer, more even print, whilst a textured paper offers an unreliable but perhaps, more charming result.  I have recently been printing on a variety of different papers, including pastel papers, khadi papers, and Japanese papers. I have especially enjoyed printing on Japanese papers like Atsu Kuchi and Tosa Washi which have a wonderful warmth, softness, and delicacy. And as anyone who knows me knows, I am a delicate fellow. The paper I love using the most is a Nepalese paper (the name of which I can’t presently remember) which is pearly and translucent, and when printed on creates a rather ghostly image. 

A note on printing methods: 

Some people like printing whilst standing up or when sitting on a chair and using their hands to apply pressure. I think they are wrong! I suggest getting a hard piece of board, putting it on the floor, putting your paper down, then your inked lino, then sitting on top of it, and wiggling around. There is nothing better for applying even pressure to your precisely carved lino and artisanally crafted piece of Himalayan lokta bark paper than your own body weight engaged through a firm gluteus maximus (bum).

I hope you have found this to be both mildly informative and humorous. Just so you know, the inks I’ve been using are Schminke water-soluble relief inks which come in range of strong colours. Anyway, that’s me for today, I hope this has tickled your fancy, and that maybe you’ll put your twiddlin’ thumbs to use. If you do decide to take up lino, just remember, you cut away what you don’t want to appear, you gotta look out for yer fingers, and it will all come out as a reverse image, so if you’re including writing, don’t be an idiot like me, and make sure that you reverse the letters beforehand!

By Ned Elliott