Over recent years I’ve experimented with both traditional artist’s lino and various vinyl substitutes – so here are my thoughts and I’d be interested to hear what other printmakers think about the different products out there.
The product most new linocut printmakers will first come across is likely to be the traditional grey lino blocks.
These can be found in most local art and craft supply shops, sold in various sizes from very small up to A3 or (rarely) A2. The lino blocks have a hessian backing. You can also buy lino blocks with a wood backing. I don’t have a use for these and have never tried them.
Every beginner should start with traditional lino. It’s easy to use, much softer to carve than wood, and readily available. You can make it even softer and easier to carve by heating your block on the radiator or putting it under a hot water bottle for a few minutes.
I have found its advantages are:-
- Easy to draw the image on the surface
- Works well with both water-based and oil-based inks (though some printmakers “degrease” their blocks first)
- Easy to cut into smaller pieces
Some disadvantages of traditional lino are:-
- It dries out with age. Old pieces of lino can still be carved, and old printing blocks can still be used after several years, but their performance is compromised.
- The hessian backing often frays, gets ink on it, and makes an unexpected and annoying appearance round the borders of your printed image. This is a minor matter, though, and easily dealt with.
- Though lino is washable, the hessian backing does suffer when the block has been washed many times, and blocks can start to curve.
Professional artists often buy lino in rolls and cut their own sizes. Again, as lino deteriorates slowly over time, you need to be confident of working through your roll reasonably quickly to do this.
Readers may remember using brown lino at school. I’ve seen this for sale now and again. I’m a bit suspicious of it. I think it’s a budget option, and the brown lino at school was pretty hard.
Vinyl lino substitutes
Several lino substitutes have come on the market. I have tried Japanese Vinyl, SoftCut and Easy Cut. I now prefer SoftCut and Easy Cut to using traditional lino. Easy Cut and Japanese Vinyl can also be carved on both sides, though I don’t think this is usually practical – but it might be useful for experiments.
You may have seen this product in art shops. It is an ivory colour, and clearly a slab of some kind of rubbery plastic. If you’ve been used to using lino, the technique needed is slightly different. The first time I used SoftCut, I didn’t like it – but I did like the results. However, once I got used to changing my technique, I discovered I preferred SoftCut (and Easy Cut) to traditional lino.
- Easier to carve than lino, so it’s less tiring and you have more control. I also think fine lines print better from vinyl rather than lino.
- Keeps forever, doesn’t get damaged by washing. You can use a carved block to make prints for many years, it seems.
- Very flat and stays flat. Easy to trim with scissors or a scalpel.
- Should you have some method or need to print onto something curved, you can with this bendy material.
- It doesn’t seem to come in very large sizes or a roll. A3 is the largest size I’ve seen readily available.
- Some water-based inks don’t cover the surface of the block very well. This is a major disadvantage, so it’s best to try a small piece of Softcut first with your favoured water-based ink to make sure this won’t happen. It’s never been enough of a problem for me to bother to find out if there is a way to make the shiny vinyl less repellent of certain water-based inks/colours.
- A different carving technique is required compared to the granular structure of traditional lino. Each cut needs to be finished in a very definite way, or the blade will stay snickered in the stretchy rubber and the gouged material won’t detach. It doesn’t take long to get used to this.
Easy Cut (or Blue Polymer Extra Soft Lino Printing Sheet as it seems to be sometimes called) is available at several outlets. I get it direct from a company called Artway, who may well be the wholesaler supplying other outlets. It is bright blue and even softer to cut than SoftCut.
- Very soft and easy to cut – like carving butter
- The interior is a lighter colour, so you can see very easily how your design is progressing. This is an advantage over the similar SoftCut.
- Prints very well and the blocks remain very flat. Fine lines work well. The material is robust in storage or when being washed.
- So soft you have to be careful not to take nicks out of it by mistake.
- The largest size available seems to be A2 so, again, you’ll need to return to traditional lino for large pieces.
- As with SoftCut, the material doesn’t respond in quite the same way as lino and needs a slight tweak in carving style.
Japanese Relief Printmaking Vinyl is blue on one side and green on the other. The interior is black, which usefully allows you to see what you’re doing as you carve your design. Personally, I have always found this lino substitute to be very hard to carve the couple of times I’ve used it. It is possibly more of a substitute for woodcut than lino. This difficulty does lead to a difference in result, and the style of prints produced from it. I may give it another go at some point, but am happy to save my wrists for the moment.
OTHER LINO SUBSTITUTES
For fun I tried a transparent lino substitute, also available from Artway. The idea is that it is easier to follow your planned design if you put your design underneath the transparent block. As others seem to have found, the transparent block is tricky to carve. I personally don’t find the transparency useful enough to put up with this, but others may find it worth giving these blocks a go.
Another vinyl lino substitute I’ve seen around are black rubbery blocks. I haven’t used these, so can’t advise on how good they are. I’ll update this if I ever try one out!
First article in this series:-