What is a Linocut?

Let’s start with the basics. Linocut printmaking is an artistic process. Specifically, a linocut is a type of relief print. The artist first carves an image into a block of linoleum, then ink is rolled onto the uncut surface of the block and, finally, paper is laid on top of the block and pressure is applied to produce a print. It’s also known as a lino print or linoleum block print.

Carving a BATTLESHIP GRAY LINOLEUM BLOCK

Carving a BATTLESHIP GRAY LINOLEUM BLOCK

Nowadays, practitioners buy pieces of linoleum made specifically for art. One of the most common types of art linoleum is called battleship gray linoleum. It’s about an 1/8th” thick and has a burlap backing. Linoleum is different than wood in that it’s a little softer and doesn’t have grain. It’s not to be confused with softer, easier to carve rubber blocks.

History of Linocut

Your most common association of linoleum might be as a type of flooring or perhaps you were introduced to the art form in middle or high-school. Linoleum was invented as a floor material in the mid-1800’s. However, artists in Austria and Germany started using it as an artistic medium around the turn of the 20th century. By the 1920’s, books were starting to be written about the virtues of linoleum as a relief printing material. Some of the early books in English that I’ve tracked down in research, include:

  • Lino-cuts: a hand-book of linoleum-cut colour printing by Claude Flight (1927)

  • Colour block print making from linoleum blocks by Hesketh Hubbard (1927)

  • Essentials of linoleum-block printing by Ralph W. Polk (1927)

  • How to make linoleum blocks by Curtis Sprague (1928)

  • Linoleum block printing by Ernest W. Watson (1929)

The best history of the linocut I’ve found so far is a wonderfully detailed account by Andrea Tietze, titled, “The linocut in history and in the art of the modern age.” It’s found in Linoleum: history, design, architecture, 1882-2000 by Ostfildern-Ruit: Hatje Cantz (2000).

Having been around for over 100 years, the art of linocut has evolved and been embraced by a wide variety of artists around the world. It has a particularly illustrious history in England. The list of famous artists who contributed to the art form in its first 50-60 years is long, but here are a few names to start with: Edward Bawden, Pablo Picasso, Sybil Andrews, Claude Flight, Frances Gearhart, Cyril Power, Lill Tschudi, just to name a few.

Part of my mission with this project is to explore the rich history of linocut and bring to light some of its forgotten artists, methods and artwork. I also want to play with and push back against the ideas that linoleum is just for students and amateurs, that it's subordinate to the woodcut, and that it's "easily mastered." These are sentiments sometimes found in the historical literature of the art form.