Reduction Block Linoleum Prints
by Mary Mark

The story about the images that you see on these pages is actually not a particularly technical one. It is, however, quite detailed and it demonstrates an obsession with pattern, composition, color, stylized perspective developed in the context of reduction block linoleum prints. In the beginning is research. Magazines, books on flower arranging. textile designs, border designs, library books, books purchased at half price. Friends and relatives give me their old magazines and catalogues. I sometimes take photos in their homes if some of their possessions strike me as interesting, painted vases, a textile design, or a patio arrangement. I piece together a whole image from idea elements, pulling parts from this advertisement or that display, focusing on the same design theme. The latest edition "Eggplants First" corresponds to my current theme of living spaces with landscapes beyond the window, beyond the patio railing or whatever. I like these asymmetrical compositions with fore ground still life elements played off against receding landscapes emphasized by color contrasts suggesting action past the paper's edge both front and back.

With a solid image idea in my head, I incorporate the collected elements, in whatever form I have them, together into a file folder. I begin with a drawing on a stretched and primed 30" X 40" canvas with prismacolor sticks; in a rough sketch I fill in the general areas with bold colors of oil pastel, an oil paint based crayon, and give it a day or two to set up on the canvas and age and mature in my head. Then I'll work the nuances of the image on the surface with a variety of pastels and paintsticks building up texture and color variations. When completed, I take some photos which go into the same file folder. I make many oil pastel drawings in just this fashion; I sell them as originals and have a significant market for them. But only occasionally do I create one that I find satisfactory to translate into a block print. When I do, I am ready to start the print.

Somerset Satin 100% rag is the printing paper; it is a high quality acid free paper. An outline, map, or cartoon of the original drawing on the identical scale as the future print is done on translucent paper with a permanent marker. Printmaking is a reverse and negative process; the paper is translucent so that I can turn it over to it transfer to the block. It will be turned over again by the printing process. The transfer is accomplished by tracing the image on the gray linoleum through white carbon paper.

Your kitchen floor is not linoleum. It is some variation on the theme of plastic. Linoleum is the stuff that floors were made of early in this century, composed of pressed cork and linseed with a burlap backing. It was used extensively on the floors of battleships and took the name "battleship gray". It is softer and less restrictive than wood. Artists have carved wood to make multiples since the first books, wallpapers, and textiles were designed. But linoleum, a cast off of the military industrial complex, was very cheap and without wood grain to fight. Printmakers began using it. Picasso, always one to try new things, particularly relished its carvability.

Picasso also utilized the reduction process. The traditional method for multiple color printmaking was to carve multiple blocks, each to carry one color separation to the final print. With these many blocks and the possibility of errors in registering each block to the others in creating the final image, this was much too much carving for Picasso. He simply carved a single block multiple times with his printers printing the whole edition a different color between each carving. I was lucky enough to view some of his 5 color reduction process prints at the museum here in Cincinnati and was inspired to attempt it myself.

Once the image is carbonized on to the linoleum, I carve only where I want the white of the paper to show through the first color. I roll out a palette of oil based, printers relief ink with a hand roll up roller, which looks like a rubberized rolling pin only with a larger circumference. I roll ink on the raised surface of the block., the surface not carved, and is place it on the bed of my etching press. A standard etching press design is a solid steel bed between two rollers with a crank at the end of the bottom roller which pushes the bed back and forth. My studio assistant and I place the first paper on the lino block according to preassigned registration marks on both the block and each page of the print edition. Each copy of the edition will be printed on the block once for each color in the final print. The number of colors varies with my prints but there are always at least 12 and so far as many as 18 colors. The placement of each page each time through the edition is extremely tedious and very critical to the final results. Newsprint and a felt blanket go on top the paper and the block, and it is hand cranked through the press. Once through the press that page is placed on a shelf to dry and I do the whole inking, paper placement and cranking routine again 59 more times. About 3 hours and a sore back later, I have finished the first color pass and I can clean up the lino with solvent. The edition now has its first color on it, each copy is basically a solid color with some areas of white (the color of the paper) showing. Now I start over using the cartoon drawing as a guide I carve more of the block away in preparation for the next color. It usually takes 2 to 4 hours to carve the block and a day or so for the prints to dry. and then I can print again

Fundamental to the artistic challenge of this process is not only the development of the image in stages through the carving and printing process but also the color sequencing plan. All colors in the printing process are somewhat transparent and will show through and alter the previous color. I generally print light colors first moving to darker intensities to minimize this effect, but I will also back track to take advantage of a particular characteristic of a color. The file folder tends to have many scribbles, notes, lists of colors in groupings on the outside as I work through the sequence and the image develops. occasionally will print the first page of a new color and discover that the result color is not what I intended or the image is not developed to my liking. I may go back and change the color, or I may carve away more of the linoleum. That one print will become an A/P (an Artist/Proof) as a result, but once I proceed there is no going back: what is carved cannot be replaced. This process is sometimes called a "suicide cut" as a result.

Why do I go through all of this? Insanity? Maybe. Probably, but I do love the build up of pigment , the feel of the paper which gets embossed after so many manipulations, the detail, the kind of line that an inked lino makes on the paper. I see the textured surface in my dreams. I fuss and fret over the composition for days and days. Once into the 4th or 5th printing, the image begins to take shape and at about color #10 I cannot wait for it to be done. I worry about just how much to carve away. Then I hate it and tell everyone who will listen what a disaster this particular print is. I always finish them, however, and even after 25 editions, I have had some failures and some sell outs. I keep an archive of each image so I can revisit them.

Finally I like the process. It is indirect; it requires the manipulation of an intermediary object, the block, in order to get to the final result, it is unforgiving; it requires strategic planning; and it requires a thorough concentration in steps over an extended period of time.