Relief Prints

Considerations in Collecting Woodcuts and Linoleum Prints by Victoria Chick, photo of woodblock print by Eric Gibberd, 1897 – 1972

The categories of printmaking are named in reference to the printing plate and how the ink on the plate is transferred to paper.

The relief print process means the ink is on the raised portion of the plate. The printed design stands out in relief from the non- printed area which is cut away. The most elementary example is a hand stamp. In fine art, most often, the plate is made of wood or linoleum. Names for kinds of prints taken from these types of printing plates include: woodcut, woodblock, wood engraving, linoleum block, and block print. I am going to discuss the simple, one – color process here and save the complicated, reduction print process for another article.

With either linoleum or wood plates, sharp tools are used to cut away portions of the block the artist wants to remain white (unprinted) in the finished print. The approach can range from rough, resulting in an expressive style, to precise, creating a highly detailed result. In terms of collecting, one is not better than the other except that one style might appeal more to the taste of the individual collector.

The plate is inked by working the printing ink, usually a bit stiff, on a glass palette until it warms up and gains uniform smoothness as a hard rubber roller is passed across it. Then, the artist rolls the ink, via the roller, across the printing plate. The ink will stick to the flat, raised surfaces of the printing plate. The cut out portions will be too deep for the roller to leave ink on them.

The next step is to transfer the ink from the plate to paper.

There are two considerations for the artist. One is which kind of paper to use and the other is whether to use a printing press to apply pressure or to use hand pressure to transfer the ink.

A relief print should be uniformly inked and with enough ink to make a richly contrasting print. If the paper is heavy, a printing press is going to do a better job in transferring because more pressure can be exerted. But there are many beautiful, lighter weight papers such as the ones used in oriental printmaking, that require much less pressure. If lighter weight paper is used the pressure from the little finger side of a hand made into a fist and rubbed on the back of paper placed over the inked plate can result in an excellent print. Weight of the paper is of less concern for the collector than that it is made of fibers that are not made of pulp wood which is acidic and will get brittle and discolor with age. Good printmaking paper is acid neutral which means it will last hundreds of years given reasonable care. I have a woodcut printed in 1417 on paper that is still white and flexible. Another characteristic of any relief print is that the plate will not leave an embossed edge in the paper as a result of the pressure used in the printing process. So, you may ask, “How can I tell the difference between a relief print and a reproduction?” Look for the size of the edition and the artist’s signature. Both should be in pencil and the bottom number indicating edition should be low – not over 250 and probably more usual to find it under 100. You also may be able to detect that the ink film is on top of the paper if it is heavy paper or slightly bleeding through if the paper is lightweight, like rice paper. A commercial photographic reproduction will seem like part of the paper itself.

Woodblock printing was the earliest process for printing images and has an interesting history of uses. In certain periods of time and places it has truly flowered. Certainly the 15th and 16th centuries in Germany was a golden age. And, in the early 20th century, the German Expressionists used woodcut frequently as a medium. In the United States, woodcuts and linoleum block prints were particularly done by artists in the Prairie Printmakers and other printmaking groups in the 20th century and they continue to be done by printmakers today. Japan has a centuries-long history of producing woodblock prints. Individual artists in other countries have also done remarkable work with relief printing. So there are many opportunities for finding good prints. The advice I wrote about in Keys to Collecting Prints is still important to keep in mind so you may want to review that article.