What is a linocut?

A linocut is a form of relief printing (see What is a relief print), which involves the artist carving a design out of the surface of a sheet of linoleum with a sharp instrument such as a knife, chisel or gouge. The raised (uncarved) areas represent a reversal, or mirror image, of what is to be printed. The linoleum sheet is then inked using a roller, and impressed onto a flat surface—usually paper or fabric. The slightly textured surface of a linoleum sheet absorbs ink evenly, and thus allows for a clean impression. The physical impressing can be done by hand, or with the help of a printing press

Linoleum as a material dates back to the 1860s. It consists of rubber and linseed oil which is held together with a hessian backing. Because of its durability it was first used for floor covering, though due to it being relatively cheap, easy to obtain, and extremely pliable it began to be used in printmaking in the early 1900s. Initially it was used by the artists of Die Brücke in Germany, but also by artists such as Pablo Picasso and Henri Matisse. Soft linoleum could be cut into more easily than a woodblock, and in any direction (as the material doesn’t have any grain) making it a versatile medium for artists to experiment with. In fact, some of Picasso’s most outstanding compositions, were produced using this method during a burst of activity in his later career, between 1958 and 1963. His Buste de Femme aux Chapeau (1962) which depicts his muse and second wife Jaqueline, famously exhibits the artist’s mastery of the medium.

 A linocut of different colors will typically have been made using a different block (a different sheet of lino) for each color, as in woodblock printing. However, in the 1950s Pablo Picasso would champion what would become known as the ‘reductive’ print method, which after each successive color was imprinted, involved cleaning the linoleum plate and cutting away what was not to be imprinted with the next color to be used.

Due to its low cost and easy-use, lino-printing has long been widely used in schools to introduce students to the art of relief print making. For examples of linocuts, see Alex Katz’s Large Birch, 2004, Pablo Picasso’s Femme aux cheveux flous (Jacqueline au bandeau II), 1962 and Sol Lewitt’s Distorted Cubes #2, 2001.


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