Designing black and white linocuts

Designing black and white linocuts can be a minefield of decisions to make, each one with the potential to trip you up and send you back to the drawing board so when Drawcutinkpress reader and budding linocut artist Ron Smith emailed with the following question, it seemed like a very good question to tackle on the blog;

I am a complete beginner having yet to print my first simple linocut. I prefer linocuts that are black and white but am having difficulty in deciding what parts of my linocut of Crail Harbour in Scotland should be black and other parts white. So, guidance on such basic issues for beginners will be helpful.

I’ll try and split the following advice into some quick practical tips that may (or may not) help you out and a bit of borrowed and updated analysis from a little book I found beside the seaside one day called The Art of Linocutting by Len A. Doust.

Adjusting a photo on your smartphone to easily determine light and dark areas for linocutting.

So in my humble way I thought it would be best to demonstrate this bit with none other than a photo of the very beautiful Crail Harbour in Fife, Scotland. I found the photo on the internet from a website called TrekEarth and the photo is by a very talented chap called John Cannon (thanks John).

Step 01 – Open your image in an editor

Open the photo you want to make a linocut from in your SmartPhone and select edit. I’m using an iPhone but all smartphones allow you to play with images in the way I’m about to show you. If you haven’t got an iPhone don’t worry, you’ll work it out (we all believe in you).

Designing a Black and white linocut - Crail Harbour example 01

Step 02 – Apply a black and white filter

Select the option to apply a filter and apply a black and white one of your choice. This will start to create more clearly defined areas of black and white for your eye to separate.

Step 03 – Further image adjustments

Use further image adjustment options like brilliance, exposure, and contrast to adjust the image until you have clearly defined areas of black and white. The idea here is to remove areas of grey and to try and achieve clean black and white areas. This will make the selection of light and dark areas a lot easier for you.

I’m not suggesting the above trick will provide you with 100% of the answers you need when planning your composition, but hopefully it will get you well on the road to where you want to be.

It’s worth remembering that a lot of decisions are made when the lino cutter is in your hand, and sometimes you might have to do a bit of head scratching and squinting at your image to really figure out what to cut and away and what to leave. If you’re unsure about a part of the composition my advice is to leave it well alone and don’t carve into it. Once it’s carved away it’s not coming back, but a few test prints can reveal a lot of truths, and if a test print reveals an area that would benefit from a V-gauge here and a slice there, then that’s the time to make some confident strokes (and if you totally cock it up, don’t worry about it. Nobody died).

Analysis of Black & White Linocut Compositions

1. Woodland scene with simple cutting

The first image above might appear to be quite cleverly & skilfully done (and it is), although most of the skill is in the composition itself and less in the skill to carve it. However, the skill really comes in adjusting the way you look at the problem, and rethink the way you draw by using marks to suggest a form rather than being a drawer of form. Each limited mark does becomes important, and should be full of meaning as well as being suitable for its purpose in describing part of the scene.

For example, check out the representation of light on the ground. The bold, coarse and irregular strokes representing the patches of sunlight coming through the foliage overhead and the intersecting vertical lines meant to represent blades of grass are no accident. Similarly, the broken blotchy surface of distant foliage is created with careful thought and experimentation – and it’s banging! Perfectly silhouetting the trees and describing the forest undergrowth.

What this piece teaches us is two simple rules.
1. Make your composition simple, but sound
2. Make your design suitable to the subject. The design above is in harmony with a peaceful woodland scene.

2. Excitement

I really love the design of this black and white linocut, it’s simple and it’s bold and the crop of the composition adds to the sense of movement as a little bit chases his little sister.

Most people would automatically draw full-length figures because your mind would default to drawing the legs of a person when they’re running. An effective design could show the whole figure, but linoleum tends to call for bolder, stronger and less fussy compositions. So, the artist who created this has given the impression of swift movement by the careful removal of lines and shapes. The position of the arm, the flowing hair and the set of the head and shoulders have all been used are emphasised by the bold, coarse treatment.

Also pay attention to the composition. The core foundations of good composition are balance, proportion or the careful adjustment of shapes and lines by which a space is happily filled and by which the eye is encouraged to contemplate each object in its right order and degree of importance.

According to Len in his book The Art of Linocutting an excellent way to judge composition is to turn your design upside down and look at it as a pattern only. Inverting an image makes it easier to stop looking at it as something you’re trying to represent, and you can assess if it has the right balance more easily.

For a lot of linocut printmakers, there is a great temptation to break up large black areas such as the black mass representing a shadow on the girl’s figure. This solid patch of black is really valuable. It gives emphasis to the swing of the arm, and draws attention to her excited face. Above all it is well placed – just out of centre – and thereby forms a kind of foundation to the design. Big areas of black in a linocut are easier to get away with than many other forms of printing as the bold line work you often get with linocuts will sit in harmony with larger bold dark areas. In short, Len reckons you shouldn’t break up your solid blacks with cuts of finer detail unless very well considered. For instance, the cuts in the shadow under the boy’s head break up the black and prevent it from rivalling the centre patch.

For any learners out there, don’t think that the artist considered all the above points before starting, they probably didn’t put that much conscious thought into it. All successes are the fruit of many failures!

3. Designing a black and white linocut city scene

City scene black and white linocut

Whereas the previous black and white linocut was primarily a black line study, this is definitely a white-line linocut and it looks cracking! It again emphasises how so much can be described with a light touch.

Pen-and-ink drawing is by it’s very process a drawing of black lines. Linocuts (and wood engravings) are by their process a white line drawing, where you cut out the white parts.

The preparation drawing was simply a white-line drawing onto the surface of the lino. There may have been a lot more detail in the artists original drawing onto the lino; but, when cutting they reduced the work to a minimum, inked the surface and rubbed a test-print. Then added a few more cuts here and there where necessary.

Some of the most important lines on this are the strong lines in the foreground representing the car and the spots of white, indicating figures. They balance the composition and draw the eye back into the picture.

Buildings are also quite tricky to get right in a scene like this. You can fluff a tree and it still looks like a tree. But if you get the perspective wrong or the skyline off due to poor observation the whole piece will look and feel jarring.

So there you have it. A few helpful hints that I hope you will find useful when designing black and white linocuts. If you’ve got any tips on this that you want to share, please comment below!

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Designing black and white linocuts