In Europe, woodcuts (like most other print media) were traditionally monochromatic, being made with black ink on light colored paper. In Japan, however, the rich tradition of woodcut printing made bold use of colors and the Japanese were the original inventors of the multiple registration method that would be used to create prints in full color. The multiple registration technique involves cutting a series of blocks, all based on the same image, but with each block being cut so that it only prints the areas of the image that are a particular color. Then, the blocks are printed in series onto the same sheet of paper to create the multi-colored image.
Achieving a workable set of woodcuts that are precise enough to function as a multiple registration series is a painstaking process, because the original drawing of the image must be transferred to each block exactly and then the blocks must be printed on the paper each in exactly the same spot. The Japanese developed an entire culture and industry around the printmaking process, which still exists there today since it is widely accepted that the artistry of these master craftspeople is far superior to anything produced by machines.
The technique of the reduction linocut, which was popularized and possibly invented by Pablo Picasso, effectively eliminates half of the difficulty in producing a multicolored relief print, allowing the artist to more easily and effectively create multiple copies of complex compositions.
The reduction technique still requires that you have an accurate registration — meaning the block and the paper contact each other in exactly the same spot each time you print another color — but you have now eliminated the need to get exactly the same drawing onto multiple blocks. You have also reduced it to one block that can create an image with twenty colors, whereas in the traditional method you would need 20 separate blocks, each one drawn identically, to accomplish the same task.
Traditional or Reduction?
In traditional printing with multiple blocks, you can continue pulling prints until the block actually starts to fall apart and is no longer usable, so editions can be very large. With reduction printing you have to choose the quantity of the edition first and then once you begin there is no way to change your mind and make more because you will have destroyed part of the image on the block as soon as you start working on your second layer. By the time you are finished hardly anything will actually be left on the block to print with! Of course another way to think about it is that when you have a limited edition of prints, each print becomes a bit more valuable! It's good to remember that through adversity and necessity — like you need to make a print with many colors but you only have one piece of linoleum — new techniques are created and unique works of art become possible!
HOW TO: Reduction Linocuts
- Draw the lines of the image onto the linoleum block (remembering that the image will be reversed when you print it of course!) and plan out the colors for the image very carefully. It's important when doing reduction linocuts to know where each color will go and what order they should be printed in, because if you make a mistake, there's no going back!
- Carve the block to remove the areas where the natural color of the paper will show through, although in some cases that will not occur at all and no carving will be necessary.
- Ink the block with the lightest color in the image - it is VERY important to work from light to dark in this process - and pull prints with that color for the entire edition. For example: if you are planning to do 40 prints you must ink the block and print it at this stage 40 times.
- Begin carving away at the linoleum block, removing the areas where the color that you just printed will be visible.
- Ink the block with the next lightest color and pull prints with that second color for the entire edition. Since block printing ink is quite opaque, the second, darker color will completely cover the first color, except for the areas you just carved out. You will now have an edition of prints that has two colors, plus possibly the color of the paper as well.
- Continue repeating the process, carving away the parts of the image that you want to remain visible and printing the rest with the next darker color. Eventually you will get to the darkest part of the image (black or some other very dark hue) and very little printable area will remain on the block.
- Print the last layer through the entire edition and you are finished!
- Congratulations! You now have a full edition of original prints in full color and you've only used a single linoleum block!