Linocuts are such a fun way to explore line, shape and personal expression. Students (mostly) love the hands-on process and the magic of pulling prints. The physicality of carving keeps students engaged and the final results are often a beautiful surprise. This memory linocut artwork provides great results and helps student practice using their personal voice.
Materials for Linocuts
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I prefer to use Blick Wondercut. The battleship gray linoleum I used in my late 90’s and early 2000’s art classes just doesn’t cut it (get it?) anymore. This has worked really well for my students. I also like the Blick block printing ink, and I prefer the jar to the squeeze container. The squeeze tube is convenient at first, but I feel like I waste a little ink. If you get a palette knife the jar seems to last longer. As far as how much ink to purchase, don’t ask me! I always run out, so stock up!
Practice Mini Linocuts
Students start by creating a small practice linocut. I print out basic clip art images for students to choose from. I pick images that demonstrated clear shapes, line variety and clear areas of black and white. I will not share these examples as a PDF, because I threw copyright to the wind when collecting them.
I google things like “Mushroom clip art black and white” to find clear images. Think about what your students are really into drawing right now and give them printed handouts to choose from, similar to a tattoo flash sheet. Hello Kitty, Mario mushrooms, snakes, basic flowers, and anchors were all popular choices in my 2023 classroom.
This practice print not only helps students understand the technique of cutting, but also how to create a design that works best with the materials. We usually do this unit right after painting, and it can be very challenging for students to wrap their heads around the concept. Subtractive is always more challenging and creating a design that relies heavily on line work and shape is a skill that most students need practice exploring.
Students transfer their chosen (from my curated “flash sheet”) using graphite transfer paper and a pen. We then trace our lines with Sharpie. I am very picky about this and tell students to add black to every single area they want to be black (or whatever color ink you are using). I remind students that all the brain work should be done now, because once there is a cutter involved, mistakes have much higher consequences.
This is also a great way for students to see first hand that their designs will be mirror imaged. I can say it, but actually experiencing it makes the concept connect to their brains. There will still be students that write words out not in reverse, but that’s why we do our designs in pencil before they ever get their linoleum.
I always give a lino cutter demo because changing the blade is a common occurrence, and I want NO PART IN IT! We take the whole lino cutter apart and look at all of the parts and how they work together. Under a document camera I show them how to put in one of the blades, making sure there is only one blade out at a time. Then I make them change and put on every.single.blade. Sorry not sorry.
This tutorial is great to show students so they understand their end result. It works really well for review, absent students and to pin point certain parts of the process that live-demoing may miss. Feel free to use this in your own classroom.
We then practice carving, starting with the largest blade and the background area. You should always save small and important details for last, although it is tempting to jump right to the fun lines. We use bench hooks (which is a nightmare saying out loud) and discuss the importance of cutting away from yourself. It feels counterintuitive to not put your hand at the top of the linoleum to steady it, but that is the WORST place to put your hand. I have had a student need stitches from a lino cutter, so I dramatically tell that story every semester. Students will still sometimes cut themselves, but after my stern talk and step by step demonstration they usually silently get a bandaid without me being a part of the situation.
Once students are finished with their carving, they head to the printmaking station to print. This is such a fun part of the process and allows for students to really get the technique. You can tell them to carve closer to their carved lines, but nothing tells them more than a blocky and weird print that looks nothing like their image. This helps reinforce that the Sharpie is only there for a guideline, and that the only way a print will look correct is with attention to detail.
“It’s not a sketch, it is a final design”.
The absolute hardest part of this unit is the design. Linocuts are an amazing technique with so many options for prompts and subject matter. I have taught many printmaking lessons, but latelyI have had my students explore a personal memory. We do this lesson towards the end of the school year and this helps push students to explore their own ideas and problem solve how to communicate them. It would be so much easier to all give them the same subject matter (portraits, architecture, plant still life, landscapes…) but this class is a prerequisite for AP. I want students to try to express their own ideas and select subject matter and composition.
Students explore personal themes such as family memories, pets, travel, vacations and loss of family members. Many students explore right of passages like learning to drive, falling in love, and graduating high school. The memory does not have to be huge, many students explore funny memories with friends and childhood favorite movies or gaming.
Students will fail. Designs will be clunky, hard to understand and the rules of composition will quickly be forgotten. It is a challenge to help four sections with 35+ students a pop communicate personal ideas effectively. Once those prints start coming, it’s worth it.
Can I trace?
“It’s not a sketch, it is a final design.” I say this over, and over and OVER while students draw their design in pencil. I require they shade EVERYTHING that will be black with a pencil so I can quickly see their design. If they have to use their imagination to see their details, they need to commit to shading it in pencil. I do not want to reverse their images in my head (“this will actually be black, I just didn’t shade it in”. A nice trick with this unit is to let students trace. If you are teaching and Art I or Art II course, why not let them trace complicated images?
For example, many of my high school students have positive memories of getting their first car or truck #Oklahoma. If I have a nervous drawer, why would I have them hand draw their truck when they have a photograph of it on their iPhone? One student traced his truck, added background elements and it was the first (and only) artwork he was actually proud of. He struggled with every assignment prior because his drawing skills and confidence were very low. Seeing his face when his truck was memorialized in his art was priceless. His non-art loving friends stood around him and congratulated how well his prints turned out. I LIVE FOR THESE MOMENTS!
Once designs are approved by me, students transfer them using the exact same technique as their practice prints. I am way less involved with their carving this time around because their experience and confidence levels have significantly increased. If students are curious to see how their prints look before printing, you can use a marker to color over the linoleum and see what the ink catches. This gives students a really good idea of what their prints should look like.
This tutorial explores printmaking and personal memory. Feel free to use it in your classroom!
The design process takes so much longer than the actual carving. Once students are ready to print, they start with a test print on white paper. If they are happy with their designs, they print their hearts out using colorful paper and Gelli Plate backgrounds we created in small groups while they were carving.
Gelli Plate Printmaking
I love using acrylic paint to create colorful backgrounds for prints. There is a simple beauty in a black and white print, but students can use this technique to explore color and texture that enhances their memory. I encourage students to make 5-10 backgrounds reflecting on how it can enhance the meaning behind their artwork. Sometimes it’s a hot mess, but the backgrounds can really enhance their finished product.
If they are not happy with their prints, they wash off the ink, let the linoleum dry and carve out any of the issues. I give students a requirement to turn in their best three prints of these categories:
- White Paper
- Solid Color
- Gelli Plate Background
It usually takes four days of printing before all students are finished. This also helps with my limited drying rack space since some students print ten or more prints in a class period. I have students pick their best three and upload those images to Canvas. If you haven’t tried grading with a rubric on Canvas, DO IT! You can click each category and it automatically adds their grade. The photographs are uploaded so you never have to touch messy or germy art. I highly recommend it!
Finished Memory Linocuts
I am always so impressed with the attention to detail, personal expression and gusto students have for the process. I feel like I say this at the end of every unit, but this might just be my favorite lesson.
Check out this Styrofoam printmaking lesson, adaptable for many grade levels.