Lino Block Carving with Cheryl Itamura

Earlier this week I took my very first class at the San Francisco Center for the Book.  I discovered this amazing place while surfing the net.  Anyway this place promotes bookmaking and the book arts through its many workshops.  The class I signed up for was Introduction to Lino Carving, taught by Cheryl Itamura of Peach Farm Studio.

Cheryl Itamura

Cheryl Itamura

I became interested in lino block carving after seeing some examples of it on the now defunct Nate Berkus Show.  I found an artist, Ayu Tomikawa, on Etsy who carved a lino block of a picture of Frida Kahlo for me that I display on my bookshelf.  I love the texture of the carved surface of the linoleum.

Carved lino block of Frida Kahlo

Carved lino block of Frida Kahlo

When I got to the Center, one of Cheryl’s works was on display – a giant print made from a huge lino carving that she told us she did on the floor of a hotel room.  This thing was massive, about the size of two posters.  There were other prints from other artists on display, and it was fascinating to see all the textural details of everyone’s work.

Lino block carving is done with a special carving tool that has interchangeable blades.

Lino carving tool

Lino carving tool

Lino carving blades

Lino carving blades

There are different types of linoleums with varying degrees of hardness.  The harder the linoleum, the greater the detail you can carve into it.  We used a lino block that was of medium hardness.

Lino block

Lino block

We first rubbed some water soluble black ink onto the surface of our gray linoleum.  The ink serves as a sort of guide to let us know where we have carved, as the carved areas will show up gray.

Blacked out surface of lino block

Blacked out surface of lino block

Unfortunately, as you can see in the above photo, I rubbed way too much of the ink onto my linoleum.  I tried to wipe away the excess, but didn’t do a very good job of it, as you will later see.

Next we drew four squares onto a piece of tracing paper.

Tracing paper with image to be carved

Tracing paper with image to be carved

We taped a piece of white transfer paper over the darkened surface of our linoleum.

Transfer paper taped to lino  block

Transfer paper taped to lino block

On top of that, we taped the tracing paper to the block, with the image face down to transfer the image onto the block in the negative, which when it gets printed, will print in the positive.

Tracing paper with image taped to lino block

Tracing paper with image taped to lino block

We then took a pencil and went over the outlines of the squares to transfer the image onto the linoleum with the help of the transfer paper.  The image was supposed to show up white against the blackened surface of the linoleum, but as you can see, due to the excess of black ink on my block, you can barely see the image, and instead, see a lot of the white powder from the transfer paper stuck to the wet surface of the linoleum.

Lino block with transferred image

Lino block with transferred image

We placed our block onto a wooden carving stand that Cheryl’s friend had custom made.

Lino carving stand

Lino carving stand

The special thing about this particular block that you won’t find in the ones sold in stores is the presence of a ninety degree notch at the top, which holds the lino block in place for carving on the diagonal.

Notch in lino carving stand

Notch in lino carving stand

Each student placed his/her block onto a stand.  Cheryl showed us how to hold the carving tool and position our fingers on and around the block.  We first carved in straight lines in one of our squares with the smallest blade.  The key to carving is to exert about 75% of your energy pushing down on the blade and 25% pushing the blade across the surface.  This gives you the best control over your carving tool so that you don’t push the blade past where you want it to go.

Carving was pretty fun.  It’s one of those things, like knitting or crocheting, that is meditative as you do it. The only thing is, you use muscles in your fingers and hands that you don’t normally use, which becomes very tiring after awhile.

We continued carving – on the diagonal, across lines, in curvy lines, and in sections – changing blades with each new exercise.  Like Cheryl had told us, I found carving with the smaller blades easier than with the larger ones.

Lino block positioned at an angle for carving

Lino block positioned at an angle for carving

My carved lino block

My carved lino block

Then it was time to print our blocks on the Vandercook printing press, a large intimidating piece of equipment.  Cheryl spent a lot of time lining up and adjusting our blocks so that they were all the same height, not as easy a task as one would think.  If the blocks aren’t exactly the same height, the ink won’t transfer evenly onto the paper we are printing on.  Cheryl also had to add in filler pieces of wood around our blocks so that they wouldn’t shift, another task that took quite a bit of time.

Lino blocks on Vandercook ready for printing

Lino blocks on Vandercook ready for printing

My block, the one on the lower left hand side, looked the most amateurish with my primitive carvings. The best carver was one of the two male students.  You can see his block in the top center.  His carvings looked like actual pictures.  I also liked one of the carvings on the block right above mine. If you look closely, one of the carvings looks like the bark of a tree.

Then we were ready to print.  We ended up taking turns inking the lino blocks and operating the Vandercook press.  Inking the surfaces of the blocks proved to be tricky, as both the surfaces of our lino blocks and the ink were black, making it hard to tell if all the blocks were covered in ink.

Carved lino blocks print-out

Carved lino blocks print-out

One thing we discovered as we were printing out our carvings was that a couple of us – namely me and another student – did not carve some areas on our blocks deep enough, resulting in areas that should have printed out white, coming out black, having picked up the ink from the roller.

I had fun learning how to carve a lino block.  I don’t know if it will be something I will do again, but I’m glad I took the class.  It was a different type of creativity than what I would usually do and a different type of class than what I would normally take.  Our instructor, Cheryl, was great, very thorough and full of enthusiasm, and took the mystery out of lino block carving.  There is much more to lino block carving; this was just the beginning.  For someone like me who is not much of a drawer, it’s nice to know that there are ways to transfer an image onto linoleum for carving.  But that will be for another class.

San Francisco Center for the Book is a great place to view book art exhibits.  I only caught a glimpse of what they have to offer.  I wasn’t sure if I could take photos of the works, which included books transformed into amazing works of art, but I did take a photo of this large hanging display that hung in the middle of the room from the ceiling.

Hanging display made from old book spines 2

Hanging display made from old book spines

It is made from old hardcover book spines attached together.  Very cool!  I love upcycled art that totally transforms items that would normally be discarded.

I’ve already signed up for my next class at SFCB!

Have you delved into the world of book arts or bookmaking?  Have you ever tried lino block carving? Please discuss in the comments.

Please note:  I have not been compensated in any way, nor will I be, for mentioning any of the organizations, websites, or individuals in this post.  All thoughts and feelings expressed are entirely my own.

About Serena Y Lee

Serena worked in the biotech industry for 18 years before leaving to pursue her life purpose – to live in freedom with creativity and simplicity. Her love for baking, creativity, and story-telling compelled her to start blogging to share her ideas with a wider audience.

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