Linoleum Block Prints

Printing my own books has allowed me to avoid rejection slips, but it hasn’t guaranteed me readers. In order to do that I must first get people to pick up my books. That’s where my linoleum block illustrations come in. They are the eye appealing feature that keeps a person from walking on by. They draw in potential customers. Once the illustrations have caused someone to pick up a book, then it’s the responsibility of the words to keep their interest. At least that is the theory!

My biggest problem with all of this came from the fact that in 1991, when I began working on my first book, Compound Eyes, I had never actually carved a linoleum block. Not one. I’d seen my folks do it, but I'd never tried. At the relatively late age of 35, mom and dad took me under their wing. As the graphic arts team “CaroDick” they had executed dozens of linoleum block prints, and they shared their knowledge with me.

My parents plied me with books, introduced me to the work of famous woodblock artists, such as Rockwell Kent, gave me tools, private tutoring, and encouragement. First I had to determine if I was a “black-line” or a “white line” artists. Of course no one is ever purely one or the other, but white line artists leave most of the block un-carved and engrave thin smooth lines. Black line artists carve most of the block away, leaving slender little ridges behind to make the print. Mom was a white line artist, but I could not make myself become one. My sketches (and it requires dozens and dozens of sketches to refine the line) always seem better suited to black line techniques.

There are many reversals of imagination required when working with block printing. First of all, the image is reversed when transferred from the drawing to the block, and reversed again when printed. In addition, we sketch with a pencil, laying down black lines. We carve with a knife, gouging out white lines.

When I sort through the drawer where I keep my carvings, I'm impressed by the way that they document my growth as an artist. I began with several advantages, true, but I was just a beginner. I have made my fair share of mistakes, but hopefully I have not made the same mistake twice. Year after year I have refined my work, learned my lessons, and come to respect my limitations. I hope to continue on this path for as long as I draw breath.

My runs are limited. Often I strike no more than 50 or 100 impressions from a block. This makes using linoleum feasible with a powerful letterpress. If I were producing runs of 1000 or more impressions at a time I would have to work with woodblocks. Perhaps I will someday, but that would deny me one of my most cherished routines.

I do most of my color print work on an old Pearl press at the family compound at East Point, in North Idaho. I am a retired school teacher living most of the year near Seattle.  I travel to Idaho and East Point Press in the summer. I love to work outside, in the sun, because that softens the linoleum to a delicious consistency. Wearing nothing but cut-off jeans and a t-shirt, I go out into the 90 degree weather, sit beneath giant Ponderosa Pine trees, listen to the forest and lake, and carve. When I get too hot, I run down the trail and jump into the lake. When I am cool again, I emerge from the water, shake the drops from my hair like a shaggy dog, climb the trail, and pick up my knife again. Is it any wonder that my eyes are clear and my hand is steady?

A day of carving will often prepare me for an evening in the print shop. The shop is nothing more than a corner of the log garage that I built with my parents, sister and wife in 1975. A bare light bulb dangles above my work. I pump the treadle of the old machine, the same cast iron beauty upon which I printed birthday cards when I was a child, and I pull out pages of color borders and illustrations for my books. Invariably my most beautiful images are produced in this environment. Who says that artists have to struggle!