3.3 Experimental relief prints

The purpose of this exercise was to experiment with different relief print techniques.

Keywords from the brief:

  • Develop an experimental relief print series
  • You may decide to use a wider range of materials other than lino
  • Any smooth surface you can cut into with your tools will be suitable
  • Try a few different surfaces as a test
  • Extend the range of cut marks you use
  • Be adventurous and challenge yourself to see how far you can develop an idea


I was keen to continue developing the ideas that I explored in Reduction method linocutting. The research, sketches and colour mockups had a lot of potential that wanted to develop.

I feel very comfortable working in pen and ink; it’s very expressive and quick to work with, and I wanted to see if some of the energy and expression in my drawings would translate into a print. I felt that this energy and spontaneity was lost in the reduction linoprint I made for the previous Reduction method linocutting exercise, and I was interested to find out if a woodcut would give me more creative possibilities.

As a first step, I created two test woodcuts.

Test woodcut 01

Both test woodcuts used 225mm x 300mm plywood blocks. The tools I’d bought for the linocutting are Japanese woodcutting tools, and to use them for woodcutting I just needed to buy a sharpening stone to keep them sharp.

The first woodcut was created from one of my commuter sketches. The quality of line in this pen & ink drawing is very variable and the intention I had for this print was to try and copy the drawing  as closely as possible to learn about cutting the material and what quality of line could be achieved.

Commuter pen and ink drawing
Pen & ink study 01 – A2 sized

I learned a lot from doing the first cut. The quality of the cut and the way the tools behave depended on whether I was working with or against the wood grain. Unlike cutting lino, I had to start using the flat chisel tool to get clean edges. The great thing was that I could achieve much better quality of line using wood. It seemed relatively easy to cut a very thin line; I think this is because wood is much stronger that lino and is a bit more forgiving.

The down side was that I had to re-sharpen the tools after a couple of hours use.

The printing process was almost identical to printing a lino. I had to use the registration blocks I made for the multi-block linoprinting because I found that the paper needed to be taped into place to prevent it from slipping/moving.

Test print 01 work space

The final test print…

Test woodcut 01
Woodcut test print 01 – image size 225mm x 300mm

Lessons from test woodcut 01

Whilst I liked the quality of line I was disappointed by the final print. The original pen & ink drawing was better than the print and it felt like just trying to make a direct copy of a drawing was fairly pointless. I needed to do a further test, and this time really work with the material to use some of the fantastically expressive qualities that I was so impressed with in the work of artists such as German Expressionists Max Beckman and Otto Dix.

Test woodcut 02

For the second test woodcut I made some new sketches and studies.

I pushed the idea in my sketchbook and redrew the subject several times in order to develop a good feel of the character in the picture and the qualities of the image that I could simplify and/or develop for the woodcut.

I really liked the final test print:

Test woodcut 02
Woodcut test print 02 – 225mm x 300mm sized

Design development

The test prints had proven to me that wood is an expressive medium that I enjoyed working with.

I’d been watching a range of artists and printmakers on Youtube talking through how they create pictures using woodcuts and particularly liked the work, approach and scale of print from Danish printmaker Soren Bjaelde. He’s very generous in giving away his printmaking secrets and and I decided to adopt his method for creating my final experimental relief print.

I thought carefully about the subject matter and wanted to keep developing my thinking from the first exercise, Reduction method linocutting. I continued taking photographs and making sketches on my daily commute.

I worked with the composition and built the image from two different drawings using a combination of Illustrator and Photoshop. I used an iPhone app called Camscanner to capture the original artwork; this is quite a crude image capture process and I like the random visual artefacts that are introduced into the image through this process. Rather that ‘clean’ these up, I kept them as part of the overall visual style.

I also thought carefully about use of colour and tried out various combinations before arriving at a visual that I could work from.

Man with iPad and women with phone visual
Colour mockup created in Photoshop

Cutting the wood blocks

I didn’t want to compromise on making this print. I wanted to work at scale with many colours (I felt I could do this after discovering drying agent that significantly speeds up ink drying).

The print involved 4 x plywood blocks at 606mm x 455mm size. There are 10 x colours and the blocks are cut using a combination of multi block and reduction techniques.

  • Block 1 – Pink and three blues
  • Block 2 – Light and dark skin tones
  • Block 3 – Yellow and orange
  • Block 4 – Brown and black

I cut the brown and black reduction block first because this would provide enough detail to transfer the inked design onto the other three blocks. Because of the high level of detail this represented by far the most complex and lengthy cut.

The followings sequence describes the process of designing and cutting the first plywood block.

In order to accurately transfer the image onto the other blocks I needed to create a jig to enable precise registration. Because of the large size of the block the registration jig I’d made for the previous linoprinting exercises was not large enough. I copied the approach used by Soren Bjaelde.

Woodcut seq05
Gluing the registration jig. The jig made from 6mm MDF (the same depth as the plywood blocks), and 3mm hardboard.

I transferred the design from the first wood block using the following steps:


I then transferred some additional detail to the pink and blue plate before sealing the wood blocks with a layer of varnish.

Inking and printing the blocks

I decided to print an edition of ten and bought Zerkall Extra Smooth paper which is both light weight and has cut edges which I needed for accurate registration.

Each colour took between 2-hours and 5-hours to print depending on the complexity and size of the printed image.

The ink was Intaglio Traditional Relief ink and I used drying agent to speed up the drying process. I spent quite a lot of time mixing inks to get as closer match as possible to my original colour mock-up.

The following sequence shows the key steps in the inking and printing process.

The final print…

Final print small 01
Alone together. Woodcut, 605mm x 455mm

Research point

Take a look at some contemporary printmakers who use experimental methods to make their prints. You could start by exploring the printmakerscouncil.com website, where you will find links to some interesting practitioners.

It wasn’t totally clear what experimental methods means in the context of this research, so I have defined it as ‘a printmaker that pushes the boundaries of their chosen medium and works using unusual or inventive techniques’.

What have you found of interest?

All of the examples I found layered multiple print techniques on top of one another, sometimes on collage or fabric to achieve a particular effect.

They all use colour in a very unconstrained and expressive way

What new techniques and ideas have arisen in this investigation?

I really like the combination of collagraph and drypoint techniques that are used by Ruth Barrett-Danes. For me this combines the expressive colour and texture achievable from collatype with the fine and precise line that drypoint gives. My working method tends to involve a line art drawing ‘filled’ with colour, so this combination would translate well into my way of working.

The other method I’d like to explore is in the work of Laleh Ardestani which uses a combination of monprint, collage and backdrawing. I like the subtle line that back drawing gives and how expressive it can be offset against the textured backgrounds.


What went well

  • I really enjoyed this project. I like the expressive nature of woodcuts and the qualities of working in the medium.
  • I’m glad I challenged myself to work at a fairly large scale.
  • I think the energy and fluidity of my original pen and ink drawings carry through into the final prints.
  • I like the way the artefacts that were introduced unexpectedly have made their way through to the final prints e.g. the ink blobs from the original drawings.
  • The colour hierarchy in the image works well and I’m pleased the time I spent tweaking colour temperatures during the ink mixing process paid off.
  • The drying agent cut down drying time dramatically and enabled me to reduce the overall production time considerably.
  • The registration gig worked perfectly and I achieved near perfect alignment for all 10 x colours across the whole edition; there was no wastage.
  • My interest in the subject has grown and I will develop this further in the next project.

What I would do differently/better

  • Working at scale with 10 x colours was a great experience but took along time. It’s not feasible to be that ambitious and stick to my own OCA timeline.


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