18 Jun 2011

The Final Note + linocut process

Illustration, Personal Work, Process / Tutorial 3 Comments

Every life is a unique song, but they all end with the same final note.

My latest design “The Final Note” is up for scoring at Threadless and needs YOUR votes and comments to help it get printed!

The Final Note - Threadless T-shirts, Nude No More

For this design I’ve used a linocut process to first create a block print, which I then cleaned up digitally into the final t-shirt design. It’s a really fun way to work that not many people have tried, so I thought it would be fun and educational to give a quick walkthrough of the process. For anyone interested in trying it out, I’ve linked to low-cost options for most of the tools and materials, and you should be able to set up for linocut printing for under $40 total.



As a graphic designer, I’m stuck in front of the computer most of the day, so whenever possible I like to get back to some actual analog illustration and print methods. I particularly enjoy linocut which is a relatively cheap and easy (though time-consuming) print method that you can do yourself without too much set up cost.

Most of these are probably available from your local arts and crafts store, but I’ve also provided links to DickBlick for anyone who might want to puchase them online. Here’s what you’ll need:


1. Carving tools. There are fancy ones of course, but a decent $7 set like this will work just fine.

2. Linoleum. Artists originally used regular flooring linoleum as a cheaper, quicker substitute for wood block carving. Eventually some art-supply dealers wisened up and made a new type specifically designed to be carved. There are several different types, but this one is a good balance of professional quality for a decent price.

Now, on to the process!

First, generate a rough sketch of your idea

Then coat your linoleum with a thin coat of gesso or white paint

Because the carving will be mirrored in the final print, be sure to reverse your initial drawing when you create it on the linoleum. This can either be done as a new drawing, or if you scan in your sketch and flip it in Photoshop, you can then transfer it over using carbon paper.

Then, get to carving. I recommend you find a good movie or TV series with lots of dialog on Netflix, or else set up a good long playlist on your iPod.

At this point, I find it helpful to see what the actual print will look like (as I’m bad at thinking in the negative) so I use a wide-point Sharpie to color in the uncarved areas of the design that will print.

Once the central image is carved away, you can either work on a setting for the character or remove the remaining material for a clear background plate. I like to create an organically-shaped frame around the edge and leave a bit of “chatter” for a little more dimension. Note by the change of lighting that night has now fallen. Did I mention this isn’t a super speedy process?

A little more carving the next morning, and a final round with the Sharpie reveals what our final print will look like.

So that’s it for the carving portion of this tutorial. I’m now working on the actual printing part, and will update this post this afternoon once I have that documented as well.


So, here’s how the printing went (along with a materials guide for those of you following along at home)


3. Brayer: (cheap version – $6, pro version – $60) This is what you’ll used to spread the ink onto the linocut when you’re ready to print. I found a mid-range one for $18 at Michael’s

4. Glass/Plexi sheet. This is how you coat the brayer with a smooth layer of ink. Tempered glass works best, but in a pinch you can use standard glass or even plexiglass.

5. Ink. There are lots of options here, and honestly I’m still experimenting myself and don’t have a strong recommendation yet.

6. Pressure: Fancy types will have a special printing press, but like me you’re doing this at home, so you probably won’t. There are several different methods and you should experiment to see which works best for you and your print style. For this print I’ve used a combination of a heavy rolling pin and the back of a spoon.

Now for the super lo-fi print process:

Take your glass/plexi sheet, and apply some of the ink to the center. Then take the brayer, and push the ink around until it is smooth and consistent without streaks or spots. This means that you have covered the brayer in an even coating of ink, and there won’t be blank spots when you apply it to your block.

Now roll the brayer across the surface of your block, being sure to cover every print surface. Depending on the size of your block, you may need to re-ink the brayer.

Place your block on a hard, flat surface. Here I’ve placed a cut section of plywood on top of the stove. Let’s hope it doesn’t leave any scratches or I could be in real trouble.

Lay your paper on top of the block, and press down lightly to tack it down. Once you’ve placed your hand on the paper, don’t remove pressure until you are finished with your print.

Apply pressure! What you want is to exert even pressure across the print surface. To achieve this I used a heavy marble rolling pin, but apparently forgot to take a photo.

Now, you can peel back a corner to get a look at the print, but be sure to keep your hand on the paper to keep it from slipping.

I noticed that there were some areas that were not pressed enough with the rolling pin, so I’m now using the back of a spoon to fill in the detail in those areas.

And here’s the first print! It’s not perfect and you shouldn’t expect it to me. What it does is give you a good idea of where you may need to carve out more of your design, how well you applied your ink and how evenly you pressed it.

Based on that information, you can make any further tweaks that you need until you’re happy with the result.


As it turns out, this may be the biggest pain of the entire process, depending on what inks you use. Oil-based inks tend to work best but are also the worst for cleanup. I used mineral spirits to remove the ink from the brayer and the glass/plexi plate. This is not a quick or clean process, but should be *slightly* quicker than cleaning up the Deepwater Horizon oil spill.

In addition, it seemed to merely transfer most of the ink to my hands. This is AFTER quite a bit of hand cleaning. It turns out that a good way to get oil-based pigment off of your hands is with oil (to lift the pigment) and a little salt (as an abrasive). Once you’ve got all the ink off, you’re now left with merely OILY hands, which you can clean with standard dishwashing soap.


Now that all the dirty work is done, I take my favorite of the prints and scan it in, clean it up a little in Photoshop and pop it onto a t-shirt template to see how it looks. I’m not typically a fan of framed work on shirts, so I’ve created a second version removing the frame and background to leave just the central character. That allows me to increase the size of the main image and remove any distraction around it, to make a graphic better suited for a t-shirt design.

Thanks for reading! If you like this design or enjoyed seeing the process behind it, please take a moment to vote for it at Threadless!

3 Responses to “The Final Note + linocut process”

  1. Sam Osborne says:

    Awesome post, great design and lovely photo story.

    I find a get claw like hands after cutting it all out but it’s worth it for the moment when you lift the first bit of paper and you find out what the whole thing looks like! You’ve inspired me to do some more lino printing- will hopefully get round to it at the weekend :)

    • ianleino says:

      Thanks Sam, glad you enjoyed the post! Linocut is definitely a time-consuming process that takes its toll on your hands, but I do so love the finished product. Thanks again!

  2. lolajean says:

    Thanks for chronicling your process. I enjoy lino cuts as well. I would add that an iron on the lino to be cut, softens it, making it easier to cut.

    Back to carving!

Leave a Reply to ianleino

Cancel Reply