Design Trend Report: Linocut Graphics and Effects
Linocut can create a host of visually striking and memorable images that will leave an impression. Here's a deep dive into everything you need to know about this relief printing technique.
The History of LinocutLinoleum as a floor covering goes back to approximately 1860, but this printing technique for graphic design only arrived on the scene in the early 20th century. Linocut was initially explored by creatives and artists from the school of design called Die Brucke, which translates to “The Bridge.” This school of design came from German Expressionism, which was characterized by showcasing extreme emotion via high-level colors that were frequently not natural. Between 1905 and 1913, this material that had been mainly used for wallpaper covering slowly but surely transitioned to its role as a medium for creating art. Interestingly, linoleum was traditionally used, thanks to it being a cheap alternative to more refined materials, as either a teaching product in schools or just by amateur artists looking to further hone their skills. German artists such as Gerd Arntz were fond of this material nonetheless, especially the opportunities in stark contrast that linoleum offered. If we look to one artist who made linocut popular in the UK, we have to look at Claude Flight, a pioneer in the field who also produced woodcuts. Since his first experimentation with linocut in 1919, Flight became the infant technique’s most fervent promoter because of his philosophy. He looked at the affordability of linoleum as a way of bringing this graphic-design style to a broader audience—the masses, if you will. As such, it was the democratization of art and design that he was interested in. Flight was influenced heavily by other important design movements that were active at about the same time. Noteworthy among those were heavyweights like Futurism and Cubism. In his work related to linocuts, Flight was fond of using techniques such as movement and speed, and he also delighted in using simple and bold forms, which made him an early proponent of minimalism. If you’re not yet convinced about Flight’s dedication to this printing technique and art form, try this on for size: over the course of his career, he managed to produce more than 64 unique linocuts along with nine books on the subject. The famous Pablo Picasso also contributed to this design movement. From approximately 1958 to 1963, Picasso created some highly memorable compositions when he began to dabble in linocuts. Though linocuts were only a relatively small part of the works that he produced over the course of his career, they still contributed greatly to putting this printmaking technique on the map in a big way. What was so unique about Picasso experimenting with linoleum was that it wasn’t his forte, to say the least. Though he had created graphic designs before, primarily with lithography and etching, he had never before ventured into something like linocut. It was also interesting that Picasso was already 78 when he started to broaden his artistic horizons by working with linoleum for the first time. One of Picasso’s more well-known linocuts was his reimagining of Portrait of a Young Girl by Lucas Cranach the Elder. While his work was definitely memorable, he surprisingly found the linocut process to be labor-intensive because it needed the cutting and alignment of six, separate colored blocks on top of each other for precise printing. After this initial frustration and taking a break from linoleum for a couple of years, Picasso returned to this design movement because he came up with what he thought was an ingenious solution to this labor-intensive effort. Now called the reduction method, he went from printing on several, different blocks to using just one, big block. The block would be printed in the lightest shade of color, then additionally cut and printed further from the lightest to the darkest colors. While this may have saved him some time and therefore allowed him to circumvent the large effort required, his new method was more mentally taxing. Now, Picasso had to deal with pretty much visualizing how every, single alteration to the block would look without being able to see it in front of him. Needless to say, being able to imagine how such changes would affect the overall composition of the block took great, artistic genius. Another great artist who contributed to linocuts was none other than the Frenchman, Henri Matisse. Matisse was renowned for working with a slew of printmaking techniques over the course of his career, thereby allowing him to smoothly move from one to the next, eventually leading to linocut. Matisse actually started experimenting with linoleum a full decade earlier than Picasso. Starting in the 1940s, Henri Matisse produced a collection of linocuts that were based on Greek Mythology’s legends, like those of Minos and Pasiphae. The result of this labor, which took him almost a year, was recognized as one of the greatest contributions to linocut printmaking within the 20th century. For a look at how some of today’s most creative designers are applying linocut themes, see our large selection of linocut-inspired digital assets:
Linocut Graphics and Effects: The Technique ExplainedWhen we say linocut, we are indeed talking about linoleum, that old floor covering you’re used to seeing in your grandma’s house that’s made from materials like wood flour, mineral fillers, ground cork dust, pine rosin, and linoxyn, which is really solidified linseed oil. The thing with linoleum is that it’s a highly versatile material—which is why it’s used in this printing technique. But before we even get to the linoleum, it’s important to plan the design on something as basic as a plain piece of paper. This is where designers will sketch out any patterns or compositions they want to test out for the actual linocut. Designers may even use design software like Adobe Photoshop or Illustrator to get an idea of how aesthetic the finished design they have in mind might be. From here, designers have two options:
- They can draw their designs on paper and then transmit their illustration onto the linoleum through graphite transfer paper
- They can carve or draw their design right onto the linoleum sheet (which can be mounted on a wooden block or just unmounted as thinner sheets)
- Gouges (U- or V-shaped)
- Japanese-style woodcutting tools
- Oil-based ink
- Water-based ink
- A Columbian press, which lets printmakers print larger forms in a single pull
- An Albion, an old-school hand-printing press
- Modern etching presses
- Being easier to cut than wood
- Having a diced quality
- The flimsiness of a sheet or block of linoleum
- The quicker degradation of plates, thanks to the pressure of the printing process
The Characteristics of Linocut Graphic DesignBy now, you have a great understanding of what makes this linoleum-based technique so special. At this point, it’s a great opportunity to talk about the one-of-a-kind qualities of linocut design. When you look at any linocut piece, the following immediately become apparent:
- An otherworldly look
- A faded, grungy or even vintage appearance
- A lot of black and white (monochrome, though color prints are around as well)
- Stark lines
- Simple forms and shapes
- Lots of shading effects
- Geometric shapes
- Abstraction instead of realism
- Common themes including people animals and daily scenes of life
Famous Linocut WorksFor designers to get a reliable idea of how far they can really take working with linoleum, it’s vital that they get to admire and study linocut works that have stood the test of time. Here are some standout examples of what’s really possible when working with linocuts.
Henri Matisse’s Corbeille de Begonias IWhen discussing noteworthy contributions to this design style, we have to mention Matisse’s work. His most standout contribution has to be his 1938 Corbeille de Begonias I. This piece is a still life that includes a number of simple though visually interesting elements. For starters, note the curvy lines that make up the vase. They juxtapose nicely with the more right-angled forms that make up the background of the piece. Nonetheless, in spite of this mix of elements, you can readily see the ease with which it was carved, a true indication of how comfortable Matisse was with working in this style. You come away from viewing this piece with an appreciation of the simplicity of linoleum that hides the actual difficulty of its production.
Claude Flight’s SpeedNo list counting down the most famous linocuts would be complete without a work from one of this medium’s pioneers, Claude Flight. His 1922 work Speed is a textbook study of how expressive a designer can get working with linoleum. The piece is pretty much an homage to the hustle and bustle of the modern age, which is represented in the motor vehicles and dynamism within the piece. This linocut of a red London bus moving through Regent Street was actually the frontispiece in Flight’s first linocut book Lino-cuts: A Handbook of Linoleum-cut Colour Printing. Through this piece, the viewer is left with an admiration of the possibilities of linocut, namely the vibrant colors and the Futurist-inspired themes of machines, speed, and motion.
Pablo Picasso’s Bacchanale au Hibou (Bacchanale With Owl)For many great artists, it seems that Greek and Roman mythology served as a continuous source of inspiration. That’s the case with this 1959 work by Picasso: It dives deeply into an ancient celebration held in honor of Bacchus, the mythological god of wine (and some would say drunken debauchery, too). A great example of one of Picasso favorite subjects to explore, this linocut is a study in how simple and curvy lines can still create a visually interesting piece that tells a captivating story. For one thing, the flowing lines imply a celebration, with all of the usual song and dance that accompany it. Another feature to note in this linocut is characterized by two, main elements: the backdrop of grand Mountains and the foreground of the reveling partygoers. Overall, this effective linocut transports us back to the ancient world of the Greeks and Romans.
Pablo Picasso’s Picador et Cheval (Picador and Horse)Perhaps one of the most powerful displays of how simple a linocut can get, this 1959 Picasso work in linoleum is a testament to the artist’s talent for producing work even in a difficult medium. An homage to Spain’s love of bullfighting, this linocut focuses our gaze on the man and his horse with careful and ultra-basic etchings. Note how Picasso was able to use simple lines to emphasize small details like the horse’s attentive ears and the plumage on top of the man’s hat. While seemingly trivial touches, these additions actually make the piece more interesting and further its story. As a consequence, the audience continues to inspect the piece to see what other interesting touches can be found.
A Graphic Design Movement for the PeopleWhen you look at how eye-catching your average linocut is, it’s almost hard to believe that this design trend started off in Europe a century ago as a medium that was looked down on as a cheaper alternative to more refined styles. Ironically, it was this viewpoint that helped it to expand when its proponents realized that this medium, therefore, was actually very accessible to the masses. After it started to spread, even notable designers and artists like Picasso and Matisse had to pay attention to it and even ended up experimenting with it to the point of contributing their own creations to linocut design. If you’re looking to dabble in a design movement that’s little-known and extremely unique, then you yourself have to start experimenting with this style. Perhaps for your next project or just for fun, but linocut will fascinate you, just as it did some of the 20th century’s greatest creatives.
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