• Michael Smith, Author, Translator, Printmaker

Making a linocut print of King Arthur and Excalibur for my new book


While I have been translating and researching my new telling of the Alliterative Morte Arthure, the fourteenth century masterpiece of the fall of the great king, I have also been working on a suite of illustrations for the book.

Now I have created a four-colour print which I hope will appear on the cover. The result of 10 days' solid work, involving the meticulous cutting and matching of four different blocks, the final work is a print of which I am particularly proud.

In this brief article, I will take you through the process of researching the print and then cutting and printing the various blocks to arrive at the final print.

King Arthur's Armour and Heraldry

Heraldry in the middle ages was a key component of battlefield command; different lords and knights could be distinguished from each other and were easily visible by their retinues.

Arthur's coat of arms is based on that given in the poem, in which three golden crowns are described on a field of gules (red). The chief (typically the upper third of a shield, often in a separate colour) is decorated with a "chalk-white" maiden, whom we interpret as Mary in recognition of the cult of Mary in this period. The poet does not describe the colour of the chief but I have interpreted it as yellow (gold or "or"), the highest of the heraldic tinctures and therefore a fitting background for Mary as the mother of Christ.

For my print, I have based Arthur's armour on that used in the fourteenth century (the poem was written c.1400). Rather than wearing full plate armour, he wears plate to the arms and legs, with a padded red jupon above a byrnie of mail. I have used artistic licence to show Arthur wearing an open-faced bascinet whereas in battle he would have worn a full helm. However, in one passage of the poem, during the siege of Metz, he is scornful of his enemy and rides arrogantly in full range of the city's defending archers. So the print is not so wide of the mark!

The photograph shows a near-contemporary brass of Sir John de la Pole of Chrishall in Essex.

Cutting the plates

A four colour print requires four plates, logically enough.

Each plate is designed to carry its own colour; in the case of the one to the left, this is the red plate. Only the parts not cut away will transmit red ink to the final print.

In this way, each plate either prints in separate areas of the final print or will mix with one of the other colours to create a new colour (e.g. red plus yellow creates orange).

I use a combination of cutting tools and a Stanley Knife for removing larger sections.

Inking the plates

In the example, right, we can see the yellow plate inked up.

It is a critical part of any inking that the ink does not sit on any raised spots on the lino.

As can be seen here, areas of significant risk are dealt with by removing large sections of the lino.

You would be surprised just how much ink the plate picks up from the roller in other areas of the plate, so caution is crucial.

While the roller may present a flat surface to the plate, it must be recognised that the ink upon the roller will not be of a uniform consistency and will pick up on raised spots.

In the photograph below, the yellow plate has now been applied to an earlier pressing of the blue plate.

Notice how where the yellow rests on the blue, the end colour is green. Areas not inked give the impression of white in the final printing.

We can begin to see the horse and rider taking shape within the scene.

The red ink is yet to be applied; crucially, it will be a darker red, rather than a scarlet.

This is so that we can mix it with the yellow to make a reddish orange while allowing areas of red printed onto white to deliver a darker red than elsewhere in the figure.

By careful thinking during the cutting process, the artist can create multiple hues from a simple colour palette of three colours.

As the photo, right, shows, when we add the red plate to the mix, the print suddenly begins to take shape in a significant way. The Albion press shown is a wonderful machine for this work.

It will be appreciated that during the cutting of the plates, all the different parts of each plate must match up with all the other plates in the process.

Equally, every time the paper is positioned for each colour application, registration of the paper to each plate is critical.

It only takes one false move, a moment of tiredness or a distraction to completely ruin one print by failing to register the paper against each colour properly.

Applying the final plate

Finally, the black key plate is applied to the image.

This part of the operation is where everything either succeeds or fails. If the key block does not match up with the other colours, the entire print is wasted - hours of work have been for nothing.

Certainly, the moment the print is lifted from the press and revealed for the first time is the most stressful point in the operation.

As can be seen here, however, the operation was a success!

Own an Original and Support my New Book!

If you like this print, it is available to purchase directly from Mythical Britain. I am also offering two original prints as a pledge option for my new translation of the Alliterative Morte Arthure (King Arthur's Death). I am also offering a limited number of giclee prints as pledge options too. These will be printed on 250gsm Somerset Velvet Paper (just like the originals) and are printed to Artists' Guild Quality, which means that each print will be printed with the highest quality inks and are guaranteed by the printer to last a lifetime.

If you would like to pledge to be a patron of my book (you don't need to pledge for a print to do this), and have your name published in the back as a patron and supporter, please click here.

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© 2020, Michael Smith, all rights reserved

Original linocut prints, books  and greetings cards featuring a range of mediaeval themes including: the Battle of Agincourt; Sir Gawain and the Green Knight; King Arthur;;Stonehenge; Viking art; Saxon art; the Sutton Hoo helmet; medieval animals; castles; medieval myths and legends; historic monuments and so much more!

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