How my prints of King Arthur (and others) are made

Printmaking is a time-consuming business. in its basic form, a print can be made from one block, inked up and printed. 


Most of my prints are produced using at least three different blocks, allowing for at least three different colours but in many cases creating more colours in the process.


But it's more involved than it sounds...


Cutting the blocks

I typically create my work using a master block which can take many days to produce, involving cutting away the block with many different tools and attempting to ensure that the sections cut away do not "catch" any ink when printing.


From the master block I will then create a series of secondary blocks, designed to match exactly where the master block falls and ensuring each colour is registered with each block.


Another method is the "reduction technique" whereby only one plate is cut and, for each colour printed, the orginal plate is cut away ("reduced").


Depending on the print, the cutting process alone is highly demanding; for example, my image of The Green Knight took 80 hours to cut. 


Printing the blocks

In printing a multi-colour print, each colour has to be registered so that every colour falls exactly where it should.


Using an old Albion press (see the pictures), is complicated. Often the press has subtleties of pressure which means you need to turn each block around.


Sometimes even a correctly registered print can go off register if concentration slips. You could have two colours correctly registered and then the last colour goes out of register, ruining the print.


My preference is to print "wet on wet", which is high-risk. This means I print each colour over the other while the colours are still tacky.


The reason I do this is to maximise areas where new colours are created when one colour overlays the next. But, while this works for some colours, others are very fussy - sometimes this results in failure.


A lifetime of learning

Many people are often unaware of the sheer time involved in making linocut prints - and indeed the sublety of the techniques employed. It is a fascinating process and one from which I am always learning.


To date, my favourite prints are  The Green Knight in the Forest (which features on the back of my new translation of Sir Gawain and the Green Knight); Sir Hugh Calveley and my illustrations for my books (including one of King Arthur and Guinevere). Each of these presented significant challenges but I am delighted with the results.

Michael Smith, Printmaker
Michael Smith using the Albion printing press