If you are new to linocutting and want to get ahead with the art form then it’s well worth doing some preliminary linocutting exercises for beginners so you get used to using the tools and practicing the different types of marks you can create with them. I must admit that you could, like me, just roll your sleeves up and make loads of mistakes. Whilst this method does eventually work I must say it’s a lot more frustrating when you ruin a really good design so I would encourage any beginners out there to practice some of the following exercises that I found in a small book called ‘The Art of Linocutting’, published in 1936 and written by Len A. Doust. Cheers Len!
Exercise 01: Straight Lines
Now the first exercises are frankly not that interesting, yet to the beginner, some of the most important. The first is to master cutting a straight line into lino. Not because we use straightens the most, but because nothing teaches you control of your tools and restraint better.
OK so use the image above as a guide. Cut several lines of the thickness shown (Fig A). Len says don’t try and complete a line in one stroke, and that about half an inch should be your limit if you are looking for regularity and straightness are to be maintained.
If you look at the lines in Fig A you will see the start and end points of the line are fairly regular, and there is a tendency to create a stroke with a graded width, narrowing at the ends of the line. To cut an even line you should start your cut by holding your carving tool at a large angle to the linoleum. Dig neatly into the lino to the depth you feel is right and then flatten out the angle that you’re holding the tool; then continue the stroke to the required length of the line. Then flick the tool sharply upwards to end the line. When holding the tool you should apply the pressure from the ball of the palm of your hand, and control the direction of the cutting edge with your thumb and forefinger. When you’ve practiced this a few times and you’ve started to get the hang of it, move on and practice thicker and thinner lines like in Figs B & C from the example above. Practice these without drawing the lines with a ruler, just use your eye to create the straight lines.
So when you’ve got the straight lines down like a true master, try the squares in Figs D & E. You probably will want to draw these out in pencil or pen first, but you should be able to create some very nice squares, but pay close attention to the corners, and try to achieve really nice crisp points to the angles where the straight lines meet.
Exercise 02: Graded Lines and Shapes
In this exercise you should try to copy the example below. For Figs A & B, carve strong straight lines and then, working towards the line cut graded lines (thin to thick) of an equal weight or gradation. This is such an important skill to master, it should absolutely not be underestimated. This will form a backbone skill for any keen linocutter who wants to master the art of shade in their compositions.
Underneath these examples there are lots of star shaped forms that show varying ways you can use the wedge shaped cuts that are achievable with the V-Shaped tools. Once you’ve had a crack at the first exercises on this example, have a go at these ones to!
Exercise 03: Curved Lines
Now we move onto practicing curved lines. These are similar exercises to the ones above, but there is nothing more certain to set you on the path to greatness. If you practice these exercises you will gain a valuable skill and progress much faster, with less disappointment, than immediately and haphazardly attempting complicated designs.
Practice, practice, practice. That is pretty much all I have to say about the above example, straight lines are good but seldom drawn, whereas curved lines are basically running the joint when it comes to design and composition.
Exercise 04: Carving Out a Mass
There are two ways of cutting a mass; one is to cut away the shape (Fig A), the other is to cut round the shape (Fig B), the first creates a white square and the second creates a black one (stating the obvious right?). The way to create both of these is to start with a square. When creating a white square pay attention to the outside edge, for that is what’s going to make your square when the surround has been cut away.
When creating a black square you should care about the inside edge. These principles apply to any shape that you have to cut away. See Figs E & F.
Once you’ve practiced the examples above it will be time to raise the bar and start trying something a bit more complicated. Try creating the silhouette of a face or the outline of a tree. Silhouettes are a stalwart feature of many linocut designs and you will do well to experiment with subjects like the ones I’ve just suggested. When cutting delicate features like the lips of the face or the whites of the eyes, use a narrow cutter and tilt the tool at a greater angle than that used for a line.
Exercise 05: Variety of Marks
Here you will see a variety of lines on the example below, Like Len in his book, I’m not going to analyse every single one of the marks below and how they are made because you will probably be more interested, enjoy yourself and discover a lot more if you just experiment yourself and try to recreate these marks. The act of trying will help you discover more about the tools you have and what they can do than reading what I can tell you. All I will say is that the white marks below are all created by firm and confident marks created using firm stokes. Anyway, at the end of the day, it’s not about reading, it’s about doing, so roll your sleeves up and get carving!
I hope that you find these exercises useful. I wish I had found Len’s book a bit earlier and done some linocutting exercises for beginners. Let me know how you get on and please share these exercises with anyone else looking to pick up the tools and start learning the art form.