You don’t have to be a printmaker in order to take advantage of relief printing on clay. This is a great technique for any kind of simple image, text, or design you want to use in your work. You can make a complex linocut or combine several linocuts to create a larger image that can be a finished work all on its own. The relief blocks can be used to print directly onto clay or be pushed into the surface for embossing.
Printing with Linocuts
To print linocuts you’ll need an underglaze or slip with a thick consistency like honey. I let my underglazes sit overnight to allow some water to evaporate. Having the proper consistency is important to the image being transferred cleanly. If it’s too thin, the recessed areas of the linocut will fill with color, making a blurry print.
Direct printing on Clay
Before printing, roll your slabs out and be sure to smooth them with a rib. A smooth surface assures a clean image. The slabs should be in the early stages of leather hard so they’re firm and no longer sticky to the touch. If the slab is too soft or sticky, it won’t absorb the underglaze and will smear easily. Gather a sheet of glass or Plexiglass to be used as an inking plate, a foam roller for rolling the underglaze on the linocut (a rubber roller won’t work, because underglaze isn’t tacky and wont stick to a rubber surface), and a baren for making the print.
Now you’re ready to print. Start by putting a long bead of thickened underglaze on your inking plate. Use the foam roller to make a bed of underglaze on the plate. Move the roller back and forth to create an even bed and evenly coat the roller.
Next, cover the linocut with the underglaze (1). In printmaking, this is referred to as inking up your block. Apply an even coat, making sure all areas are covered with color. Reload the foam roller after every two passes on the linocut. Don’t press too hard when rolling on the color, as this will squeeze underglaze into the recessed areas. The underglaze should appear wet on the surface of the block when properly covered.
Place the inked-up block face down onto the slab and gently rub the back of it in a circular motion with your hand or the baren to print the color on the surface (2). Note: Don’t wait too long to print the block after it’s been inked or the color starts to dry and won’t transfer as cleanly.
Peel the block slowly away from the clay (3). The first print gives you valuable information about the image quality. Was the ceramic ink mixed to the right consistency? Was there enough pressure used for a clean transfer? Often this first print isn’t usable and is considered a test print to answer these questions. Make any necessary adjustments, then continue printing.
Once printed, the slabs can be used for whatever building purposes you want or can even be the finished piece. The linocut can also be printed on a clay piece you’ve already built and is still in the green stage or on a vessel or platter form.
Another option for printing on slabs is to use a background color for the print. Some images look good on a raw clay body, but others may need color behind them to work well. Choose a color that best suits your overall plan for the work and brush or spray it onto your slab. Once the underglaze or slip is dry to the touch, smooth it with a very soft rubber rib, then ink up your linocut and continue printing.
Embossing with Linocuts
A linocut can also be used like a large stamp to emboss a soft clay surface. Many artists make custom relief tiles in this fashion. The areas that would normally receive the color are now embossed into the clay. This use of linocuts has minimal preparation. Just have the slabs rolled out in advance and smooth the surface with a rib. The slab should be in the stage of drying where it’s easy to press into the surface, but no longer sticky to the touch. If the slab is too sticky or wet to the touch, it will stick to the linocut and won’t release when you pull it away. You can press the lino into the surface by hand or with a pony roller.
Just like printing with underglaze, you can use one relief block or several to make a piece. When I use multiple blocks, I like to arrange them in place to get a sense of how they will all fit on the surface (4). Once my composition is decided, I place them all face down.
Emboss the block by rubbing the back of it in a circular motion with your hand or a pony roller (5). Press hard enough so the linocut sinks into the surface, but not so hard that it spreads the clay. I remove them one at a time as each is embossed to assure my placement and spacing remains intact (6).
A finishing option for your embossed image is to add color in the recessed areas to create contrast or to make it into a mishima slip inlay. You can also bisque fire the embossing, then apply glaze, underglaze, or stain in the embossed areas with a brush or other applicator. Once it dries, use a damp sponge to wipe the color off the high areas leaving only the embossed area filled with color, then fire it.
Paul Andrew Wandless is an artist, author, educator, and curator currently living and working in Chicago, Illinois. To see more of his work, visit www.studio3artcompany.com.