To make a relief print, the artist cuts lines and shapes from a flat block of wood or sheet of linoleum. Ink rolled onto the block adheres only to the surface, skipping over the areas which have been cut away.
To print, the artist places paper over the inked surface and applies pressure by hand or with a printing press, thereby transferring the image to the paper.
Linoleum has no grain, and the artist can easily carve a mark which is fluid and supple.
In a woodcut the matrix is cut along the length of the tree trunk and the artist must work with the grain of the wood, often creating an angular mark.
In wood engraving the matrix is end-grain wood, cut in cross-section across the tree trunk. The artist is not constrained by the direction of the grain and uses specialized tools which create distinctive marks.
Solarplate is a thin plate covered with a light-sensitive emulsion. To create a solarplate relief print, the negative of a drawing or other image is printed on clear acetate, set on top of the plate, and then exposed to light. Light hardens all the uncovered area of the plate (which will subsequently be printed as a relief), but the emulsion is washed out of the negative spaces.
There are a number of ways to create multi-color images in relief printmaking, including:
Multiple blocks, inked in different colors, are printed in succession, one color on top of another, using careful registration. Interesting effects result when colors – either transparent or opaque – overlap one another.
Multicolor reduction woodcuts use only one block, carved away in stages for each subsequent color. The block is cut and used to print the first color; the same block is cut down further (hence the term reduction woodcut) and used to print the second color over the first. The artist continues to cut and print until all colors have been printed. There is, however, no opportunity to go back to the first color, since the wood has already been cut away.
The block is cut into pieces which are inked with separate colors, re-assembled, and printed. This creates a multi-color image in one printing, with a white line – the width of the saw cut – separating each color.
In white-line woodcut, the artist cuts a line to separate each area of color and applies the color (normally with a brush) to the separate shapes on the block before printing. Since watercolor inks are often used for white-line woodcut, the color can vary considerably within an edition.