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Colour Printing with Linoleum and Wood Blocks

Allen W. Seaby




OF the crafts now practised in schools, printing from blocks of linoleum or wood is at once among the most attractive and the most difficult. It is difficult because, while requiring the same care and accuracy on the part of the learner as does basket-making or weaving, it demands other capabilities. Given canes or raffia and a commencement, the basket in a sense almost makes itself, but the craft of colour printing assumes an interest in pictorial composition, or a desire to make a beautiful pattern, suitable for manifolding by the conditions of the process. That is to say, unless one has a subject which will make a print, the practice of the craft is mere waste of material.

Fortunately, the instinct of the young reaches towards the picture and the pattern. There is generally not so much difficulty in finding a subject as in choosing between those offered. The new school drawing has shown us that children think in pictures, that they express themselves through pencil and paint, coloured papers or other materials, spontaneously and with ease. They experience none of the diffidence that grown ups, even mature artists, feel in approaching their theme; the composition seems to bubble up within them, and the forms and colours find their places on the paper without effort.

Colour printing accords too with another impulse, the desire to manifold. Children press tinfoil on coins or reproduce the embossing of a book cover by rubbing on tissue paper. Printing is manifolding at its highest, a sort of magic very captivating to many minds. The preliminary work once accomplished, be it the cutting of wood or the setting up of type, the printed page glides from the hand or press, without betraying the agony of composition or the labour involved. The work springs into being with a delightful freshness: it never looks 'tired', however inadequate have been the means used to produce it.

Perhaps the first school printing in colour seen in England was at the International Exhibition of School Drawing held in London, when a number of highly coloured prints from Germany attracted attention. Writing from memory, these lino cuts were printed with printer's inks in a press. But before this, Mr. Morley Fletcher had issued some prints in colour, using methods based on those by which the Japanese produced their beautiful colour prints, and as his methods do not involve a press or the use of sticky printer's ink, they are to be recommended for school use, or for students with artistic power and some facility in using tools, who desire to work out their own compositions without the aid of professional printers, or even a press. There is another consideration worthy of the artist's attention. It has been proved by Morley Fletcher and his followers that few as are the materials and processes, yet by their means true works of art can be produced. The colour print may reveal the most delicate and beautiful form expressed in subtle line, and the whole glowing with colour, which need not even be flat. The growth of the craft, too, accords with the tendency of our time to enjoy colour. The black and white processes, such as lithography and etching, will always be with us, and on their own ground cannot be surpassed. Yet, judging by the attention given to the process by numerous artists, by comments in the press, and the rapidly growing literature on the subject, the colour print is coming into its own, demanding the attention of the collectors, who need not doubt the 'staying power' of the product. Printed on the toughest and finest paper the world produces, with the best and most permanent of artist colourman's pigments, the colour lies on the paper with a beautiful mat quality. Lastly, the print accords well with the surface of a wall, far more closely indeed than the 'in and out' quality of etchings and painting.

Dealing first with the limitations of colour printing as a school craft, it has been found that a child whose strength is unequal to manipulating wood, can deal with linoleum with ease, and produce good work. Professor Cizek's pupils proved that. Linoleum, indeed, is not unknown to professional printers, and on an emergency, for an 'outsize' letter or a band of colour, it has demonstrated its usefulness, for it can be cut to shape readily, and its smooth surface is ideal for printing in a press.

It is not even necessary to obtain the thick and expensive sorts, for the thinner makes may be glued down on wood or even used alone: even if one cuts right through the material, no harm is done.

The great use of printing in schools is its stimulus to the expressive side of the drawing lesson. Some schools have boldly produced illustrated books, the lino cuts being either printed in a press with the type, or rubbed off by hand in the way described here. If the subject is in black and white only, the composition may be reproduced either by means of a small quick gouge, the Cizek method for early efforts, building up the composition with white lines, in the manner of wood engraving, or the white spaces between the lines may be cut away with a knife and gouges. For finer work in the former method graving tools may be used.

Block cutting will not be carried on long before everyone in the classroom, including the teacher, will have learned a valuable lesson in the use and limitations of the pencil. This implement is so cheap, so ready to the hand, so obviously a thing to draw with, that teachers might be pardoned for supposing that the drawing lesson without the pencil would be impossible. Yet the great draughtsmen of the past never saw a pencil. Albert Durer and Titian both relied almost exclusively on the pen, occasionally making use of black chalk, both mediums which do not allow of much alteration or erasure. Many pupils can hardly be persuaded to draw without india rubber within reach. But while the pencil, with or without rubber, is admittedly a most useful medium for studying form, in original composition for reproduction by printing it must necessarily take a subordinate place because, for all practical purposes a pencil line cannot be reproduced, and if it could, a few minutes' drawing produces more lines than one would care to cut. Both for black and white and colour the brush is the instrument for setting out the subject efficiently. This difficulty, the tendency to produce a composition so complicated or small in scale, that it is impossible to cut, suggests a rule of composition, which is implied in Professor Cizek's dogma, that any human figures in the composition must occupy the paper. He knows that children, like other primitives, envisage a wide environment, in which their tiny figures act their parts. But this attitude towards the subject is wrong, simply because, so set down, the work cannot be cut. That is to say, at once the pupils come up against suitability of means to an end; they have to consider their medium.

In dealing with colour, the discipline of materials is still more pronounced. The ordinary tin colour box with its numerous and unnecessary pigments (no child's box should contain more than six) is too tempting. Often the colour is little more than dirt arising from jumbled colours, which is, however, not seldom beautified by the white paper shining through. The discipline of colour printing, reducing the composition to a few related hues, is an excellent corrective to colour daubing. On the other hand, the process has nothing to do with the three-colour printing of the press, where the colour is obtained by dots of red, blue, and yellow impinging everywhere. In the method here discussed there may be two up to twenty or more colour patches each being printed separately. The method has no commercial value, and therefore the question of time does not enter.


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