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The Printmaking Guide - Relief Printing


A relief print is any print in which an image is printed from the raised portion of a carved, etched, or cast block. A simple example would be a rubber stamp. Here are some forms of relief printing that have developed through history and still exist today.

Chinese Stone Rubbings

Chinese scholars used Chinese stone rubbings to illustrate the images from their scriptures. The images were carved into giant stone slabs. After lines were cut into the stone, damp paper was pressed and molded on the surface, so that the paper was held in the incised lines. The ink was applied and the paper was carefully removed. The resulting image appeared as white lines on a black background. This technique was the foundation of printing.


It is called a relief process because the lines and surfaces to which the ink adheres are higher than the parts that are not printed. To create a woodcut, the artist draws a design on a piece of wood sawed lengthwise across the grain. Pine is the wood most commonly used, although fruitwoods such as pear or cherry may also be used. After smoothing the surface, the wood may be hardened by treating it with shellac. This makes it more durable under the pressure of a press and also makes it easier to carve strong, bold images. The artist then paints or draws an image on the surface. The wood between the drawn lines is cut away, leaving only the drawn image standing on the surface. To make the cuts chisels, gouges or knives may be used.

A roller holding a film of oil-based ink is rolled completely over the block. A sheet of paper, ideally an absorbent paper like rice paper, is placed over the block and the artist may then print the image by hand rubbing the surface with the bowl of a spoon or with another burnishing instrument. The block and paper may be run through a press; under the pressure of the press, the image is transferred to paper. The impression is pulled by carefully lifting a corner of the paper and peeling it off the block. Separate blocks are used for color woodcuts, one block is used for each color.

Linoleum cut

Linoleum cut is a relief print carved into linoleum rather than wood. Linoleum is more easily cut than wood and lighter weight tools are now made and sold for this process. Generally speaking, linocuts are less esteemed by artists than woodcuts. Linoleum will not take very delicate or subtle cuts. The end result may appear block or poster like, we know it today as block-printing and it is very accessible and popular through schools, all the way into higher education.