Inktober 2019

A blockprint in black ink on a white sketchbook, proclaiming in large serif font: Create and fail often - volume matters.
Carved details of the linoleum block, showing ink on all the high spots.
I carved this block just before Inktober 2019, and the sentiment of the message (inspired by a Chase Jarvis interview) influenced my decision to create a large body of work in a short period of time.

In October 2019, I decided that if I wanted to quickly improve my printmaking skills I needed to commit to carving and printing daily. To achieve that goal I decided to participate in Inktober – but with a twist.

Inktober is a daily drawing challenge that has taken place every October since 2009. To help get the creative juices flowing, founder Jake Parker publishes a list of prompts for every day of the month; participants take up the challenge of drawing every day, either using the daily prompt to spark inspiration or sketching their own idea.

My twist on Inktober: I decided to carve and print one new block per day, with an emphasis on completing something for all 31 prompts rather than finishing within the month of October. I documented these daily art attempts on my Instagram account, but I am re-uploading them below for the sake of publishing my content in a location that can be viewed by anyone (rather than solely on Instagram, where viewing content requires you to have an account and be logged in).

But first… printmaking

I have taken up the mantle of “printmaker”. Using an array of sharp hand-held gouges, I carve relief patterns into flat sheets of linoleum. I use a brayer to roll a layer of ink onto the top of the block and then place a sheet of paper on top. By applying pressure to the back of the paper, I can transfer the ink from the block to the paper, producing a block print!

This is an easy and approachable method for making art: introductory materials are quite affordable and readily available, and every carving can be used to produce a large number of images. One of the things that appeals to me about this art medium (as opposed to creating digital works) is that no matter how closely I look, I’ll never be able to discern individual pixels in my prints: instead, the smallest details are dictated by the texture of paper fibers and the amount of ink. Even when creating an edition of seemingly identical prints, no two prints will be the same: different amounts of ink and pressure will create lighter and darker patches, and raised areas that don’t normally receive ink can produce artful “chatter” along the edges of carved areas. It’s a magical process that provides constant opportunities to learn and grow.

I carved my first block in December 2018 and used it to turn plain white butcher paper into wrapping paper for Christmas presents. I started with a very rudimentary set of carving tools, introductory water-based inks, and whatever paper I already had on hand. Between December 2018 and October 2019, I carved a couple of new blocks, but they always took at least a week to carve and ink and I didn’t do enough of it for the lessons to stick from one project to the next.

I decided to carve and print a block for each of the 31 Inktober prompts in order to level up my printmaking skills. By focusing on volume over creating a single perfect block, I hoped to find out what worked and what didn’t and to quickly learn my way around my tools and materials.

31 prints

31 prompts means at least 31 different carvings. I played a bit fast and loose with the official prompt order; the prints below are arranged in the order I completed them. Each image or set of images is accompanied by the original Instagram caption.

Ring (October 2)

A tall thin carved linoleum block on the left, depicting a Japanese wind chime or furin. On the right is the print created from that block.

This Japanese wind chime is based on one I own from a Seattle local shop, Kobo. I remember one hanging in my great grandmother’s house when I was a little kid; I had to jump to get it to ring.

Mindless (October 3)

A carved linoleum block of a maindenhair fern, inked up in blue-green. In the background are 2 carving tools and a print created from the block, all on white paper.

Mindless (which made me think of the word “mindfulness”, then “calm”, which reminded me of plants): I’ve decided to interpret the prompts as very rough suggestions. So here’s a maidenhair fern.

Bait (October 4)

On top, a block print of an angler fish, facing to the right. On the bottom, a hand holding the linocut block used to create the print; the fish in the carving faces to the left.

An angler fish, plus a not-very-effective attempt to mix purple ink. Let’s just say… I was going for dark brown.

Freeze (October 5)

4 glasses filled with liquid, printed in a line. The liquid is printed in a brown-to-dark-peach gradient, like a Thai Iced Tea. The third glass from the left contains a hand-drawn straw and boba.

Freeze – as in brain freeze! I tried a 2-layer stamp this time. I found it surprising that the images still turned out well despite my poor registration attempts: even though registration is something I need to work on, it’s good to know that I have some leeway!

Build (October 6)

3 stamped images of a pink hammer
Fingers holding a pink carved stamp of a hammer, held above 3 pink block prints created from the block.

I decided to try a softer carving material for this tiny stamp. Compared to linoleum, Speedball Speedy-Carve is rubbery and elastic: it’s easy to carve, but more difficult to control fine details.

Husky (October 8)

2 cobs of corn, printed in bold black ink on white paper.
A pencil sketch and the mirror image of that sketch transferred onto a flat sheet of grey linoleum. Both depict a cob of corn with husk partially peeled back.

Enchanted (October 8)

A blue print on black paper, depicting the Space Needle above the Seattle skyline. Puget Sound and the Olympics are in the background.

I originally planned to print this linocut using a gradient of warm colors for a vibrant sunset over the Olympics, but the orange and pinks I mixed didn’t show up very well against the black paper. So here’s a dusky blue sky instead.

Frail (October 9)

An array of ginkgo leaf prints, a carved linoleum block of 2 ginkgo leaves, and a red-handled brayer inked in a blue-to-green gradient.

Frail… fragile… fleeting

The trees are starting to change colors, Top Pot is carrying apple cider donuts, and the days are getting colder and shorter. I’m a fan of all of the above, except for that last one.

Pattern (October 10)

A sheet of cream paper taped to a wall, depicting two entwined floral graphics in dark red ink.
An up-close view of a carved linoleum block depicting a floral design, inked in dark red ink. The relief print from the block is visible in the background.

Ever since I first saw pictures of William Morris’s tessellating floral wallpapers and textile designs, I’ve been wanting to try my hand at creating my own repeating block pattern.

Ash (October 16)

A carved block depicting an ash leaf, covered in green ink. The block sits on top of a white notebook covered in ash leaf prints.

After being out of town for a couple of days, I’m going to be playing catch-up for the next week or so. My goal is to finish all 31 Inktober prompts by the end of the month.

Swing (October 17)

A grey carved linoleum block, depicting the image and text in reverse. Two relief prints from the block are visible in the background.
Two identical impressions from the same block. The design reads Hammock-Driven Development, and shows two legs draped over the edge of a hammock stretching out from a tree. Thought clouds stretch above the hammock.

“Hammock-driven development” is a concept coined by Rich Hickey to describe thinking deeply and critically about a problem before starting to develop a solution, and how this can be a very effective method for developing a final design (he cites it as the development methodology he used when designing and writing the Clojure programming language). That’s not to diminish the values of spontaneous, iterative, or collaborative solutions — it’s just another method for building things and solving problems.

When I first heard of hammock-driven development, my mind immediately produced this image; Inktober gives me a fantastic reason to carve all the unrelated ideas that are bouncing around my head.

Misfit (October 19)

A haphazard array of light blue squares printed on white paper. One of the squares is rotated 45 degrees and has a star pattern carved inside.
A geometric carved linoleum block inked in light blue, next to 2 impressions from the block.

One of these things is not like the other!

Dragon (October 20)

Fingers hold up a carved linoleum block of a dragon flying in front of the moon. The high points of the block are covered in white ink.
The linoleum block lying on black paper. Behind, the block has been printed in white ink on the black paper.

One wyvern wings past the waxing moon.

Sling (October 23)

A multicolored blue/green print of a grawlix. The grawlix reads '#%*@&!'
Fingers hold up a blue carved block of a grawlix. Three prints in different colors are on the paper in the background.

Sling… some insults! When profanity is replaced with symbols and punctuation, you end up with a grawlix.

I carved this stamp out of a Blick Ready-Cut plate, so the result feels more like a rubber stamp than a hard linoleum block.

Dizzy (October 24)

Fingers hold up a carved linoleum block of black squiggles. Two similar linoleum blocks, as well as relief prints from all three, lie on the notebook in the background.
Three carved linoleum blocks depicting black squiggles, impressions from the 3 blocks, a black brush-tip pen, and a red-handled brayer, all sitting on a white spiral-bound notebook page.

I used a brush-tip pen to draw several squiggles directly on the linoleum, then carefully carved around them. Since I couldn’t pick just one to carve, I ended up making all three.

Ornament (October 25)

A hedera printed in overlapping pink and yellow ink on white paper.
A carved block showing a hedera, two prints from the block in a variety of colors, and a rainbow-colored stamp pad.

This is a typographic element called a hedera or a fleuron, used to embellish text or denote paragraph breaks. I found this particular version in WikiCommons, and it was originally published in a 1910 book of French poetry (accessible via the Internet Archive’s library).

I carved this stamp out of a piece of Blick Ready-Carve, and have just about decided to give up on the material. Even with sharp tools, I had an extremely difficult time carving smooth curves, and it was impossible to smoothly transition between cuts. I’ll need to save the rest of the material for a larger, less-detailed pattern, or figure out a more effective way to carve it.

Ghost (October 26)

A relief print in black ink on white paper, depicting 4 kodama sitting and standing on a thick tree branch.
A carved linoleum block depicting 4 kodama on a tree branch. The linoleum block sits on a sheet of brown paper, which contains a black print from the same block.

These ghost-like tree spirits, or kodama, appear in Hayao Miyazaki’s Princess Mononoke. Their presence is an indication of a healthy forest.

Tread (October 27)

Geometric linoleum block carvings with a repeating hexagon pattern.

I’m not sure that this hexagonal design would give you very much traction. However, it’s a pattern that I think I’ll have a lot of fun playing around with, especially layering multiple colors of the same print.

Snow (October 28)

A print depicting a snowball with a carrot nose, 2 button eyes, and 2 stick legs. The print is on white paper and is taped to a wooden backdrop.
Closeup view of the snowball-bird print. The carrot nose is inked in orange and the shadow along the bottom of the snowball is light blue. Both are slightly mis-aligned from the black outlines of the print.

If you make a snowman out of a single snowball, you get a snowbird of the non-Floridian variety.

Injured (October 29)

Fingers holding a stamp carved as a life-sized bandaid, covered up in orange ink.
An array of printed orange bandaids and green health symbols. The two stamps used to create these prints sit in the background.
A hand holding a carving tool above a partially carved linoleum block. The hand's ring finger is covered in a bandaid.

Vacuous statement of the day: sharp tools are sharp. Swipe to the last image to see the guilty culprit (a nice and sharp U-gouge) and my messy setup at the coffee table. The wip you can see on the table was originally going to be today’s post, but after cutting myself, I decided to do something easier.

Treasure (October 30)

Two polyhedral shapes folded from linocut-printed paper. The left shape has 10 sides and is purple on black paper; the right shape has 8 sides and is pink-purple on white paper. Both are printed in a kumiko geometric pattern.
2 paper shapes cut from a printed block, next to an exacto knife and ruler.

I constructed these gem-like geodesic polyhedrons from paper printed with a new linocut design. The repeating design is based off of a Japanese kumiko woodworking pattern.

Coat (October 31)

A hand holding a carved linoleum block of a brayer, in front of several paper prints of the same design.
A print on brown paper depicting a black brayer rolling out swathes of red ink.

I’ve discovered that the brayer doesn’t hold too much ink and I can directly roll out color on the paper. Which seems awfully appropriate, given the prompt.

Overgrown (November 1)

A print of a large overgrown pumpkin surrounded by pumpkin leaves and geometric designs. The print is black ink on cream paper, and is taped to a wooden backdrop.
A closeup view of a black and white print depicting an overgrown pumpkin surrounded by pumpkin leaves and geometric designs.
A worktable covered in tools, ready to carve a pumpkin design into a flat sheet of linoleum.

When I searched for “giant pumpkin” images, they all looked they were collapsing under their own weight. So here’s a giant overgrown pumpkin.

October is now officially over. However, I still have eight Inktober prompts I want to get through. Over the next week, I’ll continue to play catch-up and churn out carvings… maybe not as intricate and time-consuming as this one. But I will finish!

Catch (November 5)

A brown print of 6 cockroaches scuttling across a square.
A hand carving material away from a small piece of linoleum depicting a cockroach.
A closeup view of cockroaches in the print. The bodies and legs of the cockroach are printed; the antenae are hand-drawn.

I don’t like bugs. They scuttle too fast and they have too many legs, and they appear when and where you least expect them. But then, my sister found some cockroaches in her apartment, and I found some inspiration, so here we are. They’re about two inches long, so potentially life size depending on where you live. I have successfully creeped myself out.

Ancient (November 5)

A rope coil basket filled with drop spindles and skeins of handspun yarn. In front of the basket is an index card stamped with a repeated drop spindle image.
Fingers holding a small pink hand-carved stamp of a drop spindle.

Hand spinning is an ancient technology that’s been around in some form as long as people have been making string, approximately 20,000 years. I’ve been using a drop spindle to spin mini skeins of lace-weight yarn (only a subset of all the yarn I’ve spun made it into this picture). Two of the spindles are from Fiber Culture, and the base fiber materials (cotton and wool) are from The Weaving Works. The idea for #tinystamptuesday comes from @thesweetestfern.

Legend (November 6)

A black and white print of Lagavulin whiskey distillery.
A hand holding a carved linoleum block depicting Lagavulin whiskey distillery in mirror image. Behind the block are two prints made from the block.

This print was inspired by a trip earlier this year to Scotland, where Jake and I spent a couple days on Islay and got to tour the Lagavulin distillery.

Out of all the linoleum carvings I’ve done, this one has the most amount of small detail. I was originally planning on making it much larger and therefore easier to carve (~9” wide, rather than its current width of 4.5”), but I’m glad I shrunk everything down; the smaller scale is charming and more gestural (no need to carve all the roof details, plus it’s good practice in control!).

Ride (November 12)

Fingers holding a tiny pink stamp carving of an origami boat. 5 impressions from the stamp are stamped onto the white paper in the background.

Does it still count as Inktober if it’s no longer October but I’m still working through the prompts? I only have four more to go!

These tiny stamps are so fast and fun to carve – you’ll definitely be seeing more of them!

Ripe (November 14)

A print of two pears, depicted in light and dark green and viewed from an angle.
A print of a single pear, depicted in light and dark green. The two colors are not aligned.

My registration is all wonky, but I think it works – it’s an added bit of character (although repeatability is a bit of a problem). 28 done, only three to go!

Tasty (November 16)

Fingers holding a tiny pink stamp of latte art. On the white backdrop behind the hand are 2 stamps of other latte art styles, 1 stamp of an empty coffee cup as viewed from above, and several sheets of brown paper covered in latte mug and latte art stamps.

I couldn’t stop at just one take on latte art, but three seemed like a nice round number. These particular designs are inspired by the countless delicious lattes I’ve had at Espresso Vivace (the tastiest and consistently highest quality coffee in Seattle, in my opinion).

29 Inktober prompts done, only two more to go!

Dark (November 17)

2 crow silhouettes printed in black ink on brown paper.

I originally planned to carve crows for the “wild” prompt, and to carve a large linoleum block featuring one of Chihuly’s glass pieces for the “dark” prompt (based on a picture I took in the dark “Mille Fiori” room at the Chihuly museum in Seattle Center). But it’s already the middle of November and I’m ready to be done with these prompts, so I switched things around a bit to take advantage of small stamp sizes and this softer carving medium. I’m playing fast and loose with these prompts, but I’ve got tomorrow’s design (the last one!) all planned out.

30 done, only one left!

Wild (November 18)

A spiral-bound notebook page depicting trees. The tree foliage is stamped out of repeated triangles, and the trunk details are drawn in black ink.
A flatlay of the tools used to create the print of trees in the background: a hand carved stamp of small triangles, a Micron pen, and a green VersaFine Clair stamp pad.

And that’s a wrap, folks – my Inktober journey is over! 31 prompts in about a month and a half; the total number of carvings is even larger!

Takeaways from the project

Inktober was physically and mentally draining. But at the same time, it served as an immersive crash course in block carving and relief printing and was therefore incredibly valuable. I gained so much experience with my tools and learned about their perks and limitations (and I put together a shopping list of tools that needed upgrading).

I was posting daily updates about this project on Instagram, and as a result I got to meet and interact with many other printmakers and printmaking enthusiasts. My corn print earned a mention on the @im_printed account, a showcase of printmakers worldwide. And I made my first sale to someone I’d never met: a whiskey-enthusiast saw my Lagavulin print and asked to purchase a copy for his collection!

Would I do it again? Maybe. It was a huge time investment, and I’m not sure I’d learn as much the second time around. Am I glad that I’ve done it, and would I recommend it to those looking to improve their printmaking skills? A resounding yes!