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 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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
Enchanted (October 8)
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)
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)
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)
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)
“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)
One of these things is not like the other!
Dragon (October 20)
One wyvern wings past the waxing moon.
Sling (October 23)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
If you make a snowman out of a single snowball, you get a snowbird of the non-Floridian variety.
Injured (October 29)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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)
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!