03 Apr The power of block printing – what is it and what you can do with it
At 3 Dotted Penguins, everything starts with a block print. I love how versatile block printing is: I can carve a new stamp surprisingly quickly, test out new designs, print new patterns for the first time, and play around with new pattern combinations. But what is block printing, you are asking? Let’s dive in…
Table of Contents
INTRODUCTION - What is block printing
So, what is block printing? It’s one of the oldest relief printmaking methods. In plain terms, we take a slab of material, typically a block of wood, linoleum, or rubber, and carve a design into the flat surface (a relief), which can then be printed onto paper, fabric, or other materials.
Block printing has a long and rich history, with examples of block-printed textiles dating back thousand and more years in places like India, China, and Japan. In Europe, block printing was first used in the 15th century. Over time, block printing became an important medium for artistic expression.
Today, block printing is a popular hobby and art form that allows artists and makers to create unique and personalized designs on various surfaces. With just a few tools and materials, anyone can create beautiful, one-of-a-kind prints. In the following sections, we will explore the materials and techniques used in block printing, as well as some of the many things you can create with this versatile printmaking method.
TOOLS & MATERIALS - What do you need for block printing
The beauty about block printing is that you do not need much to get started – here are some of the key tools & materials:
- Lino-carving tools – you will need sharp cutting tools to carve your designs into the block.
- Carving blocks – here at 3 Dotted Penguins I mostly use soft carving rubber to carve the stamps I use for block printing (this will also be the focus of this post)
- Paper or fabric to print on – smooth paper and fabric will give you the best results when starting out.
- Block printing ink or ink pads – go for ink that is specifically made for block printing and for the surface (paper, fabric, etc.) you want to print on.
You can read more about the tools & materials needed to get started with block printing in this post here.
THE TECHNIQUE - How does block printing work
There are different materials you can use and different ways you can do block printing. This summary is based on hand-carved stamps made from soft carving materials.
DRAWING YOUR DESIGN
It all starts with drawing a design (on paper or also digitally) and transferring it onto the block (typically with transfer paper). There is hardly any limit to the type of designs you can make, but – especially when starting out – start with simple designs and work your way up to more complex designs as you gain experience.
CARVING YOUR BLOCK
Use your cutting tools to carve your design into the block. You carve away those areas that you do not want to print and leave those areas untouched that will take ink and leave an impression on the surface you want to print on. You will use different sizes of carving tools for fine lines and to carve away larger areas of material that you do not want to leave an impression on your final print.
Even though this might sound intimidating, it is not! The process of carving can actually get quite meditative and is super enjoyable.
With smaller block sizes, we often call our block a hand-carved stamp.
PRINTING YOUR BLOCK
Apply thin layers of ink onto your carved block, either using an ink pad or block printing ink with a plate and brayer (ink roller). Make sure the stamp is covered evenly, then place the inked block face down onto the surface, apply even pressure at the back of the block to transfer the ink, and lift up your stamp to reveal your print.
Repeat over and over again. Reapply the ink to the block & repeat the printing process to build up your one print and/or create a series of prints of the same design.
EXPERIMENT & PLAY
Once you have your stamp(s) carved and made your first print(s), it’s time to experiment and play (one of my favorite parts of block printing!). Use different color combinations, experiment with pattern arrangements, and play with textures to create unique and interesting prints. The versatility of what you can do with one single block or – even more so – with just a few blocks is amazing. The possibilities are literally endless!
HOW TO LEARN - the best way to get block printing
Block printing is much easier than you might imagine. When I started out, I had a very healthy level of respect (perhaps a little bit too healthy) for the sharp carving tools, and I thought stamp carving looked too complicated and too advanced for my creative skill set. But it turned out it was not! Far from it.
And there are many resources out there that will help you get started with or refine your block printing:
READ UP ON BLOCK PRINTING: you get a book and can find free tutorials online that will walk you through the block printing process.
FIND A CLASS: you can find many in-person classes and workshops in your local craft store, community center, or art school, or even more conveniently, you can find many online workshops and courses on block printing on the internet. You can find my range of classes, from a 3-hour Intro to Block printing to a multi-week deep dive into block-printed repeat patterns, here.
PRACTICE, PRACTICE, PRACTICE: start practicing! Begin with simple designs and work your way up to more complex ones. Don’t worry if your first prints aren’t as perfect as you would like them to be – you will see significant progress within a short period of time if you establish regular practice.
STAY CURIOUS AND HAVE FUN (AKA EXPERIMENT): block printing opens up so many possibilities as it is such a versatile medium – don’t be afraid to experiment – try printing on different materials, experiment with different colors, designs, and blocks. The more you experiment, the more you will learn what works for you and what does not!
But most importantly, have fun!
LAST CHANCE TO JOIN ONE OF MY LIVE ONLINE BLOCK PRINTING WORKSHOPS FOR THE VERY LAST TIME …
Get started with block printing or dive deep into the world of block-printed repeat patterns in one of my live online block printing workshops this European spring (April to June). These workshops are running for the last time ever.
APPLICATIONS - What you can do with block printing
Block printing is a versatile printmaking method that can be used to create a variety of things, from art prints to home decor! Here are just a few examples of what you can do with block printing:
CREATE WALL ART
Use your hand-carved stamps and print blocks to make your own art prints to display on your walls. Print onto high-quality (archival) paper and frame your prints for a modern and personalized touch. Wall art makes a great gift too!
MAKE YOUR OWN FABRIC
You can create your own custom fabric designs through block printing. Print onto plain cotton or linen fabric to make custom pillowcases, tea towels, tote bags, and more! Or give an old (or plain) t-shirt new live with a beautiful decorative custom block printed design.
PRINT YOUR OWN CARDS
Block printing is a great way to create your own unique and personalized cards for any occasion, such as holidays or birthdays. Print your design onto cardstock or blank cards and add your own handwriting (or even hand lettering) or embellishments for an extra-special touch.
PRINT GIFT WRAP
Hand-printed wrapping paper is a special way to wrap any presents. Often a simple design that can be repeated easily is enough to create a beautiful gift wrap. Print onto kraft paper or tissue paper, or – even better – print onto newspaper or repurposed old gift wrap for a unique, more eco-friendly wrapping option.
CUSTOMIZE HOME DECOR
Use block printing to add a personal touch to your home decor, whether lampshades, curtains, throw pillows, table runners, or even furniture. Get creative and experiment with printing on other surfaces as well, such as printing on wood.
This list could go on and on! What about printing your own custom stationery, printing on ceramics, designing your own hand-carved stamps to sell, book covers, custom-printed journals, etc.
OUT OF BLOCK PRINTING IDEAS? - here is a list of 60+ project ideas.
I made this list of more than 60 project ideas for block printing on different materials and surfaces for you. Enter your email address below and it will be emailed to your inbox.
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A LOVE LETTER TO BLOCK PRINTING - or call it the summary 😉
Block printing is a versatile and rewarding art form that has been used for centuries to create beautiful and unique prints. With block printing, the possibilities are truly endless. Whether you’re a seasoned artist or a beginner looking to try something new, block printing is a fun and rewarding hobby or a great addition to your professional creative practice that allows you to express your creativity in a unique and tangible way. With a little creativity, you can use block printing to create a wide range of projects that are both beautiful and functional.
With just a few simple tools and some basic techniques, anyone can learn to carve their own designs onto blocks and create beautiful prints. The possibilities are endless, and the satisfaction of creating something unique and personal is truly rewarding. Oh, and did I mention that the process of carving your own stamps and repeatedly putting down your carved blocks to create impressions on your print surface (aka block printing) can have meditative qualities?
So why not give block printing a try? Whether you’re looking to create your own greeting cards, decorate your home, or make a personal fashion statement, block printing is a fun and rewarding way to express your creativity and add a personal touch to your projects – the only limit is your imagination.
Remember, the most important thing is to have fun and enjoy the creative process. So get your hands dirty and start block printing today!
If you are a block printer yourself, tell us in the comments below what your favorite project has been so far or what you enjoy most about block printing.