The Rise of Color Reduction Prints

Color linocut reduction prints and color woodcut reduction prints basically utilize the same technical trick.  It consists in using a single matrix or block (linoleum or wood respectively) to print all colors of the composition.  A few of the artists represented by Mesh Art Gallery use this technique and we think their work is amazing.  So we decided to introduce it in greater detail.

Katsushika Hokusai - Under the Wave off Kanagawa (Kanagawa oki nami ura) - The Great Wave - Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

Katsushika Hokusai - Under the Wave off Kanagawa
from the Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji

Traditional color printmaking was developed using wood planks in Japan many centuries ago.  This technique is called mokuhanga (木版画).  In this technique individual blocks are registered to line up perfectly, so that one color is positioned exactly next to the other.  This technique was adopted in the Western Hemisphere in the 19th century, first in lithography, then in intaglio and other printmaking techniques.  One of the main difficulties of printing in color is that all matrixes need to line up precisely.  This may seem easy to do in our contemporary reality of pixels, but hundreds of years ago, lining up uneven planks of wood could be a challenge.  And even for linoleum blocks, which are generally more consistent in texture than wood, transferring the color outlines from block to block, so they line up perfectly, is laborious and fraught with possible errors.

And so the reduction print came into existence.  A printmaker can easily register the colors, since they all come from one and the same surface.  As long as the matrix is placed in the same spot each time at printing (often with the use of a template), the only moving part, so to speak, is the paper.  The paper can be marked so it lines up in the same place each time (or it can be cut to a specific size, and also placed on a template).  It is also easier for an artist to see what was printed in the previous color, simply by using the previous printed color as a reference.  The major drawback is that this process is a one-way street.  Each color has to be printed on each sheet of the edition before the block can be carved further, and before the next layer of color can be added.  The artist needs to plan ahead carefully.  If anything goes wrong at printing, or if an artist carves too aggressively, it can be difficult to redress the situation.  In most cases flawed registration requires for the impression to be rejected.  And carving too much can mean starting from scratch.  Nevertheless, this technique has gained traction of late; some artists clearly think the pros outweigh the cons.

Pablo Picasso - Femme Nue Cueillant des Fleurs - color linocut reduction - first state

Pablo Picasso, Femme Nue Cueillant une Fleur, first color

Pablo Picasso - Femme Nue Cueillant des Fleurs - color linocut reduction

Pablo Picasso, Femme Nue Cueillant une Fleur, edition in 4 colors

While it is said that Pablo Picasso developed the reductive method in linoleum in the late 1950s, this myth has been debunked.  However, it is clear that the technique, which had been used by other artists earlier in the 20th century, particularly in Great Britain, was not widely known or used.  Even today printmakers who print their color woodcuts or linocuts in a reductive method are few.  A great number of people who make relief prints in color try their hand at it, but few stick with it, and even fewer perfect their skills over extended periods of time.

Grietje Postma - 2018-I - color woodcut reduction

Grieje Postma, 2018-I, color woodcut reduction

We at Mesh have the honor of working with two Dutch artists who can be said to be at the top of their game as reductive printmakers.  Grietje Postma and Siemen Dijkstra were trained by the same artist at Minerva academy in Groningen (Northern Netherlands).  Both artists also work in wood.  While their styles are very different, a common theme of the Dutch landscape is obvious.  Dijkstra renders these views in an exacting detailed manner, with many colors in closely associated hues; Postma in her prints creates landscapes that are imagined and where colors are often used in inventive ways.

Siemen Dijkstra - Over het Oethoezer Wad 2 - color woodcut reduction

Siemen Dijkstra, Over het Oethoezer Wad, color woodcut reduction

Aside from these two artists, Mesh Art Gallery also has the distinct pleasure of showing the color linoleum reductions of William H. Hays.  Hays is a self-taught printmaker, who was primarily a painter for most of his career.  Today, he works almost exclusively in reductive printmaking, depicting Vermont, where he lives, as well as landscapes from nearby locations.  His work is notable for its vivid colors and dramatic compositions.

William Hays - Acadian Moon - color linocut - 2017

William H. Hays, Acadian Moon, color linocut reduction

If you are interested in seeing the process in visual detail, you can navigate to the bottom of this page where we showcase a work by Dave Lefner.  If you are taken in particular by the work of William Hays, click on the image below.  It will send you to a newsletter in which Hays describes and illustrates his method in great detail.  It's visually compelling to see and opens an artist's studio doors in an unusually wide way.  We highly recommend this newsletter.

William H Hays - Back Bay - color linocut reduction 2019 - original print - process

Click on the image above to see William H. Hays create "Back Bay".  It's a worthwhile and intimate look into an artist's studio.

As staunch defenders of independent artists who excel in their craft, we obviously gravitate towards reduction printmaking.  Only dedicated printmakers shine in it.  Therefore, we have found that those who use this method are often presenting an output of the highest artistry.  As we type these words we are in discussions with other printmakers whose work we admire.  But we also want to mention a few other names of contemporary printmakers; these are artists whose reductive technique we deem to be of high caliber.

Gordon Mortensen - Manitoba - color woodcut reduction - original color woodcut

Gordon Mortensen, Manitoba, color woodcut reduction

Any such overview would be incomplete without mentioning of Gordon Mortensen.  This artist was already perfecting his reductive woodcut technique in the 1960s, at a time when few collectors or printmakers even knew what it was.  To this day Mortensen creates detailed landscapes and floral compositions that go from the subdued to the very brightly vibrant.

Jean Gumpper - Mojave Spring - color woodcut reduction - pochoir

Jean Gumpper, Mojave Spring, color woodcut reduction

In a similar vein, Jean Gumpper has also been creating layered color woodcut reductions depicting landscapes.  While Mortensen’s work is mostly presenting expansive vistas, Gumpper’s work is focused on color saturations, concentrating on closer-up views of water, plants and leaves.  Layered patterns are her main compositional building block and they create luscious chromatic textures.

Dave Lefner - The Palace - 2008 - color linocut reduction - route 66 images - pop art printmaking

Dave Lefner, The Palace, color linocut reduction

Since circa 2000 Dave Lefner, a Los Angeles based artist, has been using linoleum to create pop art inspired compositions with a vintage look.  In Lefner’s work language and typography dominate, but he has also shown a predilection for rendering spindly power lines and assorted other objects in a compelling way.  His lines are crisp and his hues are usually subdued, which makes for an elegant combination.

Laura Boswell - Vale Dawn - reduction linocut and woodblock color - mokuhanga

Laura Boswell, Vale Dawn, reduction linocut and woodblock color

Finally, we have also been very impressed by the work of British artist Laura Boswell.  Her prints use a combination of woodblock printing and linocut.  Sometimes Boswell mixes these techniques, but often uses them independently.  In both parts of her work however, a certain level of translucency of the inks offers an effect which reminds of watercolors.  This is a technique at which artists from Great Britain have excelled for centuries.  Boswell seems to find her compositional and technical inspiration in Japanese esthetics and her use of water-based colors in her woodcuts remind us of early Ukiyo-e prints.

color woodcut reduction print by Nick Wrobleski - Wake Up Island

Nick Wrobleski, Wake Up Island, color woodcut reduction

Of course this article is not a comprehensive overview of artists working in color reduction printmaking techniques.  Other talented creators are out there, people such as Nick Wrobleski in Minnesota, to name just one.  This brief article is only meant to draw attention to a printmaking technique which is gaining in popularity with artists and collectors alike.  The colors which reductive techniques bring to printmaking, introduce a larger segment of the public to the wonders of original prints.  While we remain suckers for a good line and wonderful grayscale, works of art in color are obviously approachable to a greater many.  The fact that reductive woodcuts and linocuts are becoming more common is likely a function of that reality.  And we at Mesh are all too happy to oblige the public, in light of the amazing talents we have found.

Below, a few visuals showing you the process of carving and printing
Blue Room by Dave Lefner.  We thank the artist for sharing these images with us.
To see more of his work, go to http://www.davelefner.com/.
1 - Dave Lefner - Blue Room - color reduction linocut method - carved first stage
Carved first stage
2 - Dave Lefner - Blue Room - color reduction linocut method - first color
Printing the first color
3 - Dave Lefner - Blue Room - color reduction linocut method - second color
The second color printed
4 - Dave Lefner - Blue Room - color reduction linocut method - fourth color
Carved fourth stage, inked and ready for printing
5 - Dave Lefner - Blue Room - color reduction linocut method - printing the fifth color
Ready to print the fifth color

7 - Dave Lefner - Blue Room - color reduction linocut method - pulling the sixth color
Pulling the sixth color
6 - Dave Lefner - Blue Room - color reduction linocut method - reduced block 
What's left of the block at printing of the last color
8 - Dave Lefner - Blue Room - color reduction linocut method - finished print
Tadaaa!  Which is easy to say when you're not the one creating...
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