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Reduction printmaking – Learn how to make it

Reduction printmaking – Learn how to make it

“Reductively Sublime”

by Benjamin D. Rinehart

Relief printmaking utilizes a raised surface to produce a definitive line or mark compared to other printmaking processes like intaglio or lithography. Reductive methods are a wonderful way of printing multiple colors from a single matrix or surface. The reductive process uses the same matrix for each color that is printed. However, after the edition has been printed the printer isn’t able to re-create or restrike the image compared to multiple block printing. The reductive process is typically comprised of two or more printed layers; however many more layers can be created as long as the matrix is able to hold ink.

It is typically best to print from light to dark when considering multiple color runs. The printed results are more predictable and enable the printer greater control over how each subsequent layer reacts to the previously printed layer. Oil-based print runs have a tendency to visually mix much better than water-based inks and offer greater translucency because of the ink chemistry. When switching temperatures of ink for layers (warm and cool colors) they create duller tones that are far less intense compared to what is mixed on the ink slab. The first printed layer will be true to the mixed color, but each subsequent layer will react to what is on the surface of the paper. To compensate, anticipate the color shift and adjust the ink by making it more intense, opaque, or translucent depending on the desired outcome. Be patient, experience and experimentation will benefit the printer over time.

The process can unfold in a number of different ways. This article takes the printer through the natural order of preparing the matrix, creating the image, color layering, registration, and the printing process.


Linoleum and wood are the most common surfaces used for reductive relief printing. Plywood with a laminated wooden surface works very well for woodcut. Birch or Shina plywood is preferred for the quality, durability, and ease of cutting. Any wood may be used as long as it has an evenly planed surface. A thickness of 1/2” (13 mm) or more is recommended to prevent warping and for greater stability after repeated press runs. Linoleum doesn’t have a discernible grain, which some artists prefer compared to wood. Sharp tools are necessary for both methods, but especially when cutting against the grain of a wooden surface.

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Blick Battleship Gray Linoleum, Unmounted, 24&quot x 36&quot, Pkg of 3

Linoleum – Unmounted sheets and mounted blocks are found at most art supply stores. The unmounted linoleum can be cut with a heavy utility knife.
(click on the image to be sent to an online store)

Wood Blocks

Wood Blocks – Birch or Shina Plywood is suggested and a table saw works best for cutting clean lines. A hardware supplier often carries birch and will often cut the wood on demand. However, various sizes may also be available at an art or wood supply store.
(click on the image to be sent to an online store)

Staining the Matrix

A medium value like red or orange is used to stain the surface so that when cutting begins it is easier to see what has been carved away from the matrix.

Ink is used with a little bit of thinning agent so that it stains the matrix. This is preferred over printing an entire layer of ink over the surface as this might fill or clog minor surface anomalies like wood grain or pores of the surface. When using wood, this will raise the natural grain and may require light sanding with a fine grit sandpaper to smooth the surface as desired after the stained surface is dry.

• Use a rag or brush to stain the block with watercolor pigment or diluted ink and allow drying overnight.


Creating the Image

Draw or photocopy transfer an image to the surface of the matrix. Computer programs can be used to create a digital sketch. The print out can then be used for easier reference and application. Drawing directly onto the matrix with a permanent marker is another great way to secure an image and eliminates the need for transfers. Additionally, the two methods can be combined as desired.


Sealing the Matrix

A polyurethane works best for sealing any drawing materials or transfers to the surface of the matrix. A water or oil-based varnish can be used. A thin coat is all that is required to sufficiently seal the surface. If the permanent marker was used for the drawing it may discolor the ink layers if not sealed properly. The marker typically shows up with lighter colors when printing. That said, sealing the matrix is an optional step and may diminish wood grain or the pores of the surface depending on the application.

Reductive Method – Cutting the Image

The reductive method is great due to the fact that each cut eliminates the need to replicate the same area of the matrix when compared to multiple block printing. The primary key to creating a successful final image is the registration (See “Registration”). Tight or exact registration allows the printer to showcase a greater amount of detail. Be creative with tools and how they inform mark on the surface of the matrix. Non-traditional tools work just as well as commercially produced tools. Be expressive and choose instruments that best represent the idea for the print. A combination of marks often yields dynamic visual effects. Below is a step-by-step method for how a reductive print is created.

Tools for Mark Making

Linoleum & WoodcutAdditional Tools
linoleum handle and nibs (U, V, liner & clearing)wire brushes & sandpaper
woodcutting tools (U, V, liner & clearing)Dremel tool
etching or potters needlesharpening stone & oil (wood only)

Pfeil Tools are high quality Swiss made carving tools suitable for either lino or wood cutting.

Each tool is made from chrome vanadium steel, precisely forged, sharpened and polished for excellent results. Palm-handles are made of hardwood from ecologically managed Swiss forests.
Full bolster and square tang for optimal stability. Internal steel ferrule under bolster prevents the handle from splitting. Tools are hardened to the edge of the bevel. Blades electronically hardened to exacting tolerances.

These tools can be found in different sets or bought one by one in order to make a set more suitable for you.



• The first cut to the matrix exposes what the actual color of the paper will be. Keep in mind that the paper is considered a part of the color palette. Don’t despair if the image is relatively unrecognizable after the first printing session. It will emerge after more print runs have been applied. Prepare the paper in advance of the printing session and determine what method of registration is appropriate for the image (See “Paper Preparation” & “Registration”).

• Print the first color for all of the prints that you wish to have in the edition. It is best to pull extra prints so that any mis-registered prints won’t affect the final edition size. Typical loss is roughly 20%, but this depends on the precision of the printer and/or registration (See “Registration”). Allow the first printed layer drying for greater color control, especially when switching temperatures (See “Ink Preparation”).

• The second cut and every cut thereafter should reflect whatever the artist wants to keep from the previously printed layer or color. Keep in mind that the initial cuts from the first printed layer also won’t print. The illustrations provide an example of a four-color run and how the progressive layers begin to reveal the image. Artists that are new to this process find it easier to conceptualize and predict how the layers begin to affect one another after the second layer is printed. Be patient with the development and visualization of the image.

• It’s important to remember to print each color run for all of the prints in the edition for each layer. Once additional cuts have been made it will change the next printed layer, therefore the image can’t be recreated in the same way.

• Continue layering and cutting as desired. Some artists use two layers while others create seven or more with subtle shifts between layers to mimic a posterizing effect.



Ink Preparation

A small distribution of ink yields the most controlled and detailed results. This process is a great way to build up the surface of a print, especially with three or more layers. It eventually forms a skin and the surface gets a shine as more layers are added creating a leathery look.

Viscosity is a fancy way of discussing the tackiness or stickiness of the ink. A dry stiff ink is said to have a higher “viscosity” or having greater tack. Whereas, a thinner ink is less viscous. Typically, ink runs are printed starting with a lower to higher viscosity or looser to stiffer inks. Using the inks in this way gives more predictable results, however, playing around with the viscosity can give some wonderful visual results or “happy accidents”. It will take some time to master the qualities and application of each ink. Ink modifiers may intensify the results and much like cooking, each recipe will yield different outcomes. The heaviness of ink also determines the final look.

There are several water-based and oil-based inks available for relief printing. I prefer lithographic inks for the diversity of colors, modifiers, and ease of adjusting the viscosity. However, the water-based Caligo inks are close in terms of viscosity and are much easier to clean up. Modifiers vary between water and oil-based inks but have similar properties. Just be sure to use the appropriate modifier for each ink as they should never be cross-mixed.

The inks are typically affected by weather conditions. Excessive humidity will slow drying time just like hot and dry climates may cause the inks drying more rapidly. Inks may be modified to maintain control of each color run for more predictable results.

Water-based InksOil-based Inks
Process colors (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black), white, & any additional hues. Colors may be mixed to yield an unlimited color palette.Process colors (Cyan, Magenta, Yellow, Black), white, & any additional hues. Colors may be mixed to yield an unlimited color palette.
• Tint/Transparent Base is an extender that makes the ink transparent. The tint base can be mixed to any ratio with ink to obtain desired transparency.


• Varnishes are used to thin the ink and add luster. Varnishes may be found with different surface quality similar to oil-based versions.

• Retarder is mixed with the ink to keep it from drying as quickly. Only a few drops are needed to obtain the desired effect.

• Tint/Transparent Base is an extender that makes the ink transparent. The tint base can be mixed to any ratio with ink to obtain desired transparency.


Magnesium Bi-Carbonate or “MAG” is used to stiffen the ink. Typically, for each subsequent color run a stiffer ink should be used.

Varnishes are used to thin the ink and add luster. Varnish has a tendency to dry very slowly. It also can yellow the color of the ink. Some printers add a little of Cobalt Dryer to speed drying time. Varnishes may be found with a variety of different lusters; matte, semi-gloss and glossy.

• Sewell makes the ink creamy or more fluid for printing.

Plate Oil is also used to thin the ink. It should be used sparingly. If too much oil is used with will make the ink soupy. A few drops are usually sufficient if the ink is too stiff.

• Cobalt Dryer is mixed with the ink to speed up the drying time. Only a few drops are needed to obtain the desired effect. If too much dryer is used it can cause the ink to become slightly blue in tone or surface dry before printing is complete.

WaterOdorless mineral spirits or similar solvent, mineral or vegetable oil
Degreasing sprayDegreasing spray
General Supplies 
Palette knives & glass scraperInk Slab
Brayers and rollersRags or paper towels
Press (intaglio, proofing press, etc.)Baren or wooden spoon (hand printing)

• Mix your color(s) and roll out the ink onto a slab by placing a strip of ink across that is slightly wider than the matrix. Roll forward and back and then lift off the slab. Repeat until the ink is rolled out evenly. Start off with as little ink as possible. It should be rolled out to ensure that it will cover the surface of the matrix. The ink should be somewhat stiff to start off with and then get gradually stiffer with each subsequent layer. This controls how the color layers affect one another. Relief typically requires more ink compared to some other forms of printmaking due to the surface area and porous nature of the matrix.

Paper Preparation

Many types of paper can be used for this process and come in a variety of fibers, surface textures, and colors. That said, a smooth surfaced paper yields the greatest amount of image detail when coupled with a thinner application of ink. Heavier printmaking papers work just as well as thin Asian papers when printing but may differ in terms of how the ink hits the surface or how much embossment will occur.

Paper for prints is traditionally torn down to size from a larger sheet of archival quality paper. However, artists may determine the final look of the paper based on personal aesthetics relevant to the image being created.

• The paper is measured, marked and torn from the back with the face side of the paper down on the tearing surface. The front side of quality printmaking papers can be determined by a tooth or textured surface and/or the watermark typically along the edge of the sheet.

• Brace a ruler or tear bar with one hand. Use the other hand to tear and pull up toward the opposite shoulder.

• The example shown is for a 2” (5 cm) border around a 6”x9” (15-22.5 cm) print. Traditionally there is a 2” (5 cm) border on the top, right, and left-hand side of the image area. The bottom usually has a slightly larger border of about 2 1/2” to 3” (6-7.5 cm) to visually weight the bottom of the image. This gives room for the artist signature, title, and numbering for the edition. The printer can expect roughly four prints from one 22”x30” (55 x 75 cm) sheet of paper.

• A bleed print is where the image goes to the edge and there are no discernible borders. Both borders and absence of borders are acceptable. This should be planned in advance and may affect which registration is used (See “Registration”).

• Prepare enough sheets for the required edition size then add another 20% for proofing and safety measure.


There are several methods of registration to consider when printing reductively. It may depend on the matrices being used. A higher or thicker matrix will make the acetate method more challenging for line-up of each print run. Look over the options to determine which method suits the print. Each press is different in terms of setting the pressure and it’s important to start off with light pressure so that the cut matrix isn’t crushed or damaged when run through the press. Remember to adjust the pressure on the press to the appropriate height that includes the matrix, paper, and newsprint. Hand printing is also an option and the typical method is to apply pressure with a baren or wooden spoon on the backside of the paper. A thinner paper is typically used for hand methods to ease the transfer of ink from matrix to the paper. Artists that print by hand typically apply a little more ink to offset the ink more easily onto the paper.

Plop & Drop

This is the easiest and perhaps the most effective method of registering smaller blocks for the reductive method. Light pencil marks can be drawn on each sheet for initial placement then erased later.

• Lay the paper face up and place the inked matrix face down onto the paper surface.

• Once the matrix is placed, carefully slide the matrix and paper to the edge of the table. With firm pressure on both sides, flip the matrix and paper over.

• Place a piece of newsprint or waste paper on top and run through the press.

• This process is repeated for each subsequent color in the same manner. Rely on the placement of the block onto the previously printed layer for greater accuracy. The matrix can be tapped into place slightly before flipping over and run through the press. This typically doesn’t cause any smudging, but may depend on the complexity of the image and amount of ink on the surface of the matrix.

T-Bar with or without Bleed

• Marks should be made outside of the image area at the center of the block at both the top and bottom. Marks may be placed on the side of the block so that it doesn’t interrupt the image area.

• Place the paper on the block (without ink) so that it lines up with the marks on the block. Mark a line at the top and bottom on the back of each sheet of paper for the edition. Make a slash or “o” at the top bar so that the image prints for correct orientation for each color run.

Acetate Template

• On a piece of acetate, mark the size of the block and corners for the paper with a permanent marker. Do this on the underneath side so that the marker doesn’t dislodge while printing and/or cleaning off the acetate surface.

• A piece of paper or newsprint with the same kind of registration may be used instead and slipped underneath a piece of acetate. Ensure that the registration sheet is larger than the paper and/or matrix being used to avoid any unintentional embossment.


Happy Printing!

The tips provided in this article should produce more predictable results. As with baking, it’s best to read through the recipe, assemble all of the ingredients in advance, and prepare the necessary materials prior to printing. For questions or advice feel free to contact me at or visit my website at

This article was written by Benjamin D.Rinehart and all images copyright © benjaminrinehart 2019

Benjamin D. Rinehart specializes in multimedia images with a strong focus in printmaking and book constructions. His socially charged work is a part of fifty-five public collections and has been exhibited both nationally and internationally. Ben received a Bachelor of Fine Arts at Herron School of Art and a Master of Fine Arts from Louisiana State University. He is currently an Associate Professor of Printmaking and Artist Books at Lawrence University in Appleton, Wisconsin. He continues to lecture and teach as a visiting artist at various institutions around the country like the Center for Book Arts in NYC, Minnesota Center for Book Arts, and the John Michael Kohler Art Center. 

Benjamin D.Rinehart is the author of a book titled,
“Creating Books & Boxes.”


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  • Mei April 27, 2018 at 12:06 am

    Superb article

    • TOP Team April 27, 2018 at 9:14 am

      Thanks for the visit! 😉

  • Wiggins Artwork March 27, 2019 at 12:27 pm

    This is a great process blog! Really nicely explained! Might have to try this myself soon. What is your favorite ink brand to use?

    • TOP Team March 27, 2019 at 1:19 pm

      Hi Wiggins,
      Thanks for your feedback.
      The TOP choice for ink is Charbonnel. You can know a little more about this brand here.
      We are also working on a series of reviews on inks (here’s an example) and other materials. To receive this kind of information first hand you must subscribe to our newsletter. 😉


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