How To Spend Five Days Making Xmas Cards

Posted by on Dec 25, 2014 in Artwork, Blog
How To Spend Five Days Making Xmas Cards

Okay, I’m starting to see the value in cards. I’ve never been a big fan of greeting cards but I’ve learned to see their value as I get older. Christmas cards are great and I always love getting them from friends and family because its so rare to get something personal in the mail anymore. Cards have been touched by the hand and have traces of real human emotions, energy and real ink that helps us stay connected on a deeper level. Even the modern photo cards that aren’t personally written on still have an edge over digital because you’re receiving a real tangible photo. Since meeting my amazing, wonderful creative wife, its been a tradition for us to create unique ornaments and cards to send to clients, family and friends for the holidays. This year we upped the ante by creating an original design and printing them by hand with linoleum block printing technique.


one of our first test cards


carefully cutting each little line


some tools of the trade and the messy scraps that come with it


dig in, cut and lift in batches for efficiency

Me pay attention in school?  Only in art class…

I remember Ms. Becker in my high school art class as a stern and serious art teacher who drilled into our heads useful tips like; only use a Pink Pearl and gummy eraser with graphite, no other erasers should ever touch the paper. And, your brushes aren’t clean until the water runs clear. At the time these lessons seemed a bit overused, but looking back those were valuable tips that have helped me preserve years on my brushes (not to mention saving lots of money) and create beautiful clean graphite drawings with no eraser marks. One of my favorite sessions in that class was learning linocut block printing. As much as I sit and create in a digital virtual world these days, I’m truly a hands-on artist and I loved the messy, gritty and imperfect science of block printing by hand. I remember it being a challenging artistic endeavour, but well worth the end result and totally original in its purest natural form.

Yea, it should only take a day or so…

I must have “blocked” out some of the steps in creating a successful block print because as we started on this years creative card all of those tips started coming back to me, after each failed attempt. For those that don’t know, block printing can be achieved typically with wood or linoleum. You start with a design, transfer it to a piece of linoleum and carefully trim out all the areas you want to be white. Sounds simple and that’s the way I remember it!

Well not so much. First we created a design with graphite and ink, cleaned it up on the iPad using Adonit Touch stylus and Procreate, then printed it out and transferred the design by rubbing graphite on the back of the print and tracing it onto the linoleum (this process takes a few hours with our design). The print looked great, the design looked great and the transfer went superbly well. Now we’re all set to start carving out those intricate valleys! Three quarters the way through cutting I decided to give a quick test print to see how my cuts would look.


first design transfer, see anything wrong?


detail of tracing over each line and fill


I use my ArtGraf XL graphite stick to rub graphite on the back for transfer


as you can see, a correctly mirrored transfer produces an incorrect block print!

Reverse your mind for best results…

OH SNAP, problem! As I tend to get excited and blaze ahead to the end product, I totally skipped over the part about mirroring the image before transferring. The image (especially with letters) has to be mirrored in order for the print to turn out the correct way. Aside from that, the detailed thin lines weren’t showing well on the test print so I knew I had to adjust and make them a bit bigger. For the sake of time I blazed through these cuts knowing I had to simplify the line work. As I spent another few hours trimming out the lines again, this time I was sure it would come correct. Back outside to run a few test prints and…we lost something. In the process of thickening up the lines, some of the design was lost and we just weren’t happy with the result.

Well, back to step two again (again)! Mirror image, print, graphite, transfer, prepare to cut. This time with all the kinks worked out I approached the cuts with detail, precision and patience. Finally, after many hours of transferring, tracing, cutting and testing we had a optimized block ready to go.

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Now that the hard work is done, lets do some hard work…

Now that we have the linoleum block and design the way we want, its time to get messy. Using Speedball ink, brayer, an old piece of acrylic and a plastic spoon, we got to work for real! Creating a block print or two is simple, easy and you’re done in a matter of moments. Just roll some ink on the block, press it to your card and rub the flip side with a spoon. Easy. But when you have 100 cards to do and Christmas day is fast approaching, that’s a very different deal. When braying you have to be very smooth and precise with getting a thin layer of ink on the brayer, then onto the block. This can’t be rushed. Once that’s primed and ready you carefully place it on the card. You’ve only got one shot at this part, no adjusting after the fact. Spend time rubbing the reverse side to get all the paper pressed down to the block. Rinse and repeat 100 times. With lots of cleaning in between sessions, we had all our cards drying on the wire.

Cool, that only took four days. But wait…there’s more!

We still have to write in each card, print labels, and stamp them all. We really loved the whole process and spent this time infusing our love into the cards as we went. Here are some final images from the shop:

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So the lesson learned, expect more time than you think if you ever decide to do hand-cut block printing Xmas cards…and pay closer attention to Ms. Becker when it comes to printing instruction.

Happy Holidays and a Happy New Year!

Mike and Ami Bowen
Bowen Imagery


If you decide to embark on this for cards, or just for fun I highly recommend it. Here are some links to videos that helped me through and my recommendations on materials:

Instructional Videos:

Linocut demonstration and technique

Gary Ratushniak on the Art of Linocut (this guy starts slow but he is awesome, watch til the end!)

A Brief Introduction to Relief Printmaking with Thomas Shahan



Speedball Brayer

Speedball Ink Starter Kit (you can use acrylic or oil but this ink is “sticky” and grabs really well)

Speedball Linocut Tools (good beginner set for linoleum)

Speedball Linoleum Blocks (I recommend getting on a block as these have less warp and will provide a cleaner print)


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