What is a reduction print?

If I had a pound for every time I've been asked this question I wouldn't actually be rich, but I could take a couple of friends out for a very good meal indeed, with wine. So on this page I will do my best to explain.

First of all I need to say that the word 'reduction' refers to the block being used to print the image, not to the print itself. I have realised that some people think it means that something is taken away from the image on the paper to create the final result. (No wonder they are confused).

The reduction method uses just one block instead of a different block for each colour. It is the block that is 'reduced' with each layer of printing. The printmaker will start by carving away any areas that need to be left as white paper and will then print the first colour, usually the lightest shade. They will then carve away any parts that should remain as this colour before printing the next layer. This method presents many challenges, not least that it is impossible to return to an earlier stage because the plate has already been carved away, so there is no going back and starting again if things go wrong.

In the block shown here the areas stained yellow are the parts that were carved before a previous layer was printed and became coloured when the ink was cleaned off after that printing (it's a messy business). The fresh white carving is what has been carved since; those parts of the print will now stay as they are and not be covered by subsequent layers. This block produced my 'Look Up' print.

Another consideration is that each new ink layer will have every previous layer under it, and the translucency of the ink means that earlier colours will affect the ones printed over it. (For instance printing yellow over blue will show as green, not yellow). The images below show the layers building up to create my 'Rolling' print. You can see there were eight layers, but in two of them (the second and last layer) I added two colours at once on different parts of the block. In two other layers (4 and 6) I masked out the water area so it wouldn't be affected by the green I was adding in those stages.

By the time the last layer has been carved and printed, the block has been reduced to just a few final details and is unusable, meaning that reduction print editions are literally limited and final. They cannot be reproduced. The block below produced my 'Bluebell Path' print and here you can see the very last parts to be printed were the darkest tree trunks; everything else had been carved away.

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