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Sugar Skull Self Portraits

This is going to be a long post.  Take your potty break now, and refresh your drink.

Pssst…if you’re not interested in reading about my process and just want to see pictures, there’s a gallery at the bottom of this post.

You may remember my mixed media butterflies from earlier this year, which I affectionately referred to as The Monarchy Project…or maybe you don’t.  Hey, I like to think there are at least one or two repeat visitors to my site, so I’ll work under the assumption that you either recall the above-mentioned project (or were curious enough to click one of the convenient links.)  🙂

I wanted to try combining printmaking with alcohol ink painting again, but this time, I took it a step further – or maybe 12 steps.

When I did the butterflies, I had every intention of documenting the process here for those who were interested, but I misplaced some of the photos I had taken, things got way out of order, life got busy, and I pretty much gave up on that ever happening.  I was a little more careful this time, so now it’s time for an onslaught of pictures and words.  You did take your potty break, right?

On this project, I spread myself a little thin – both literally and figuratively.  With the exception of a primitive acrylic painting my freshman year in college, I had never done a self portrait before.  I actually had no plans to, but when I decided I wanted to do a series of female faces with sugar skull makeup on, I didn’t want to use some random stock photo person…and I didn’t want to use a celebrity because I’m currently kind of over painting celeb portraits at the moment.  So I dug through the iPhone selfies and found a “that’ll do”.

I also ran myself through the gamut of my creative disciplines by combining the following:

  • photography
  • photo manipulation
  • drawing
  • carving
  • printmaking
  • more drawing
  • painting

I suppose these ten little portraits are the most “mixed media” thing I’ve ever done – or is it “mixed process”?  Anyway…


Original & manipulated reference photo

I started with the crummy photo on the left.  In Photoshop, I jacked up the contrast and brightness, removed wrinkles and crows feet and undereye bags and what-not.  Ain’t nobody got time fo’ dat.  Then I used the manipulated photo as a reference to draw a line art version (using Micron pens on Bristol paper).  Unfortunately, I can’t find that drawing or a photo of it.  I know it’s around here somewhere.  I also knew that I’d forget or misplace at least one photo for this step-by-step.  Drat!  It’s important to note that the line drawing was a horizontally flipped image (mirror image) of the reference photo.  The image on your block or plate is going to print in reverse, so make sure to keep this in mind if you’re trying this at home.



Line art drawn on linoleum

The next task was to transfer my line drawing onto a linoleum block (again, reversed horizontally).  I used a Richeson grey linoleum sheet, mounted to MDF.  (This was my first time using this linoleum, and I had hoped it would be easier to work with than the tan Speedball sheet I had used on the butterfly prints.  It was easier to carve, but I ended up having to cut deeper than I thought I would.  More on that below.)


I planned on cheating and using some transfer paper to get my drawing onto the linoleum.  So I threw it down and tried that but was surprised to find when I lifted the drawing up that NOTHING had transferred.  What?!  I’m still not sure why that happened, but I guess that’s what I get for trying to cut corners.  I ended up completely re-drawing directly on the linoleum. Reversed. Horizontally.


Carving linoleum block

Carving linoleum block

Then it was time to make hundreds of tiny little slivers of linoleum and try and keep them out of my chihuahua’s mouth.  I carved out the negative space on the linoleum block, leaving only what I wanted to print, which is called relief printing.  Relief printing is a printmaking process where protruding surface faces of the matrix (printing plate or block) are inked; recessed areas are ink free.  (Thanks, Wikipedia. I knew I was in the Matrix.)

Carved linoleum, ready to ink

Carved linoleum, ready to ink

Carving was the most tedious of all the processes involved in this project.  Typing this blog post and attempting to keep it coherent is a close second.

With the block fully carved, I was ready to print!  Or so I thought.  I loaded up a piece of glass with some Speedball water-based black ink, rolled it onto the block and pulled a couple of test prints.


One of the things I love about block prints are the occasional stray lines that appear unintentionally, which I refer to as “character”.  In this case, however, I felt there were way too many of those strays, so they became known as “riff-raff”.  I cleaned up and started carving away again.  It was frustrating, but I kept telling myself that I always say, “the thing I love most about making art is the process itself.”  Maybe it’s time to come up with a new mantra?

Pulling the first test prints

Pulling the first test prints

So I carved and I carved, and then I carved some more.  I even went all the way through the linoleum and hit MDF at one point, around the nose.  I honestly don’t remember how many carving “passes” I made, but I would feel safe in saying it was at least 3, and probably 4 or 5 in some areas.  I lost feeling in a few fingertips and started developing a callous on one of my thumbs.  I did manage to NOT slice myself with the linoleum cutters though, so I considered that an accomplishment.

More prints

More prints


Finally, I had a few more successful test prints and decided to run with it.  I tested on 50lb. block printing paper (which was nice except that it’s so thin/light, but it’s the only printmaking paper I had on hand) and even did a couple on “brown paper bag” paper, just for fun.  Ultimately, the prints to be used for this project were done on 74lb. Yupo.  If you’re not aware, Yupo is a waterproof, tear-free, synthetic paper made from polypropylene pellets, right here in the USA.  ‘MERICA!  Yupo is non-porous and is my holy grail of substrates for alcohol ink painting.  On the contrary, I would not necessarily recommend it for this type of printmaking.  The ink sits atop the paper and basically becomes a sort of texture of its own.  Maybe it’s because I used water-based ink?  (I haven’t tried oil-based printmaking ink on Yupo.)  I got a little discouraged but reminded myself that I was happy with how the butterfly prints had ultimately turned out.  Viva experimentation.

Drawn-on prints

Drawn-on prints

After allowing the prints to dry, I started adding “makeup”.  I’m sure someone will ask why I didn’t make the black outlines of the sugar skull makeup a part of the carved linoleum block.  If I were painting my face as a sugar skull, I would start with black lines on a white base and then fill in color from there, so this is what made the most sense to me.  As a bonus, it eliminated some carving too.

Before drawing on the prints with Sakura markers,  I sprayed each print with Workable Fixatif.  I also re-sprayed after drawing with the markers.  I am paranoid.


Block prints painted with alcohol inks

Block prints painted with alcohol inks

Finally, I started adding color to each print by painting with alcohol inks.  I used both Ranger and Piñata brands of inks and blended and with 91% isopropyl alcohol.  There’s not much to add about this process except that I used teeny tiny brushes.  People always ask me, “how do you control the inks?!”  The answer is sometimes I don’t – they control themselves, or they control me.  But honestly, the best advice I can give is get to know teeny tiny paintbrushes…and practice…a lot.

Remember how I was starting to hate on my beloved Yupo above?  I’m sorry, Yupo.  I will never leave you.  Once I got into the painting phase, all was right in the world again.  The smell of inks and alcohol and workable fixatif filled my studio (kitchen), gave me a headache, and made me feel productive and sublimely happy…as only those aromas do.

Ultimately, I ended up with 10 pieces.  They are dry now and need only to be finished with UV resistant spray (as I do with all my alcohol ink work), signed, numbered, matted and packaged for sale.

Did I leave anything out?  Possibly.  If you have questions, just let me know.  🙂

You can see a (quickie) scan of each piece in the gallery below.  I am keeping #1, but all of the others are for sale for $40 each, plus shipping if you’re not local.  I will have them on hand this Friday, November 1st, at Art & Coffee: the Dia de los Muertos Edition (at Buzzbrews in Deep Ellum).

Note: if you’re interested in purchasing, please contact me or hit me up on Facebook.  (My Etsy store needs some attention, and I don’t have time for it right now.)  The signatures shown on the images below aren’t really there.  Each 5″ x 7″ piece will be matted to an 8″ x 10″ black mat with white core.  I will number and sign the mat for each piece of this limited edition of 10.  The number will indicate each piece of the series, and each will be marked “EV”, which stands for Edition Variable.  This simply means that every one of the 10 hand-pulled prints is painted individually…so each of them is unique.


  1. Love these! You are so talented!!! Thanks for sharing the process you went through. I’m always fascinated at what makes other artists tick!

    • Thanks Kelly! I too am interested in how other artists do things. Love to geek out on art processes. 🙂

  2. Monica, thank you for posting this! I’ve been wanting to take the plunge and experiment with printmaking for some time, and this is super helpful. I love seeing the creative process of artists I admire. You’re amazing. <3

    • Thanks mucho, Jody! I meant to PM you that I had posted some drivel about this but hadn’t had a chance to yet. 😉 I think this may have been my fifth time to do any sort of block printing, so I am definitely no expert. It is always fun to experiment, and I feel like I learn something new each time. When I first took an interest in printmaking years ago, this book is where I started. I think it’s as old as I am! lol

  3. Thanks so much for sharing this – I can’t imagine how long it took to document. Your work is appreciated (and very inspiring).

  4. Very Cool, Monica! I just happened upon your butterfly prints by accident, and I love those too!
    I’ve been doing linoleum block printmaking for a while now, but very basic stuff… I’ve been wanting to hand color some and haven’t tried it yet, thanks for documenting your process and inspiring me!
    Looking forward to seeing what you do next!

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