King Arthur's Death

By Michael Smith

An epic poem of the fall of kings, vibrantly translated and stunningly illustrated with linocut prints by the author of Unbound’s Sir Gawain

Wednesday, 6 February 2019

Making a four colour linocut print of King Arthur and Excalibur

It has taken me a while but I have at last managed to produce a four colour linocut print of King Arthur wielding Excalibur, which I wanted to offer as a pledge option for supporters of my translation of King Arthur's Death. This article takes you through the process, which in total took between 7 and 10 solid days of hard work...

The basis of my research.

King Arthur's Death, or the Alliterative Morte Arthure to give it is conventional name, was written around 1400 and is one of the sources used by Malory for his later Morte d'Arthur. The poem, which borrows its structure from the work of Geoffrey of Monmouth's History of the Kings of Britain, is nonetheless an individual work of great literary and technical merit. It is so much more than an Arthurian romance, it is a window on a distant period of time and is packed with detail and information.

My particular interest is in British and European history of this period and, as many of my followers will already know, I produce my work based on meticulous research of mediaeval literary sources, manuscripts and academic textbooks. Just as with my writing, detail is important to my printmaking too.


Hence, for this image of Arthur, I based the figure on contemporary funerary brasses and effigies commonly found in mediaeval churches up and down Britain. Arthur's coat of arms is based on that given in the poem, in which three golden crowns are described on a field of gules (red). The chief (typically the upper third of a shield, often in a separate colour) is decorated with a "chalk-white" maiden, whom we interpret as Mary in recognition of the cult of Mary in this period. The poet does not describe the colour of the chief but I have interpreted it as yellow (gold or "or"), the highest of the heraldic tinctures and therefore a fitting background for Mary as the mother of Christ.

Cutting the plates

A four colour print requires four plates, logically enough.Each plate is designed to carry its own colour; in the case of the one above, this is the red plate. Only the parts not cut away will transmit red ink to the final print. In this way, each plate either prints in separate areas of the final print or will mix with one of the other colours to create a new colour (e.g. red plus yellow creates orange).

Inking the plates

In the example above, we can see the yellow plate inked up.It is crucial that the yellow ink does not sit on any raised spots on the lino. As can be seen here, areas of signficant risk are dealt with by removing large sections of the lino but you would be surprised just how much ink the plate picks up from the roller in other areas of the plate, so caution is crucial.

Progress through the plates

In the image above, you can see each phase of the print during production. The blue plate for King Arthur was tecnically the worst to print. I had to incorporate numerous tricks in this plate to arrive at a clear plate - in particular those areas of the sky meant to be white. Keeping the sky, horse, and the face of Arthur white were crucial to the success of this print.

The importance of the key plate

As can be seen from the photograph above, the black - or key plate - is crucial to the success of the print. You can see here just how carefully all the high spots had to be cut away so that none shows on the final print.

Own the original - or a giclee print of it

Would you like a copy of this print? Of all the prints I have ever produced, this ranks as my favourite - it is of stunning quality and, in the flesh, is magnificent (the photo looks a little dark but all the detail glows on the originals). If you would like to own an original linocut - or to have a full size giclee print (Artists' Guild Quality), I have made two originals available as pledge options and 15 giclee prints. 

I am grateful for your support of my work. Please do pass on this update to any of your friends who would be interested in supporting this major new illustrated translation of one of the fourteenth century's finest alliterative works.

Warm regards


Michael Smith

Author, Translator, Printmaker




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