Selective Focus: Nan Onkka

Printmaker Nan Onkka makes images inspired by scenes on the North Shore. She starts with a wood block, and step by step, removes material from the block in order to add more color to the images she prints. It’s a time consuming process, and she says it’s a lot of backward planning, but a process where you can’t step backward to change something. That challenge and risk is what draws her to the process.

NO: I am a printmaking artist who specializes in reductive woodblock printmaking. This form of printmaking involves hand carving an image into a woodblock and then printing it onto paper one layer of color at a time. I add multiple colors to the image by carving away more of the woodblock and printing the next layer of color on top.

Days of Growing Darkness, 2019, woodblock print, 6 x 8″

Most of my work is inspired by my natural surroundings. I joke that the biggest problem living in Grand Marais is that I am endlessly inspired! Everytime I step outside I seem to find something I want to capture. This is not a new problem for me; I have been lucky to live in many beautiful landscapes, including the fields of Wisconsin, the foothills of the Himalayas, and now on the north shore.

Winter Cabin, 2020, woodblock print, 8 x 10″

I grew up in a very artistic family and was lucky to be exposed to many art forms at a very early age. I was first introduced to printmaking as a child and continued to experiment with it throughout high school and college. After studying art at St. Olaf College, I taught high school art for 10 years. I love most forms of art, but always found myself incorporating printmaking into the curriculum. It wasn’t until I took a graduate course at Boston University that I was encouraged to start selling my work, which was four years ago.

Through the Pines, 2020, woodblock print, 8 x 10″

I find reductive woodblock incredibly challenging, but that’s what draws me to it! I think the most challenging part is having an image in your head that you then have to deconstruct and simplify into layers of color. There is a lot of backwards and reverse thinking required throughout the process. Furthermore, working reductively means that there is no going backwards. I can’t uncarve the wood. I can’t change the color, value, or transparency of a layer once I’ve printed it. There is a lot of risk involved in this process, which is both scary and rewarding! I am more naturally inclined to be a painter, but enjoy the challenge that this form of printmaking presents.

Hills, 2020, woodblock print, 6 x 8″

During this pandemic, my focus is primarily on selling online. If you visit my website ( you will find the link to my Etsy shop, where I ship limited edition woodblock prints and greeting cards nationally and internationally. If you’d like to hear about my process and events, I regularly post on Instagram (@onkka.prints). Recently, I was featured on Twin Cities Design Scene’s podcast, which you can check out if you’d like to hear more about my story and process.

I also am an educator. I currently offer online printmaking classes via my website and will resume teaching in-person classes at Grand Marais Art Colony when it is safer to do so. If you’d like to know about these opportunities, you can follow along on instagram (@onkka.prints) or sign up for my newsletter on my website (

While many of my events and shows have been cancelled, I am scheduled for a solo show at Johnson Heritage Post in April 2021. I hope to resume more in-person shows and events when it is safe to do so.


First Snow, 2019, woodblock print, 6 x 8″

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