New vocabulary

I got back yesterday evening from a two-day course in wood engraving. It was held at Central St Martins, and taught by Peter Brown. Examples of wood block printing date back to the first half of the 15th century, and the craft reached its heyday in the 19th century, when it was used to translate artists’ drawings into printed illustrations.

I was inspired to learn the process last year in Norfolk when I visited an exhibition of printmakers’ work on a wildlife theme.

The first lesson was to actually try out the bizarrely named engraving tools: the various sizes of gravers, spitstickers and scopers, which sound like they belong in a Harry Potter novel. The tools themselves, on loan from The Society of Wood Engravers, were very beautiful antiques. When you find the right size, the worn wooden mushroom shaped handles fit snugly into the palm of your hand and your little finger rests in the curve underneath. The different types of tool make different types of marks, so we tried them out on plastic (much less daunting than the tiny, expensive wood blocks we used on Day 2). First we made lines, then tried curves, and learnt how to ink the block to make a print on beautiful thin Japanese paper. To give you an idea of the scale you work on, the prints from the blocks below are 7.5 x 5 cms.

On Day 2, we came up with a tiny drawing and transferred it onto the small lemon wood block, ready to engrave. The wood that is traditionally used for this work is end grain from slow growing box. The grain on these types of slow growing trees is densely packed, so that you get a really crisp line and sharp detail, much finer than with a wood cut. So that you can see what you’re doing, you apply a mix of ink and water to the surface of the block, and transfer the drawing using white carbon paper. Getting your head around what areas are going to be white (and therefore engraved away) and black (left in relief to take the ink) takes a bit of getting used to, I found.

The engraving is one part of the process, and the printing is the other. I discovered that you can be selective about the parts of the print you want to keep light, and those you want to make inky black in the burnishing process (done by rubbing the reverse of the paper while it is on the block with the back of a wooden spoon or bone folder for bookmaking in order to distribute the ink). My bird print is the top one, where everything was burnished using a fairly uniform pressure. The second one was made by the tutor, Peter, to see how the print would look with a lighter sky so as to emphasise the shape of the bird’s back more.

At the end, we looked at each other’s prints. The difference in the marks that we made, even for the lines exercise, was huge. I’m beginning to see what wood engraver, Kathleen Lindsley was talking about in her piece in this book:

[The wood engraving tools] come in a variety of faces and sizes and can produce a wide range of marks, from which an engraver will develop their own ‘vocabulary’. As the print is taken from the surface of the block, these marks reproduce as white (or the colour of the paper) and in a very expressive way you are drawing with light.

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