Sunday, February 7, 2016

Entry - 2.7.16

Artists have been making prints for centuries.  Generally, printing is about replication.  For someone living in the twenty first century, the idea of creating multiple identical copies of an image might not seem that miraculous, but the development of printing techniques really resulted from revolutionary changes in how information was shared within world societies.  Books existed before there was a way to print them.  They were painstakingly copied by hand and therefore fairly rare and expensive.  Of course, where the word existed, it was naturally accompanied by the image to illustrate it.  These images were manually-executed, one-of-a-kind originals.  Sometimes the artwork, unfathomably detailed and intricate, transformed a book into a magical object to be venerated within a religious community.

Lindisfarne Gospel - c700
At other times, artwork elevated a utilitarian book, such as a Book of Hours, into something precious and exquisite, only to be afforded by the nobility.

Limbourg Brothers - February from The Book of Hours - 1412 to 16

Limbourg Brothers - December from The Book of Hours - 1412 to 16
Because books were owned by a literate elite, it was not requisite that the artwork contained within them directly illustrate the words on the page; it was more critical that the artwork enhance the value of the book as an object.  The uneducated masses could see sculpture and paintings which explicitly depicted biblical stories and other narratives in their churches and public institutions.

With Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press in 1436, books were suddenly more available and less costly.  Publishers were able to mass produce books on a much larger scale, and it was only natural that they would desire to include imagery in their work, both to follow the tradition established with handmade books and, now that books could end up in the hands of less educated owners, to illustrate or provide concrete representations of the people, places and activities described on the page.

Unknown - Illustration for Morte d'Arthur - 1498

Michael Wolgemut - The Dance of Death - 1493

Elizabethan - Macbeth, Banquo and Three Witches - 17th Century
Though the development of the woodcut occurred in Europe at around 1400, it was the invention of the printing press that encouraged artists to develop the printing technique into a sophisticated art form.  Because moveable type could be fitted around a block easily, woodcuts were particularly suitable for mass printing and remained the primary technique for illustration until the late sixteenth century.  During this period, artists were also creating editions of fine art prints not to serve as illustrations but to be marketed as “stand alone” works of art.

Albrecht Durer - Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse -  1498

Albrecht Durer - Rhinoceros - 1515
It is interesting that in order to achieve a full range of tones in these prints, artists resorted to using the same techniques they used in drawing – crosshatching being most consistently employed.  Though the results were often magnificent, mimicking linear techniques on a woodblock was unnatural, extremely difficult and really did not maximize the full potential of the medium.

Woodblock printing techniques were first used in ancient Egypt and China, where woodcuts were employed in dyeing patterned fabrics.  Long before Gutenberg’s invention of the printing press and moveable type, the Chinese were printing books using woodcuts.  But it was the Japanese who really optimized the potential of this printing technique, evidenced by the large number of quality fine art prints created during their Edo period from the 17th to the 19th centuries.  The Japanese approached woodblock printing in a more organic fashion than the Europeans of the 15th century, avoiding the temptation to imitate linear techniques and suggest subtle modeling using the medium.  Japanese prints are essentially graphic works with expressive, flowing lines encompassing broad expanses of vibrant color and intricate patterning.  While the Europeans used oil-based inks for printing, the Japanese adopted water soluble pigments which permitted them to experiment with transparency and incorporate delicate gradations of tone and hue within solid areas of color.  Some artists dusted their prints with a metallic powder called mica to create a shimmering effect when appropriate – in a snow scene, for instance.

Kitagawa Utamaro - Ase o fuku onna - 1798

Katsushika Hokusai - Evening Moon at Ryogoku Bridge - 1831/32

Utagawa Kunisada - Tale of Genji - mid 1800s

Utagawa Hiroshige - Kanbara - 1832
When European artists first became aware of Japanese prints in the mid-19th century, they were both startled and enchanted.  The Impressionists quickly incorporated in their work elements from the prints like the use of unusual vantage points or the quirky, seemingly arbitrary, cropping of images.  But it was really the next generation or two of artists that turned to the woodcut as a vital means of expression, using not only Japanese prints as their models but also the art of many peripheralized cultures such as those of Africa or the South Sea islands.  These artists were seeking a more brutal and elemental means of expression – one devoid of sophistication and artistic convention.  Besides turning to the artwork of other cultures, they were inspired by the early woodcuts of Northern Europe and recent developments in the artistic vocabulary of contemporary artists.  Their prints had to reflect the medium from which they were created, expressing the difficulty of cutting into a hardwood block with knives and gauges, exposing the individual marks of the artist, revealing the knots and grain which defined their medium.  Their prints are scarred and irregularly shaped, determined by the cheap scraps of wood affordable to them.  Middle tones and modeling have been eliminated.  Virtuosity and nuance have been sacrificed to arrive at a more honest, basic means of communication.

Paul Gauguin - Change of Residence - 1899

Kathe Kollwitz - Self Portrait - 1923

Ernst Barlach - The Cathedrals - 1920

Ernst Ludwig Kirchner - Head of Ludwig Schames - 1918

Erich Heckel - Portrait of a Man - 1918
It was exposure to the prints of these modern artists 35 years ago that first sparked my interest in woodcuts.  During that period, I’ve peripatetically explored this printing technique, at times devoting myself solely to printing and at other times not producing a single print for years.  I have struggled, maybe not too successfully, to avoid the slavish imitation of the masters who have come before me, keeping my approach to the block personal and organic.  My interest primarily in figurative compositions and portraiture is reflected in my prints.  Early on, exaggeration and distortion were devices I commonly employed in my prints, not surprising since at that time I was still resisting the inclination to work naturalistically in other mediums, slowly discarding expressionist conventions and developing my own personal language.  Today I find that, regardless of my intentions, the block imposes its own sensibility on my work; the more receptive I am to where the block is leading me, the more successful will be the resulting print.

Gerard Wickham - I Was Told to Wear a Tie - 1987

Gerard Wickham - Woodcutter and Model - c1990

Gerard Wickham - Tyler - 1998

Gerard Wickham - Dawn - 1998

Gerard Wickham - Terre Anne - 1999

Gerard Wickham - Organ Hill - 2001

Over the years, I’ve developed my own techniques for making woodcuts.  I’ve received no formal training in the technique, so everything I’ve learned has come from written materials and the process of trial and error.  A master printer may find fault with many of my procedures.  That’s fine.  My goal has never been to develop the quintessential printing technique; instead, I aim to arrive at procedures that fit my personality and attain the specific results that I desire.

Recently, I made a woodcut of my son and his girlfriend, recording in photographs significant stages in the process.  I thought it would be interesting to provide here a brief, step-by-step summary of my procedures.  I began by purchasing a hardwood plank, in this case poplar, at a local store which carries a variety of lumber.  After cutting from the plank a block of the dimensions I desired, I sanded the printing surface just enough to eradicate any irregularities that might interfere with the printing process.  I drew in pencil on the block a general sketch of my composition and traced my lines with indelible marker.  Keep in mind that your final print will be the mirror image of the drawing that you’re now seeing on the block.  Flipping an image can dramatically change its movement and mood, so it’s best to experiment a bit before committing to a composition.


I then shellacked the block to protect the wood and prevent the ink from absorbing into the surface.  Be sure to shellac both sides of the block or warpage will result.  Once dry, the block is ready to be cut.  I use a variety of handheld woodcutting tools that can be purchased at an art supply store or hobby shop.  It’s critical that the tools are sharp or your cuts will be ragged and your tools will slip across the surface of the wood.  I used hand pressure to make my cuts, only occasionally resorting to a rubber mallet when challenged by a stubborn stretch of wood.  The cutting of this block required about half a dozen sessions over a period of a few days.


Here I am in front of the All Nighter enjoying a blazing fire while cutting my block.


This block is ready for a test print.  One thing I like about woodcuts is that the printing process is very elemental and tactile.  No fancy apparatus are required, just a handheld brayer (ink roller) and a baren (tool for rubbing).  For a test print, I use a water soluble ink and a sheet of regular quality drawing paper.  I put a dollop of ink on a pane of glass and roll it with my brayer until the ink is spread evenly over a 4” X 4” square.  Then I begin rolling the ink onto the block, careful not to over ink any section of the woodcut – which could result in the loss of detail.  Depending on the size of the block, you may have to add ink to the pane several times during this process.


Above you can see my block, fully inked and ready for its first test printing.  Printing is quite easy.  Lay a sheet of paper on a flat surface and carefully place your block on it (inked side down).  Apply pressure to the block until the paper has made good contact with the ink and adheres to the surface of the block.  Now you can gently flip the block over and begin methodically rubbing the reverse side of the paper with your baren.  I prefer to use the back of an ordinary tablespoon for this purpose.  When you are satisfied that you’ve covered the entire woodcut, slowly peel the paper from the block and put it aside to dry.  For this print, I cut the block further and made additional test prints twice before becoming satisfied with the results.

Printing the final version is identical in process to executing a test print with two exceptions: you use oil-based ink and good quality 100% rag printing paper.  I like to use a fairly lightweight paper for woodblock printing since it allows me to see during the rubbing phase which areas of the print have made proper contact with the ink on the block.  Also, beforehand, I dampen the paper by briefly submersing it in water and setting it on a flat surface for about a half hour before printing.  It’s a good idea to dab off any puddling that occurs when you remove the paper from the water.  I usually only make a couple of prints from any block, but always have the option of producing more later if there is a demand.  You can see the final version of the print below.

Gerard Wickham - Hailey and Ernst - 2015

All Framed Up
As always, I encourage readers to comment here.  If you would prefer to comment privately, you can email me at: gerardwickham@gmail.com.

5 comments:

Anonymous said...

howcome woodcut of brooklyn cityscape out baltic street window not on the list?

Lisa Greco said...

Very interesting. Do you use the wood block again after you are finished with the final painting? Is this a one time use? It is an interesting way to do a painting. How long did it take to carve the wood block?
Would you do it again?

Gerard Wickham said...

Boerum Hill is a linocut. I may do a linocut blog in the future and would definitely include that print.

You can only use the wood block for one print. Some artists recut the original block and print it in a different color. But don't worry the block really isn't very expensive and you can make a good number of prints from a single block. Carving the block takes varying amounts of time for me - from a couple of hours to a couple of days.

Cara Wood-Ginder said...

I enjoyed reading your blog today! I have only done linoleum block prints before, but reading this makes me feel like jumping in and trying a wood block print! Thank you for sharing this with us! Keep up the good work.

Gerard Wickham said...

Thanks for commenting, Cara. Hey, it appears that whatever the glitch with commenting on blogger was has been resolved. Terrific.