Art Review Archives:
The Woodcut Artist's Handbook:
160 pages; 30 full color illustrations, 150 black and white illustrations
As The Woodcut Artist's Handbook illustrates, the art of relief printmaking is both ancient and venerable, contemporary and modern -- and readily accessible to the beginner, who will find the instructions clear and easy to follow. This is a how-to book as beautiful as it is useful. The Woodcut Artist's Handbook: Techniques and Tools for Relief Printmaking includes print examples of artists from Albrecht Durer to the 20th-century masters Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, and contemporary living artists such as the legendary Barry Moser, as well as the work of author Walker himself. At the same time Walker's strong, solid instructional voice details the practical aspects of the craft of woodcut and wood engraving, including choosing the wood, tools and their uses, methods and theory of cutting, information on inks, papers, and printing, and a closing 'color gallery' showing contemporary applications of color printmaking.
As Walker's text and Moser's foreword both highlight, relief printmaking is an art that can be satisfying for the beginner, while at the same time offering rich possibilities for endless refinements of skill and study. Walker opens with a preface highlighting his own personal experiences with printmaking, both as a pleasure and in an instance of one of the woodcut's longtime functions, as a tool of social justice. In the introduction preceding the practical how-to of the book he details the basic theories of the relief printing process itself, known as 'the art of the white line' since it is the white line, or area which is carved away from the wood block, which defines the image. A very brief history of woodcut and wood engraving follows to touch on the venerable origins of this earliest of all print-illustration technologies, speaking mainly of its heyday in the 19th century, where it was the primary form of print illustration for both commerce and the arts: from an 1899 advertisement for Pears' Soap, to illustrations for Alice in Wonderland (John Tenniel), The Pastorals of Virgil (William Blake) and a selection from William Morris's Kelmscott Press. The roll call is extended not just as history, but as invitation: "When you make your first cut into a block, you are joining a long line of artists who have embraced the possibilities of this remarkable art form."
Comprising the main body of the book, six chapters touch on various essential areas of woodcut and wood engraving, from conception to the finished edition. 'Selecting Material for the Block' discusses the theories and practicalities involved in the choice and preparation of blocks, treating point by point the pros and cons of softwoods, hardwoods, composite woods such as plywood, and man-made substances such as linoleum (for woodcut) and the synthetic Resingrave (for wood engraving), as well as noting the necessity of incorporating the size of the intended work, its composition, and intended level of detail into the decision-making process of choosing the materials. Instructions include what to ask for at the lumber yard, how to make one's own blocks (one may also purchase them from art supply stores, Walker notes), and how to test the block for the utter smoothness which determines its readiness for print.
It is a level of detail maintained throughout the book. In each area where there may be choices, Walker discusses each individually, including a mention of theory, proper storage and care, and safe usage, as appropriate. 'A Good Set of Tools' goes point by point through the tools used for woodcut and wood engraving, giving names, describing their use and function, and from scorper to spitsticker showing them in drawings and diagrams, including a line drawing of each tool and a woodcut detail of the type of mark it makes in the wood. Information on sharpening as well as wise tips for safety are also included. 'Creating Woodcuts and Engravings' opens with suggestions for a well-set-up working space, then gives the part most artists will have been waiting for: step by step instruction on applying the design to the block and using the tools to cut the relief design which will form the final printed image, with tips on holding the tool, holding the block, and even repairing the block, should one slip or nick it. The focus then shifts to printing from the prepared block. 'Papers and Ink' details the various suitabilities of machine-made paper and handmade papers such as the Japanese washi, noted as particularly receptive to hand printing. The choices and selection of types of ink include tips on care and storage to make best use of one's investment in materials. 'Printing' details the practical methods applied to making the print itself, from how to prepare the ink on the slab to pulling one's first proof, including details on single-block and multiple-block color printing, and a discussion of the various types of presses suitable for printing from woodcut and wood engraving, with references on where to find such 'ancient technologies'. 'The Edition' serves as a followup chapter, discussing the terminology of making a print edition (limited or unlimited), methods of care and exhibition of the finished prints, and the unlimited possibilities of use, including the artist's favorite, artist books.
Throughout, Walker includes notations on personal preferences as well as the preferences of artists with whom he is familiar -- we learn, for instance, that Barry Moser's marvelous illustrations are made on Resingrave -- as well as including reminders of the importance of good tool care and maintenance, and particularly, cautionary tips on safety. Of the woodcut illustrations by forty-nine contributors, each is annotated, often with some comment of technique or preference of the artist, broadening the compendium of tips and insights. Numerous miscellaneous woodcut illustrations by Walker are fitted into the text, adding to the lively, yet informal feel. Finishing up the book, a section entitled 'Color Gallery' shows applications of color relief printing by fifteen contemporary artists, including Robert Steadman and Notoko Matsubara. And finally, sections which equip the book as a good working reference: a glossary of printmaking terminology; a bibliography listing books of interest, including a suggestion on how to find classic, yet out-of-print references the author particularly recommends; artist biographies of the forty-nine artists whose works are featured throughout the book; a selection on printmaking resources, including web sites and print suppliers (U.S. readers should note that as Firefly is a Canadian press, these are primarily companies in Canada and the U.K.); and an index.
What makes The Woodcut Artist's Handbook such an engaging work is its blend of practical instruction and artistic mastery. As a how-to book, The Woodcut Artist's Handbook fully succeeds. Its instructions are detailed, yet easy to follow ("Hold the knife at a 45 degree angle and about 1/8 inch away from your drawn line. Make a cut not more than 2 inches long. Don't try to force the knife deep into the block. A light first cut will give you a guide to follow if the cut needs to be deeper. The depth of the knife outline should be between 1/16 and 1/8 of an inch.") Walker's careful delineation of his craft brings out a full sense of its tactile nature: when he instructs to "carve gently" or "carve slowly" one can almost feel the tools in hand, and there is a sense of his love of the medium and its mastery, even in his most simple instructions. The text's details on tools, working methods and concepts are supported by abundant diagrams and illustrations, for example, the difference between plain-sawn and quarter-sawn lumber; line drawings of each individual tool and its cross section; the varying setup afforded by Japanese kento registration and Chinese stationery-table registration. Most importantly, the instructions give the clarity and confidence that can support a new artist's first attempts, encouraging those who may never have crafted a woodcut before.
At the same time, abundant illustrations represent the art's essence: splendid examples of the strong graphic work that may be achieved with the medium, from traditional works of William Blake and William Morris to acknowledged contemporary masters. These may not be works the beginner can execute, but they inspire an enthusiasm deeper and more potent than the 'simplified' projects often offered by how-to books to make the art or craft seem instantly accessible. Walker never denies that pursuit of the art of woodcutting takes time; but he does show, through his selection of a variety of artists from Jose Guadelupe Posada to Lynd Ward, that the time invested is well worth what may be achieved. At the same time, he notes that even simple, satisfying images can be made from the very beginning.
The compelling selection of contemporary prints chosen to illustrate The Woodcut Artist's Handbook make it appealing to a further audience, not only the artist and printmaker intrigued by its topic, but to the print lover and collector, to whom the range of striking illustrations will exert an instant allure. As a compendium of works, The Woodcut Artist's Handbook highlights many of the great names of twentieth century printmaking, Frans Masereel, Lynd Ward, Kathe Kollwitz among them, while also introducing living artists of interest, such as Barry Moser, Naoko Matsubara, and Walker himself, all of whose work the reader may be prompted to seek out in depth. Among the compelling selections are a wood engraving from the special edition Caxton Pennyroyal Bible (Viking Studio: 1999) by Barry Moser, Paul in Prison (engraving on Resingrave: 7 x 11.5 in.: 2000 (sic)), whose unusual vantage point and diverse juxtaposition of textures show the drama that may be evoked in such a print. Walker's wood engraving The Queen (wood engraving: 3 x 4 in.: 2002), from a series of 10 illustrations for Neil Gaiman's Snow Glass Apples, and Michael McCurdy's Turn of the Tide (wood engraving: 3.35 x 5 in.: 1992) both show applications of the use of intense dark and light areas in modeling form and evoking powerful contrasts. And finally, the text is a delight for its own sake even for non-artists. Print lovers will find that a practical knowledge of the craft deeply enhances experience of the works they may encounter, increasing an awareness of the artist's craftwork in applying the techniques. Affordable and appealing to a broad range of tastes, printmaking is one of the most accessible art forms for the beginning collector, making The Woodcut Artist's Handbook a useful accessory in starting or adding to one's print collection.
The craft of woodcut and wood engraving is well worth one's study, whether for artistic pursuit, or the pleasure of understanding a medium so steeped in historic application in the service of human endeavor from commercial illustration to protests of social injustice -- yet so flexible in the hands of contemporary artists. As the newest addition to the roll call of books treating this popular craft, The Woodcut Artist's Handbook: Techniques and Tools for Relief Printmaking stands out with its detailed instruction and the wide sweep of illustration. Practical knowhow, on the logic side; inspiring works, on the artistic side, The Woodcut Artist's Handbook is a small, smart, neat compendium, appealing to artist and art lover alike.
The author, George A. Walker is an award-winning engraver, book artist, and illustrator who teaches book arts and printmaking at the Ontario College of Art and Design. In addition to exhibiting throughout the world, he creates artwork and books at his private press, Biting Dog Press.
--Katherine R. Lieber
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