Wednesday, September 1, 2010

Wood Engravings

Until the 1880s, pictures in magazines had to be reproduced by means of carved wooden blocks.

The best kind of wood was an end-grain boxwood from Syria. The boxwood trees were fairly small, so even the best chunks of wood weren’t much larger than a few inches in any dimension. To make a large reproduction of, say, 16 x 20 inches, you had to clamp together as many as 20 smaller blocks into a seamless whole.

The sample above was engraved by Henry Wolf from a painting by Homer Dodge Martin, a Hudson River School painter.

If you had a short deadline, you had to get a team of artists, each working on a separate block. A 4x5 inch block could take 12 hours or more to cut. A full page illustration could take a whole week to engrave.

Pieces of wood were prepared by sanding them smooth, and painting them white. Then the artist drew the image in India ink directly on the block, or transferred it from a separate drawing.

The engraver, sitting at a high table under bright light, took the artist’s drawing, and cut away all the areas between the lines.

A good engraver made all the difference in the final printed result. Their role was so important that engravers signed the printed piece on the opposite corner from the original artist. Relations between artists and engravers were often strained.

Engravers could use arrays of small dots and dashes to suggest textures like hair or foliage. The detail above created by Timothy Cole, who did a whole series of interpretations of French painters. This one is based on Jules Delaunay.

Note the soft tonal transitions around the eyes and the mouth, the sensitive changes in line direction, and the delicate white specks even in the darkest darks.

The samples in this post were published in Century magazine in 1909, well after the photographic halftone process had become established.
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Some of this information is based on the book “Great American Illustrators” by Susan Meyer.


19 comments:

Libby Fife said...

I do enjoy all types of printmaking so thank you for the post. It did remind me of something I ran in to recently-the "hedcuts" in the Wall Street Journal. Below is the link to a woman named Noli Novak who does stipple portraits which remind me of woodcuts.
http://nolinovak.com/

Vicki said...

The great illustrator Barry Moser, an artist who works in other media as well, has done some glorious engravings, though they were carved from something called resingrave rather than wood, some of which can be seen here:
http://www.rmichelson.com/Artist_Pages/Moser/Bible.htm

Richard said...

Do you mean Jules Delaunay?

Steve said...

Jim, thanks for giving this exacting, challenging medium its due. Other artists whose work was first known to the world translated through an engraver's hands include Winslow Homer and Gustave Doré.

Vicki, Barry Moser is great. It is amazing that he alternates between engraving and watercolor. He's attracted to the shared "unforgiving nature" of what are otherwise radically different media. His earlier work was done in wood, he began using resingrave in mid-career. His engravings for The Wizard of Oz used several members of the Reagan Administration as models; Ronald as the Wizard, Nancy as the Wicked Witch...

There are several other excellent artists working in this medium. To name just a few...

Eric Bealer of Alaska:
http://www.sitkarosegallery.com/Bealer_page.html

Richard Wagener:
http://richardwagener.com/richardwagener/richard_wagener.html

Simon Brett of England:
http://www.simonbrett-woodengraver.co.uk/

An excellent resource about wood engraving is the Wood Engravers Network, founded by my friend, Jim Horton:
http://www.woodengravers.net/home.htm

James Gurney said...

Richard, thanks--fixed!

Steve, Vicki, and Libby, thanks for the links.

DavidStill said...

When the National Museum in Stockholm had their great pre-raphaelite exhibition a few years back, they didn't have Millais' Ophelia there, but they did have a full size engraving of it. It was flawless. It would have been great to see the original, but the engraving was just as interesting.

On a related note, the brown paper bags they give you when you take your McDonalds to go, at least here, have pictures of people on them that seem to have a lot of halftones (they're photos), but when you look at them closely, they're printed with only horizontal lines, varying in thickness, and nothing else. It's pretty crazy.

Max said...

Don't forget MC Escher. Besides lithographs and a handful of mezzotints, he also worked extensively in woodcuts. I find it amazing how a drawing can be transferred to a block or blocks of wood - let alone complex images like Escher did.

T' said...

If you're interested in people still making prints in the fashion, I highly recommend David Bull's site. He's a Canadian who has been living in Japan for twenty years or so and who has made his living by recreating period Japanese woodblock print series. His site is full of information on how he does this and how it was done in the day:

http://www.asahi-net.or.jp/~xs3d-bull/main_page.html#anchor_mainmenu

Steve said...

T': I'm also an admirer of Dave Bull's and have his eBook on making prints. His site is a treasure trove. Strictly speaking, however, the beautiful prints Dave makes are not wood engraving. The differences are in the kinds of woods used and which plane of the wood is cut. Woodblock prints are cut from the wide, flat sides of boards; the side grain of softer woods. Wood engravings are cut into the end grain of the densest, hardest woods workable. It is because end grain is used that the blocks are often so small.

I'm not certain, but based on the size and texture of his work, I believe Escher made both woodblock prints and wood engravings. Either way, of course, they are magnificent.

Don Cox said...

I think there is a sharp distinction between artists who worked in pencil or paint, and then hads their work rendered in wood for printing, and artists such as Bewick or Lynd Ward who worked directly on the wood themselves.

Wood engravings for print were often converted into metal plates by electrotyping, so as to be able to print more copies. The Tenniel illustrations for "Alice" are an example.

(The electrotyping process was later taken over by record companies, to derive metal masters from the wax or acetate discs on which sound was originally recorded.)

When scanning a wood engraving, you need a high resolution such as 1200dpi to pick up the fine lines correctly. There may also be areas where the lines are grey rather than black, so you need an 8-bit scan, not 1-bit. The grey lines are made by taking a very thin skim off the top of the block in, for instance, background areas. These areas then press more lightly on the paper, and transfer less ink.

Jared Shear said...

If the engraver had a momentary lapse of concentration and made a bad cut on one of those "sensitive changes" on the face.....what then?
Was it start over, or did they have a means of wood "white out?"

Steve said...

Jared, none of the fixes for a stray cut are simple or quick. Often, there is no fix. That's why knowing how and when to sharpen the tools is a major part of being a skilled engraver. The tools have wonderful names like spitsticker, graver, burin, and elliptical tint. It's when forcing a dull tool that the hand is most likely to slip, potentially ruining days of work with no good remedy.

tinoradman said...

I always admired those master engravers of the past, particularly 19th century engravers who worked for the magazines. Sadly, majority of them are unknown today.
Btw, that detail of Cole's engraving is fascinating.

James Gurney said...

Don and Steve, thanks so much for explaining the process. I was a little unclear about the difference between woodcuts and wood engraving.

Unlike steel engraving, wood engraving is a relief, not an intaglio process, right? Did Century and Harpers print from the original wood blocks, or did they use electrotyping?

I did an earlier post on a terrific exhibit on Bewick that I saw in Newcastle, England, his home:

http://gurneyjourney.blogspot.com/2009/07/bewicks-tailpieces.html

Steve said...

Jim, Wood engraving is a relief print-making process; areas left white are cut away, the remaining uncut surface receives the ink which is printed to the paper. Then again, some I know call it a relief process because it's such a relief to complete the image without ruining it with that errant cut! According to Jim Horton's History of Wood Engraving, both Harpers and Century magazines printed images from the wood block before going to the "new technology."

PAF said...

And Colin See-Paynton is remarkable. This website does not do his intricate works justice....

http://www.see-paynton.co.uk/index.php

Don Cox said...

"According to Jim Horton's History of Wood Engraving, both Harpers and Century magazines printed images from the wood block before going to the "new technology.""

But with their enormous circulation, I think they would have had to make electrotypes from the original wooden blocks. I don't think you can rely on getting more than about fifty thousand copies from a wood engraving - although obviously wood varies.

It was also standard practice to make electrotypes of the text for big print runs. This avoids any shifting of the letters, especially if the text was set on a Monotype machine.

Manuel Vermeire said...

Very interesting post! Thank you!

Manuel

www.thewoodengraver.blogspot.com

Anonymous said...

i have one signed dodge or dedge with d & g spelled with number 6 or upside down 6 total of three sixes..? its of half goat guy playing flute really religious or satanic ..? its pretty trippy & deep and more you look or move wooden painting the more you see..?