An article by Neil Bousfield
Wood engraving as an illustrative discipline dominated every aspect of visual culture. Social media, Pinterest, Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and the Internet may dominate today, but wood engraving facilitated the dissemination of visual material, information and culture; it was the powerhouse of its day. The importance and impact of wood engraving can scarcely be over estimated. There is no denying that wood engraving has a social and historical significance, which would be almost shameful if the discipline was allowed to disappear.
However, the role of contemporary art practice is not to preserve tradition or to document through practice, technique or craft. This is the role of museums and re-enactment societies. I don’t wear Victorian costume when I’m working! There is no point in trying to deny the historical impact of centuries of tradition, craft, technique and the cultural impact upon contemporary practice. However each and every practitioner must have the independence of mind and spirit to discover, explore and communicate their ideas and concepts through a particular process, medium and discipline. In short “what wood engraving is” will be defined by contemporary practice as such; wood engraving is a medium like any other such as drawing, painting and sculpture, it is a process rich in historical and visual aesthetic and craft-based cultural meanings. It is just as valid to explore wood engraving within contemporary practice as it is to practise painting, ceramics, taxidermy and even embroidery. I wonder what the outcome may have been if Grayson Perry had adopted the latest CNC computer aided engraving technologies to make his interpretation of the Rake’s Progress…?
What can the discipline of wood engraving offer the student? Here the discussion draws upon personal preference, experience and knowledge in order to provide a rationale for personal practice that may in some way offer a view of a discipline you may wish to explore.
Wood engraving is a relief print process like potato printing, linocut and woodcut. Simply apply ink to the surface of the matrix and transfer this through applied pressure to another surface or substrate. As such wood engraving is a relatively simple printmaking process. Part of its attraction is that it can be done virtually anywhere, without the need for excessive amounts of space and equipment so making the process both accessible and sustainable.
There have long been many alternatives to the use of wood. Many modern plastics offer very good and cheaper alternatives to using wood. Here experimentation, research, practice and evaluation are the key. Plastic sheets and resin blocks can be purchased through suppliers of printmaking materials or purchased online. This can help make the blocks far cheaper than wood, lino or copper needed for other print processes and also allow the practitioner the flexibility to make blocks of any size or shape they may need.
Tools are readily available from print making suppliers. You don’t need a huge collection to start off with; one or two tools will suffice and simply allow your tool collection to expand when need and funds allow. Once you have the tools you will have them for life, you will not wear them out. Working with edged tools dictates the obvious; you will need to sharpen the tools. There are many manuals and books that will detail this process. However this is nothing to be scared of as it’s quite straightforward and just consists of rubbing the tool on a sharpening stone. I use a man-made combination oilstone and secure the tool in a jig.
Inks, roller and paper will virtually complete the materials and equipment needed. These compare well with any other print process and quality smooth papers such as Zerkall are cheaper than those needed for other print processes.
A key advantage of wood engraving is that it can be small. Compared to lino cutting, a given size can contain a far more detailed or complex composition. As such this gives the benefit of being easy to print without a press. Many engravers hand burnish to achieve a print; simply by placing paper on to the inked block and rubbing with a spoon the finest of results can be achieved. Once completed, small prints can easily be scanned and disseminated digitally on websites and blogs, Facebook and Twitter making publication and print submission to open shows and competitions accessible.
Essentially a wood engraver’s studio can be a kitchen table with all the necessary equipment contained within a kitchen drawer, facilitating a lifelong practice within the leanest of margins. With the use of a scanner and social media the world is your audience. Small can be good, small is the screen, why shouldn’t the Internet be the wood engraver’s new book?
Exploration, concepts and process
We all work within our own box. Our own constraints and preconceptions can limit what we achieve so when wood engraving is defined as small, black and white and to do with drawing consider that the first wood engraving to be made using photographic visual imagery was made in 1861. Wood engraving was often a collaborative endeavour, images of 50 cm x 36 cm would be made from multiple blocks and colour was used in these early days too. What wood engraving is, what wood engraving can do and how we define wood engraving is awaiting those students to step in and do it, so why not?