What is Wood Engraving?
Wood engraving is at once the simplest and one of the most exquisite forms of printmaking. The print is made, first, by engraving the reversed design or picture to be printed into the mirror-smooth surface of a block of endgrain wood.
Box is best, though other woods and synthetic materials are now also used. Secondly, the block is rolled up with ink (on its top surface) and printed onto paper. The cuts that were made into the wood therefore come out as white, the remaining top surface which gets inked, as black; the artist is, in effect, drawing with light – with a white mark as opposed to the black mark that comes from a pencil, brush or pen.
Most wood engravings tend to be closely worked and relatively small because the tools used are finely pointed. Because the finesse of wood engraving produces a particularly rich tonal range, wood engravings are usually, but by no means exclusively, black and white.
The image that results can only be made by this particular process, just as paintings can only be made with paint or photographs with a camera. Printmaking is thus a potentially creative process: it is part of its nature that many prints can be taken from the block once it is engraved, but each of those prints is an original – made by that process, not copied.
Wood engravings appear both as prints and in books. In galleries, as artists' exhibition prints, taken by the artists themselves from the woodblocks, they are customarily ‘editioned’ prints, as expressed by the ‘fraction’ written on the print near the artist's signature. 10/75 means the 10th print in an edition of 75.
In books, they may also be original prints. ‘Fine print books’, limited editions made to the highest standards with traditional hot-metal type, are often illustrated with wood engravings. Since these are also printed direct from the woodblock, which can be set alongside the type in this sort of printing, they too are original prints.
However, in all other publications these days, art-work is scanned in, so what you see is a reproduction of a previously existing original. Here, the crisp black-and- white of the wood-engraved image still sits well with type and takes reduction and enlargement well. From fine art through editorial illustration and advertising to packaging, wood engraving finds more applications in the real world than most printmaking media.
Artists who make illustrations regularly send prints of the work to the Society's annual show. Work intended for the wall may therefore be seen alongside work designed for the page, both as original prints. The Society is equally enthusiastic about both.