THE STUDENT’S BOOK OF WOOD-ENGRAVING
by Iain Macnab
THE REVIVAL OF WOOD-ENGRAVING
The revival of wood-engraving as a means of self-expression some sixteen years ago, and its increasing popularity with so many artists to-day, may be attributed to many factors. The spread of modern ideas in all forms of pictorial art had stimulated the artist to interest himself more and more in his treatment of a subject, rather than in the subject itself. Reaction against the vague formlessness into which Impressionism often degenerated had revived an instinctive pleasure in formal design, while the experiments of non-representational painters had increased the artist’s interest in the tactile qualities of his pigments and other materials and had prompted him to explore their possibilities. Artists started to experiment with new and interesting ways of using old media, exploiting them to the fullest extent while still respecting their limitations.
Wood-engraving had been under a cloud since the (eighteen)’nineties, and had been looked upon as a rather old-fashioned method of reproducing drawings, and not as a form of artistic self-expression. Its very severity as a medium, however, gives it more scope for formal design; and this quality, along with its unexploited possibilities and very definite limitations, made it all the more attractive to those artists who were affected by the contemporary trend towards clarity and simplicity of statement, more clean-cut and precise draughtsmanship, and greater insistence on design.
Private presses, specializing in limited editions of fine books printed on good paper, gave employment and encouragement to many engravers and helped to bring their work to the notice of collectors; although the collapse of the etching boom with its fantastic prices for what were known as “gilt-edged prints” naturally affected artists who were producing prints as prints in themselves and not as decorations for books. The ease and the cheapness with which engraved wood blocks can be printed along with type have made these very popular with certain publishers. It is possible that the rise in the price of metals owing to world rearmament may help to popularize the wood block still more among publishers. That, however, remains to be seen.
Other factors, such as the need for smaller pictures to suit smaller rooms and purses, and the higher standard and cost of living, which have left less money for buying pictures, have led to an increased interest in prints of all kinds.
Again, many artists found that etching, with its unlimited capacity for sketchiness and imitative impressionism, was almost too facile a process. Feeling the need for a less tractable medium and for a greater formality of expression, they either adopted a tighter and more deliberate style of drawing with the etching needle or started using the engraving tool, as the limitations imposed by the use of the graver, whether on metal or on wood, make sketchy drawing and vague impressionism impossible. Every line has to be considered and has to be stated clearly and definitely, so that it will take its place as part of the design.
It may sound paradoxical, but the more limitations an artist imposes upon himself by reason of an intractable medium, and the more he observes these limitations, the greater degree of freedom will he discover. By expressing himself in terms of the medium he leaves himself free to simplify his forms, and to choose symbols which will explain these forms: symbols which will be beautiful in themselves in their arrangement of form and pattern, and which will bring out the inherent beauty of that medium. To force the medium by concentrating on the mere copying and representation of appearances is more likely to rob it of its own peculiar charm and to destroy its aesthetic qualities.
Here, in wood-engraving, was a medium which offered an entirely new field. As a craft its advantages were many and obvious. The materials were inexpensive and simple compared to those required for working on metal. There was not the messiness of etching nor its elaborate array of bottles of acids and other chemicals, its baths, its heaters, and its hundred and one requirements. No damping of paper and stretching of prints, and, what was more, there was no need for a press when an old spoon from the kitchen could give all the necessary pressure for a proof of one’s block. Again, one was so much more mobile. The worker on metal was tied to his bench, his heater, and his press, but the woodengraver could put his block and a few tools in his pocket and go anywhere he liked.