John Jānis Šteins

:: Artist ::

Chapter 9





To prevent the tracing lines from being smeared by the hand it is best to start on the right-hand side of the block. The beginner should cut the lines carefully. but must not be too timid in handling. He should hold the tool lightly but firmly, and should not cramp the freedom of his hand by gripping fiercely. He should remember that, as the odds are against his producing a very great engraving with his first design. he need not be over-cautious and thus prevent himself from learning by being afraid to experiment.

What matters most with his first engraving is not so much how it turns out. but how much he learns from doing it. At the same .time he must avoid making scratchy lines. Every line should be clean and crisp and must be considered as a thing of beauty in itself.

The hardest part of engraving. until one has had a good deal of experience. is to see the form in terms of the white line. as almost all the drawing one has done before has been with black lines. Pencil. pen. charcoal, and nearly all the other materials one has been in the habit of using, make black marks on white. and we have become accustomed to thinking in terms of the black line; but actually the black line does not exist in nature any more than does a white line. and apart from technical considerations there is no more justification for using one than the other. The difference is that in .wood-engraving. instead of putting in the darks and leaving the lights, one starts on the lights and leaves the darks.

One is apt to think that by engraving all the traced lines first, and thus fixing the design on the block, things are less likely to go wrong, but actually one may not want a white line around an object at all. It may be desirable to let one form merge into another, or perhaps into a cast shadow; or one may define the form. not by an outline, but by letting lines which run up to that form stop so that their ends are all in line, thus giving a dark edge to that object. Hence, until it is decided how the various forms are to be treated, it is much safer to start by working on one small section of the design, say about the size of a twoshilling piece, bringing it to a finish and letting that serve as a key to the rest.

Working like this, that is without cutting an outline round each form, may appear a little confusing at first to some beginners, but there is no reason why this should be so. After all, the traced lines in red or yellow should be sufficient guides. One is working in much the same way as if one were painting on a dark canvas and considering one’s design in tones rather than in lines.

When I myself started to engrave on wood after having worked some years on copper, I found that my chief difficulty was to visualize the kind of line I required for each form. The black lines used in etching, drypoint, or metal engraving are limited in their range of thickness and length. One may describe them as thick and thin lines and dots. With wood one can make a line much wider and a dot much larger than is advisable, or for that matter possible, on copper. Also one’s dots can vary so much in shape as well as in size. At first I found it difficult to relate these varying thicknesses to each other, so that the unity of the design might be preserved. Still one very quickly learns how to make use of the various lines and marks made by the different tools; and when this facility has been acquired it will be found that they will give a variety of richness and texture that is extremely satisfying.

As the whole surface of the block will print, the wood-engraver again has a problem in common with the painter, which is the creation of a design which will fill and animate a specified space. The edges of the block assume greater importance than, say, the edges of a copperplate. For instance, one may etch a head, and as long as that head is placed in the most pleasing manner on the plate it is not necessary to cover the whole surface of the plate with a design. With wood, on the other hand, one is forced to consider every part of the block’s surface and to compose one’s design accordingly.

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