Making Woodblock Prints

Oct. 9, 2022

I was reviewing some images I had saved of photographs I have taken of various scenes around Boone County, Mo., and came up with a pretty nice shot of the Missouri River.  The sky was that weird white and gray bordering on pastel violet that sometimes occurs in early spring when the weather can’t decide whether it’s going to be nice yet or not.  In this image there are a couple of tall cotton wood trees growing out of the same root system and are extending up into the sky and perching precariously over the bank of the river.  It appears that they have had most of the soil underneath their root system washed away by the current of the Big Muddy.  The leaves were just coming out on the trees in this photograph and it appeared to be one of my favorite times of year – First Green.  It must have been late March or early April.  

Anyway, the shot was pretty good so I decided to do a wood block print of it.  At first I thought I was going to have to carve out four or five blocks in order to print all the colors I wanted but after starting to work with the plates and cutting out what I thought would be necessary, I believed I could get by with less.  I figured I could probably print some small isolated areas in a couple of colors on the second block and not have to carve out more than three.

One of the things I enjoy about moving back and forth from different disciplines in the artistic process is how the various approaches force us to think about things in different ways.  In order to make a good painting one has to think about composition, color, contrast and so forth but there is only going to be the one painting.  You paint for a while and then take a break.  Maybe you come back later and realize you’ve made a mistake, or maybe you just don’t like that smile on her face.  With a painting you just get out the palette knife and scrape off the offending areas, re-apply the appropriate paint and fix it.  Hey, now that smile looks great.  

Not so with prints.  Although the same considerations apply in terms of formalistic considerations, in printing whatever you put on that first block is what you’re going to have to live with for the rest of the project.  It forces one to be more thoughtful about how to proceed.  

It’s like playing chess with your own ideas.  “How am I going to accomplish these feelings or message about my emotions concerning this image I have chosen?  How are these colors going to translate into how I feel about this subject matter?  Will the gray in this area look differently enough from the same gray in this other area where it is depicting water instead of clouds?  Will the details in the final block be convincing enough to pull the the whole thing together?”  You have to figure all that stuff out before you ever see any of the actual end results. Of course things never turn out exactly the way one plans but the results often turn out pretty close to the original intent.

In planning out how I was going to proceed with this project I was thinking at first that I would carve out one block and then print that and see what I got before moving on to the next.  When I thought about it I realized that wasn’t going to work.  After carving out the block for the first color I would have to put all the carving stuff away, the knives, the gouges, the wood vices to hold the plates in place and all the other tools and supplies that are required for carving and then reorganize the shop for applying the ink to the first block.  Then I would print the first block of the first color edition of say, twenty prints and I would have those prints hanging there over my work area for the duration of the project. My shop is fairly small and those prints would most likely be hanging right in my face.  Then I would have to put all that stuff away and reorganize the shop again to cut out the second block.  Having the prints hanging over my head as I was cutting the next image into the next slab of wood and that seemed to be a bad idea.  No. Too much work and trouble for no reasonable gain.  I decided I was going to have to cut out all the wooden plates before I started the actual printing process.

Carving plates of flat birch plywood forces one to be diligent in keeping everything relatively clean.  There is a lot of sweeping involved; not only of the floor but also all those little pieces of wood shavings that end up all over the work bench and one’s clothing.  I had to get rid of those little shavings and dust that are an inevitable result of gouging, cutting and sanding the wooden plates otherwise they would have ended up in places where they were not intended or welcome.  

I have also found it helpful when finishing with an aspect of the procedure to reward myself with a break.  I take off my apron, hang it up beside the door of the shop, turn off the lights and go upstairs to see if I can find my wife and maybe have a cup of coffee or eat lunch.  It helps me to be patient and pay attention to details before becoming tired or frustrated.  Printing with wooden blocks is definitely a process of craftsmanship.

Diligence in Keeping things relatively clean is quite important in the printing process.  Especially in applying ink to wood and then the finicky process of getting the paper registered in exactly the right place so the ink on the wood gets where it is supposed to go on the paper.  Having a little piece of wood shavings get in between the ink and the paper can be a very annoying problem. I find it helpful to have a small dull knife right handy to get those pesky little bits of wood or whatever out of the process before they can be a real problem.  It has the potential to compromise several prints if not caught early and certainly the print it affects when it first occurs.   So many things can go wrong when working on woodcuts.  It is not at all the same as having  a nice full palette of oil paint and slinging color at a canvas with brush or palette knife.  It is a very different kind of consideration; not what one would call, “spontaneous”.

Here is another consideration.  I love reading murder mysteries.  One of the nice things about this particular time in history is that the common Joe Schmoe has access to all kinds of literature.  We can go out to Barnes and Noble or the locally owned book store and buy pretty much whatever we want.  Or we can simply go to the library and take home all kinds of stuff for free.  What a lovely time in history.  I am also fortunate that my wife likes to read.  I have found myself in situations where somebody was not terribly happy with the way I was ignoring them because I had my nose stuck in a book. They might feel like retaliating by turning the volume up on the TV or some other dastardly form of retribution or maybe even turn to contemplating murderous thoughts

On the subject of murderous thoughts it seems to me that setting up a good murder mystery is kind of like preparing a woodblock print.  The author describes the villain’s considerations on how he or she is going to do some horrible deed and then we get to watch (or read) as the bad guys go about carrying out those ol’ evil plans and then witness the good guys’ attempts (either successful or not) at thwarting those terrible and unfortunate events.

The process in writing such literature and making prints have quite a bit more in common than one might think.  In printing a series of colors one over the next, an artist is describing an interpretation of a visual experience and expressing some knowledge concerning his or her feelings and thoughts about that experience.  If we look closely at the print we can see how one color has been printed over the proceeding color in an attempt to define another aspect of the vision.  This process is similar to what an author does in explaining how the villain might have gone about planning say, a murder, or whatever other crime the author is depicting.  Both are attempts at offering us a revelation.  These attempts could be considered morally instructive, inspiring, good, bad or maybe just plain evil.       

Carving images on three or four pieces of wood and printing those images could be considered evil by some, I suppose, and I have seen prints that I thought to be pretty wicked.  Thankfully we are still living in a society which values freedom of expression or at least has not caused anybody to be burned at the stake as a result of that expression in quite some time.  Besides; making an image of something interesting is certainly not the same as the actual crime of murder or any of the other awful things people do to one another.  But there are some similarities in thinking about the means on how to accomplish such ends.  Authors obviously have to think about such things if they intend their writing to be taken seriously.  Certainly those processes have to be considered if the author expects to be able to get their point across or sell their stories.  

It may seem somewhat droll but the same kind of planning has to take place in organizing the process of making a woodblock print.  “I’ll have to print this light color first and then this darker color over that.  Will using this color make the sky believable?  Will there be enough detail in the last block to pull it all together and have the whole thing make sense?”  Sort of like thinking about what the bad guy is going to do and not get caught.  Or what the good guy is going to do to catch him and /or her.

I have heard it said that the mind is the builder.  In any of these varied mediums the author or artist has offered an attempt to give a sense of satisfaction in how we express a problem and it’s solution.  It is pleasurable in a seemingly rational and surprisingly obvious way when these varied disciplines are actually successful in interpreting our shared realities.

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