Faculty Guest Blogger: Peter Hoffer
Peter Hoffer: Relief printing, most commonly associated with a woodcut or perhaps a rubber stamp, works on the principle that what inks and prints remains uncut, or in relief.
To some artists a woodcut is sadly anything but a relief, finding wood tedious and difficult to cut, especially when across the grain. Different kinds of wood—a softer wood such as pine is usually preferred—can be more or less forgiving, but still frustrating.
Beginners often prefer using linoleum to make linocuts, another type of relief print but employing a softer material without the resistance of wood grain. In addition to choosing the right wood for the result in mind, it is important to use a sharpened, if not necessarily a higher quality tool. Another typical challenge for the uninitiated is to print an image with letters backward, forgetting to design the image or letters on the block to reverse for right reading.
For those who can get over the first hurdles in making woodcuts, including the inevitable slip needing a band-aid, the lesson I have learned over the years teaching is that occasionally there are students who appear to be naturals, who not only find satisfaction in the carving process, but who seem gifted with an innate understanding of how to use the medium to best advantage. A successful woodcut, no matter how seemingly simple, can make a unique and powerful statement, overcoming the inherent restrictions of wood to unlock the dormant mystery and imagery lying within its textures.
Today’s printmaker will likely choose wood because of its intrinsic material qualities, including knots, irregularities, and distinctive grain patterns that promise results unattainable elsewhere.
Antonio Frasconi, illustrator, book artist, and fine art printmaker, well known for his clever and inventive use of wood, has an uncanny sense and ability to “dialogue” with the material, allowing the wood to speak to him as he replies to it. As in all aspects of printmaking, a woodcut will undergo a certain progression of states or proofs, allowing the artist to change course, shift gears. This is part of the excitement, the anticipation and surprise of taking the first proof and going from there. However, with wood it’s best to be a little more cautious in planning and in cutting. One of my mantras to students is: if in doubt, don’t cut it out!
One of my mantras to students is: if in doubt, don’t cut it out!
We think of this ‘conversation’ when considering how a sculptor approaches his stone or a painter her canvas, but that process is equally true for the printmaker, perhaps especially with the woodcut. Through years of practice, artists such as Frasconi refine their keen sense of how the wood yields different results, understanding an appropriate design and approach, or how to push the envelope. Then, there is always this: How do you get to Carnegie Hall? Answer: practice, practice, practice!
Printmakers working in the manner of Frasconi who exploit the properties and potential of the wood block, including the German Expressionists, Leonard Baskin, or Helen Frankenthaler, is historically a fairly recent development. Check out the woodcuts of Albrecht Durer, the great Northern Renaissance artist renown for his paintings and prints.
Although Durer’s woodcuts are remarkable for their invention and execution, it is unlikely that given today’s technology Durer would have chosen a wood block to create and circulate his images. However awesome, Durer’s woodcuts are essentially pen and ink drawings drawn by him on the blocks’ surface to be cut by a skilled apprentice. For him this method was the least time consuming and most cost effective given his intended audience and market, something prohibitive for the costlier copper line engravings he had to personally engrave.
There are many instances in the contemporary woodcut when the printmaker seems to defy the limits of achievable imagery. There are also times when an artist or carver will surgically cut lines into a block using a ruler and utility knife, but still have an interest in incorporating wood grain character, unlike Durer whose concern it was not.
Represented in the Maslow Collection, the pop artist Roy Lichtenstein cut wood in an almost unexpected way, making large, colorful prints combining wood with lithography or screen printing in mixed media combinations. The woodcut elements in these works is angular and precise, not in an expressive and spontaneous approach suggesting Frasconi or Frankenthaler, but in a manner closer to Durer, one that is studied and controlled from the start. Lichtenstein wants the grain to be revealed, to interact in synthesis with the other print surfaces of the lithograph or screen print. POW!
Another early pop artist represented in the Maslow Collection is Jim Dine. Prolific in many areas of printmaking, Dine made signature images that include hearts and bath robes. One of these is found in the Maslow Collection entitled The Kindergarten Robes, a large woodcut double printed on one sheet in contrasting colors. Stylistically it strikes me as a sort of unlikely mix of Durer and Baskin and maybe some Frasconi thrown in? As for the bathrobes, be my guest.
Some closing thoughts: Of all the printmaking processes, making relief prints is among the simplest, most direct, and cost-effective way to make prints, requiring little space and no fancy equipment, including a press. Proofs can be ‘spoon’ or hand printed with professional results using water based inks that recently could only be achieved with oil based inks.
Best of all, it is both craft and art, offering the pleasures of working with your senses and hands to produce one of a kind images intended as illustrations or as fine art prints, sometimes both. Look at the work of Randall Enos who carves and prints linoleum in a novel way by collaging one of a kind illustrations. Enos also creates limited edition prints using the same inventive technique that requires him to cut only one block and to print it repeatedly in many colors.
Coming up soon in the Maslow Gallery will be a display of prints from the collection including some just been mentioned. You may already be acquainted with many of these prints, all created entirely as a woodcut or incorporating it, allowing you to compare first-hand the surprising range and diversity of this ‘ancient’ printing process. What a relief!
Check out Marywood’s Student Printmaking Collection to view examples of the various printmaking techniques http://marywood.edu/art/artwork/student-printmaking-archive/