277: Understanding Woodcuts

Long Valley Morning, 12 block woodcut

COLLECTORS need to understand why you create your art. Additionally if no one understands how you create your art it is unlikely collectors will connect with your artistic project. I’m having a woodcut exhibit featuring all of my color woodcuts from the last twenty years at Alpine Art on April 15, 2016. Lost Key woodcuts are nearly a lost art. With the idea of expanding the understanding of this little known art form I wrote the following explanation:

The Technique of Color Woodcut Printing

Multi-color woodcuts using the Lost Key method are uncommon because they are extremely difficult to do. They require a lot of planning and patience. It is a very different creative experience than drawing or painting. To make ten woodcuts of one of my portfolios, for example, I carved eighty-three wood blocks. I then inked each block with different colors and printed each color of the series by hand for a total of 2490 impressions (not including artist’s proofs which are experimental impressions taken to evaluate color and registration which include an additional 250 passes through the press).

For each impression I mixed the exact color of ink (which often takes hours), applied the ink to the block with a roller, registered the paper to the block, and hand cranked the block through an antique Challenge proof press. With the woodcut “Long Valley Morning” I passed each woodcut through the press twelve times which means that the thirty sheets of that edition passed through the press 360 times.

But before I can print I have to carve the blocks. I start by drawing a linear drawing, usually from a plein air sketch or painting, directly onto a block of wood. If the scene has a cloudy sky, for example, I make the transferred drawing define every outline of every cloud. I then carve away the wood that has no lines on it. I ink the carved block with black ink and print it onto a piece of vellum (which won’t absorb the ink). I then place a new, uncut block into my press, register the vellum and run it through the press. This presses the wet ink outline from the vellum onto each block in a process known as counter-printing.

In the clouds I may want to fill each shape with a light blue. Using an uncut block with the dried counter-printed image as a guide I carve away everything except where I want the light blue to appear. I then go back to the original black block and carve away the outline of the clouds. This technique is called “lost key” printing because the original linear woodcut, or key, is carved away. Some of the key block is usually retained as the deepest notes of the print (but rarely exposing total dark and few if any linear details). The linear aspects of the first block are obscured by subsequent layers. This laborious process was used by woodcut artists such as Gustave Baumann. It creates a less linear and more painterly looking woodcut without the black outline of more common techniques. It takes a lot of fine tuning between the various blocks to get them to harmonize together and every additional block makes it exponentially more difficult. When the ink is dry I hand emboss and hand deckle each print.
I prefer to call the art created by this method “woodcuts” rather that “prints” because the process has nothing to do with modern photographic or computer printing. Each woodcut is handmade and unique. I carefully deliberate over each color of every impression. I carefully adjust each impression to give maximum aesthetic value. Slight variations are made into strengths by adjusting the following impressions which give the woodcut texture and vibrancy. Only the very best are selected for the final editions. These are then hand signed, named, and numbered, usually in a limited edition of 20 to 40. I resurface my blocks to cancel the editions.

I hope this description will foster greater appreciation for the art of the woodcut.

Brad Teare –March 2016

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Updated: 12th July 2024
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