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Old And Sold Antiques Digest Article

Wood Engraving

( Originally Published 1917 )

WOOD-CUTTING, or wood-engraving, is a relief process. The design is drawn on or transferred to a block of wood and a knife is employed to cut away the surface of the block between the lines. The wood-engraver does not work on the lines of the design; it is the wood that is left untouched which prints. This is the older method, but later an engraver's burin was used as well as a knife. The oldest woodcut is dated 1423. Block books were made before the invention of movable type, both the illustrations and the letters being cut in the block. Many artists worked in this medium in Germany in the sixteenth century. A later development was the white method, where the design was cut into the wood, so that the print there from showed as white lines on a black ground. Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) introduced many new methods into the art. In the old method pear-wood was cut with the grain. He used boxwood cut across the grain. Bewick was the first to interpret the design rather than to follow slavishly the lines. To illustrate: the shadow side of a rock would be made, in the first method, by digging out all the space between the artist's lines. In the later method the effect would be attained by running white lines through the shadow in such a way as to get the proper tone and character. This required much more ski11 on the part of the engraver.

A further change in the character of woodengraving came about through the use of photography in transferring the design to the block. This brought about the subordination of line to tone and texture, giving results not unlike line engraving. It became a reproductive art. Artists were employed in reproducing painting. Timothy Cole's beautiful woodcuts of the Old Masters in the "Century" are examples. At present a return to the earlier method is shown in the work of Lepere, whose woodcuts are as great, if not greater, than his etchings. The influence of the Japanese is seen in this revival.

It should be noted that woodcut is the opposite of engraving. In the former the lines are in relief as the space between is cut away, while in the latter the lines are cut into the surface. It was the art of the people until superseded by "process." The woodcut can be printed with the letterpress, and is therefore a cheap method of reproduction. As the cut would wear away in time, an electrotype is made which can be renewed as often as desired. Different values are obtained by varying the width of the lines. Boxwood is now generally used for the blocks, and is cut across the grain. The woodcut should not be made to imitate the line engraving. The artist should work from the black to the white, showing a flat black, white lines and white spaces, with no cross hatching. If a woodcut is made in the correct style, it cannot be copied with pen and ink. Colour prints are made with a separate block for each colour, and one is printed over the other. Japanese colour prints are familiar examples of this method.

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