Wednesday, October 9, 2013


Artist-in-Residence Peggy Parker graciously invited me and another faculty member to sit in on a recent session of her course, Drawing to Woodcut. As I told the students, I was there because somehow I missed learning woodcut when I was in art school. Ever since I watched Trudi Ludwig Johnson work on her huge plate for “Venus, Cupid, Folly, and Time”, which I wrote about here and here, my hands have been itching to feel the bite of blade into wood, and to learn how to turn the image in the block into a print on paper.
So I began to prepare a few days before the planned class session by cutting paper into 6” x 4” pieces, the size of the practice block that Peggy said we would be working on, and drawing variations based on this photograph, which I took in Guatemala. When I first saw the plant, I thought it looked like a cross between bird-of-paradise and banana. After some searching it is called heliconia, and is, indeed, related to bananas. Although I was first drawn to the contrast between the deep, green leaves and the bright magenta of the flower, I became increasingly intrigued by the birdlike shapes as I began to think about its possibilities as a monochrome print.

The next step was to transfer the basic drawing, using tracing paper to draw over the lines so that the image would be reversed on the block and show up the right way on the resulting prints. Periodically, I would lift up the paper to make sure that the lines were really there. Then, as I recall, I went over the lines again, to make them clear. Finally, I was ready to start cutting.
I had expected that cutting into the wood would be difficult, but, to my surprise, the sharp, v-shaped blade glided easily through the thin layers of a special plywood called shina. There was very little resistance, more like drawing than cutting. After some timeless amount of time, I had the main outlines, and it was time to ink the block and pull the first print, using a big, wooden spoon to press the paper onto the ink. Here’s what it looked like:
When I pinned the proof onto the wall and stepped back, I was dismayed at the big glob of white at the end of the small branch below the leaves. Going back to knife and block, I added ribs on the leaves, white tips on the flowers, and the wavy, freehand lines that evoke vines and tendrils without trying to describe them literally. A few days later, under Peggy’s watchful eye and careful coaching, I tried again, using the same back-of-the-spoon technique, first on a rather stiff, opaque paper and the second one on a softer, more translucent one that allowed me to see the ink adhere. Finally, Peggy encouraged me to ink the block one more time and run it through the press.
The play of rich, even black and sparkling white seems like magic to me, even as I see all the places where the cutting is clumsy, the line is awkward, and the composition not quite right. Now, I cannot decide whether to spend more time with this block, fixing what I can fix, knowing that it will never be quite right; to try again with the same basic drawing, making a better block with what I have learned in doing the first one; or to start something new, finding new mistakes to learn from.  It’s so much fun that I will probably do all three.

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