Fletcher - Woodblock Printing : Preface

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Wood-Block Printing

F. Morley Fletcher


In issuing these volumes of a series of Handbooks on the Artistic Crafts, it will be well to state what are our general aims.

In the first place, we wish to provide trustworthy text-books of workshop practice, from the points of view of experts who have critically examined the methods current in the shops, and putting aside vain survivals, are prepared to say what is good workmanship, and to set up a standard of quality in the crafts which are more especially associated with design. Secondly, in doing this, we hope to treat design itself as an essential part of good workmanship. During the last century most of the arts, save painting and sculpture of an academic kind, were little considered, and there was a tendency to look on 'design' as a mere matter of appearance. Such 'ornamentation' as there was was usually obtained by following in a mechanical way a drawing provided by an artist who often knew little of the technical processes involved in production. With the critical attention given to the crafts by Ruskin and Morris, it came to be seen that it was impossible to detach design from craft in this way, and that, in the widest sense, true design is an inseparable element of good quality, involving as it does the selection of good and suitable material, contrivance for special purpose, expert workmanship, proper finish, and so on, far more than mere ornament, and indeed, that ornamentation itself was rather an exuberance of fine workmanship than a matter of merely abstract lines. Workmanship when separated by too wide a gulf from fresh thought-that is, from design-inevitably decays, and, on the other hand, ornamentation, divorced from workmanship, is necessarily unreal, and quickly falls into affectation. Proper ornamentation may be defined as a language addressed to the eye; it is pleasant thought expressed in the speech of the tool.

In the third place, we would have this series put artistic craftsmanship before people as furnishing reasonable occupations for those who would gain a livelihood. Although within the bounds of academic art, the competition, of its kind, is so acute that only a very few per cent. can fairly hope to succeed as painters and sculptors ; yet, as artistic craftsmen, there is every probability that nearly every one who would pass through a sufficient period of apprenticeship to workmanship and design would reach a measure of success.

In the blending of handwork and thought in such arts as we propose to deal with, happy careers may be found as far removed from the dreary routine of hack labour as from the terrible uncertainty of academic art. It is desirable in every way that men of good education should be brought back into the productive crafts there are more than enough of us 'in the city,' and it is probable that more consideration will be given in this century than in the last to Design and Workmanship.

* * * * *

There are two common ways of studying old and foreign arts-the way of the connoisseur and the way of the craftsman. The collector may value such arts for their strangeness and scarcity, while the artist finds in them stimulus in his own work and hints for new developments.

The following account of colour printing from wood-blocks is based on a study of the methods which were lately only practised in Japan, but which at an earlier time were to some degree in use in Europe also. The main principles of the art, indeed, were well known in the West long before colour prints were produced in Japan, and there is some reason to suppose that the Japanese may have founded their methods in imitating the prints taken from Europe by missionaries. Major Strange says: "The European art of chiaroscuro engraving is in all essentials identical with that of Japanese colour printing ... It seems, therefore, not vain to point out that the accidental sight of one of the Italian colour-prints may have suggested the process to the Japanese." The Italians aimed more at expressing 'relief' and the Japanese at flat colour arrangements; the former used oily colours, and the latter fair distemper tints; these are the chief differences. Both in the West and the East the design was cut on the plank surface of the wood with a knife; not across the grain with a graver, as is done in most modern wood engraving, although large plank woodcuts were produced by Walter Crane and Herkomer, about thirty years ago, as posters.

The old woodcuts of the fifteenth century were produced as pictures as well as for the illustration of books; frequently they were of considerable size. Often, too, they were coloured by stencil plates or freely by hand.

At the same time the printing in colour of letters and other simple devices in books from wood-blocks was done, and a book printed at St. Albans in 1486 has many coats of arms printed in this way; some of the shields having two or three different colours.

About the year 1500 a method of printing woodcuts in several flat tones was invented in Germany and practised by Lucas Cranach and others. A fine print of Adam and Eve by Hans Baldung in the Victoria and Albert Museum has, besides the bold black 'drawing,' an over-tint printed in warm brown out of which sharp high lights are cut; the print is thus in three tones.

Ugo da Carpo (c. 1480-1530) working in Venice, introduced this new type of tone woodcut into Italy; indeed, he claimed to be the inventor of the method. This was called chiaroscuro, a name still given to it, and was, in fact, a simple form of our modern chromo printing. His woodcuts are in a simple, vigorous style; one of them after Raphael's 'Death of Ananias,' printed in brown, has a depth and brilliancy which may remind us of the mezzo-tints of Turner's Liber Studiorum. This is proudly signed, 'Per Ugo da Carpo,' and some copies are said to be dated 1518.

Andrea Andreani (c. 1560-1623), a better known but not a better artist, produced a great number of these tone woodcuts. Several prints after Mantegna's 'Triumphs of Caesar' have a special charm from the beauty of the originals; they are printed in three tints of grey besides the 'drawing'; the palest of these tints covers the surface, except for highlights cut out of it. A fine print of a Holy Family, about 15 x 18 inches, has a middle tone of fair blue and a shadow tint of full rich green. Copies of two immense woodcuts at the Victoria and Albert Museum, of Biblical subjects, seem to have been cut on single planks 6 x 2 feet; of these the ground tone is a light 'wash' of warm grey, while the shadow tone is in dark bluish grey.

In the middle of the eighteenth century an English engraver, T. B. Jackson, practised the method with success and carried it still further by producing fully coloured prints. On these experiments he published a book in 1745. In accord with the ideals of the time, the colour is dark and full, but technically the results are most remarkable. Jackson also published an account of wall-paper printing, which, like cotton-printing, has continued to be an English form of colour-printing from wood-blocks.

The textures of the chiaroscuros are so like those of the Japanese colour prints that it is hard to think there was no such connection as that suggested by Major Strange. On the other hand, in the first attempts at producing coloured woodcuts made in Japan (c. 1650) the colour was added by hand after a single printing, and this suggests a natural transition such as had taken place in Europe a century and a half before.

Sufficient has been said to show that in studying Japanese colour-prints, and working more or less after the same method, we are not trying to adopt anything exotic, but rather readapting an art which belongs as much to the West as to the East. Here, too, it may be suggested that the technique of wallpaper production, especially the hand printing methods, might be extended in the publication of large diagrammatic pictures, simple but striking maps, well lettered quotations from literature, and similar things, as school pictures and decorations. Such things might be both cheap and good if they were done in a bold, unpretending way.

It may be observed generally that types of design which depend on the skilful arrangement of patches of colour need to be cultivated in our Schools of Art more than they have been. The teaching of drawing by pencil outline seems to cramp the hand and injure the eyes of all but the most gifted draughtsmen. It is desirable to cultivate the ability to seize and record the 'mapform' of any object rapidly and correctly. Some practice in elementary colour-printing would certainly be of general usefulness, and simpler exercises may be contrived by cutting out with scissors and laying down shapes in black or coloured papers unaided by any pattern.

Finally, the hope may be expressed that the beautiful art of wood-cutting as developed in Western Europe and brought to such perfection only a generation ago is only temporarily in abeyance, and that it too may have another day.



September 1916.



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