As those of you who follow me on Twitter or are friends with me on Facebook already know, a little over two weeks ago, I decided to try my hand at the art of woodcutting. While my own scholarly interests tend more towards literature, early modern science, and philosophy, I have been spending nearly the Wednesdays of the last six months or so Tweeting strange and unusual early modern woodcuts and engravings. At the beginning, I only Tweeted woodcuts, naming my enterprise #WoodcutWednesday and hoping that the hashtag would catch on with like minded Twitter early modernists. Since then, I expanded the hashtag to include engravings, effectively rendering it a misnomer.
If I can take the number of people responding to and re-Tweeting as any indication, #WoodcutWednesday has been fairly successful–although I still hope that one day lots of others will join in by contributing their own images and captions–despite my lack of training in art history. While I am still a novice in the realm of art history, last week I took steps to better understand the process of woodcutting by trying my hand at cutting my own. Whereas I Tweet early modern woodcuts without any art history training, now I’m starting to make my own woodcuts without any artistic talent. Welcome to the amateur show.
The results have been surprising to me. While far from “good,” the woodcuts I made over the course of my first week continued to improve, leading some of my friends on Facebook and Twitter to suggest that I should start an Etsy store to sell the prints I’ve made. I’m not sure what the market is for what I’m calling #ShittyWoodcuts or if I’m going to try to sell them, but I have happened on a new hobby that I think will remain lasting.
This post will chart my progress over the last week and provide a showcase for the products of my new hobby, but I hope to post a follow-up soon to describe and explain the process I have learned over the last few weeks to encourage and inform any other interested parties how they too can make some silly and shitty woodcuts. So far I’ve found it an enjoyable and rewarding hobby, and one I hope to continue for a long time to come.1
Three Sundays ago, my wife and I went to the nearest craft store, Michaels, to pick up some carving tools. Since I didn’t think I’d ever carve something that I would even consider printing, I did not pick up any of the items to make a print itself, but I just wanted to give the cutting itself a try to see what I could do. Not yet taking this seriously, I picked up this set of carving tools for under $10.2
That night, I unsuccessfully experimented with my new tools. To be honest, I did not even know yet what functions the different blades were intended to serve. Since I thought for sure this was going to be a failed experiment, I did not even buy any wood, instead using some old scrap pine that has been in the garage for months.
Here are a few pictures of my failed carvings of the first night.
As you can see, I thought small was the way to go, but, as I soon learned, one starting to carve fares better not on something small, but on something much larger that gives you plenty of room to maneuver, and, because of this is much more forgiving that the small blocks that I began with. As I learned over the course of the week, this is not true in the least. The larger the area, the greater margin of error.
Day 2: Some progress
As I grew more comfortable with the tools at my disposal, my carvings got better, even as I had learned to use some of them incorrectly by not using the right tool for the specific carving task at hand.
My first designs mostly consisted of either letters modeled after the Gutenberg font or simple reproductions of early modern symbols. In hopes to eventually create a woodcut header for this blog, I chose a Gothic S, and attempted the word “Shaper.” I also attempted an early modern Scorpio symbol3, and one of John Dee’s symbols of the Monad Man. The Dee symbol, being the most simple, probably came out the best of these early experiments.
The oddball of this set is an original. When I had posted on Twitter that I was going to start trying to make my own woodcuts, one of my #WoodcutWednesday faithful, Diane Shaw (@Museocat), jokingly asked if I was going to attempt a “NotALion.” #NotALion has become a #WoodcutWednesday staple sub-hashtag where I poke fun at early modern attempts to illustrate what lions look like. Pretty much invariably they fail in this attempt. I’m still on a quest to find the first Western early modern realistic looking lion.4 Since the early moderns failed so miserably at it even with exceptional woodcutting skills, and since I liked the commentary such an image might make on Magritte’s La trahison des images (The Treachery of Images, popularly a.k.a. “This is not a Pipe”), I decided to produce a #NotALion of my own.
Notice the rough patters on the wood. As I would discover, I was using the wrong tool to create most of my cuts. The flat curved blade I used for almost everything was really designed to pry up larger chunks of wood from the surface. While functional, it created situations where the wood would tear into my designs. The other problem with this method was that the surface that was left was incredible rough. While it didn’t really affect the small designs I worked on on day two, on day three, when I worked on something larger, it would create a much bigger problem for the print.
Day 3: My first large original woodcut, and starting to get the carving bug
I started the day by deciding to finally find a brayer and ink. While my woodcuts were still ridiculously simple and crude, I wanted to print them to see what my carvings looked like once applied to paper. I returned to Michaels to find a Linocut kit that included a four inch brayer, black ink, a lino cutting tool, and a linoleum block. If I were to want to make linocuts, it would have had everything I needed to make my first. Here is the kit I purchased:
I considered switching to linocutting, but have, as of yet, resisted the urge. Carving into linoleum or linoleum blocks is purportedly easier and results in a cleaner design (you do not have to worry about a grain and because it is a softer material). So far, cheap wood is my medium of choice.
I also added a minor detail to the “Not a Lion” woodcut that I had planned on doing, but had resisted for fear of destroying it. It was this detail that launched me into the desire to make better designs and to challenge myself and my lack of talent.
What I did not know at the time was that, with a lack of a press, one needed not only to apply pressure to the print and block, but that one also needed to rub the surface with a spoon to heat up the ink to help it transfer. Consequently, they came out incredibly light and almost illegible despite the fair amount of ink I applied to the blocks.
Eventually, I discovered this, and the process resulted in prints like the following:
The detail that stood out to me was how well the little scratches worked to create the impression of a lions paw on the capital L. While it isn’t anything spectacular, it was fuel for a growing fire. I decided to get a little more adventurous and began work photoshopping a design that would take me most of the next day to carve.
The rough look that my lack of talent and inexperience produced, along with the form of the more modern woodcut reminded me of propaganda posters that either supported or challenged the dominant ideology, so I decided to run with this idea and make some fake propaganda of my own.
Day 4: Propaganda and the Dark Lord
The crude nature of my early prints reminded me of popular types of propaganda, and I decided to create a little satire of Uncle Sam for my next attempt. I started with this photoshopped mock-up.
After I transferred the image to the woodblock, I set to work styling it into a way to make it work in woodcut form. The most difficult challenge for someone without much artistic ability was to render the pointing finger in a believable way in black and white. While I don’t think it turned out especially well, what I did was enough to make this gem of a faux propaganda poster:
For the details of Vader’s face and body armor, I tried something new. Rather than hacking them out with my cheap carving tools, I experimented with an Xacto knife. This experiment taught me that very fine lines could make for visible details in the print. Certainly, the woodcut as a whole was still very crude, but the detail began to click for me, and the feedback I received was enough to convince me that I needed better tools.
This fact was further confirmed when I turned to attempting to copy several of my favorite early modern woodcuts. The first
Day 5: Getting the Shakes
The following day I discovered that a shop specializing in woodworking was only a ten minute drive away from me. This was a surprise to me as it seems like everything in Houston was a forty-five minute drive from my house. The place, Woodcraft, is the type of store developed from a Ron Swanson/ Nick Offerman wet dream.
Woodcraft had a variety of small chisels and tools available ranging from the relatively inexpensive to the incredibly pricey. As I was on a budget and as this is still a new hobby, I went with the following moderately priced set.
Similar sets can be purchased through Amazon: Ramelson kit, but I’d still recommend going to a place like Woodcraft so you can examine the points in person. And, anyway, we all know Ron Swanson wouldn’t give his information to an online marketplace like Amazon.
After returning home with my new set of tools, I set to work on my first semi-complicated early modern subject, William Shakespeare. My first mock-up drawing turned out incredibly poorly as I transformed Billy Shakes into something of a cross between Paul Giamatti and Christopher Marlowe.
Not to be deterred, I started again, this time arriving at a base drawing that I was happy with and which was closer to the famous engraving of Shakespeare from the First Folio.
With a drawing that finally looked reasonable, I began using my new tools to carve the Bard’s face in relief. The design I chose here comes from the early modern Zazzle shirts I designed for myself several months ago.5
My new tools helped immensely as I carved away the soft cheap wood into the following relief:
Which resulted in my first printing:
While I still have ample room for improvement, I was fairly impressed with my first few woodcuts. It truly made a difference once I had the proper tools, and learned how to use them. While I still need to learn and practice the art of hatching and shading, my improvements throughout the week were as encouraging as they were shocking in my quick progress.
I knew that if I wanted to, I could retouch both the Vader and Shakespeare blocks to clean them of some of the stray marks left on these first trial prints, but I enjoy the rough look those unplanned marks produced. Part of the reason for some of the stray marks has less to do with the cut itself as it does with my inexperience at printing from blocks, my lack of a proper way to press them, and the fact that I am using a very small brayer and, presumably, poor quality ink. The brayer included in my purchased kit only has a four inch brayer which means that I must pass over the surface of the block multiple times in order to ink it completely. Every pass with the brayer increases the likelihood that it will ink aberrant slightly raised marks in the wood. These problems are compounded by the fact that in order to get the ink to a very dark black color, I needed to pass over every raised surface several times. For now at least, I’ll let those stray marks stand.6
It was at this point that hubris got the better of me. Having moderately successfully created a woodcut of Shakespeare, I decided to try my hand at a self-portrait. I took my Twitter avatar and attempted to woodcut-ify myself. The results were worse than I’d hoped, but at least I came away with something that resembled me even if it was a failure.
I forgot to add my jaw! Silly me. At this point, I decided that converting photos to woodcuts was beyond my nascent wood carving skills, so I turned instead to creating a symbol. I don’t want to compare myself to Prince, but I figured since I had already forged the new name of senseshaper for my online identity from the fires of the Internet, I could follow that up with converting that new name into a symbol.
While I was apprehensive about developing a symbol from two Gothic Ss, I ultimately decided to go for it. I mean, I won’t be stuck with it–even Prince abandoned his symbol eventually. I was able to get over my anxiety about the double Ss when the result came out looking like a Rorschach ink-blot. Not only did I enjoy the mirroring aspect it produced, but it also seemed to contain two hidden Ws for #WoodcutWednesday and, in some ways resembles an early modern #NotALion. I won’t bore you with the rest of my crazy justifications for designing this symbol, but it works pretty well as a Twitter avi. After designing it in Photoshop, cutting it into wood, printing a copy from the block, and redigitizing the symbol with my camera, I give you the following:
I was pretty satisfied. If only I were younger and had a devil-may-care criminal streak, I think I’d become a tagger and spray this symbol anywhere I went. Since I’m not and don’t, I’ll satisfy myself with using this symbol as a watermark for my blog images, occasionally draw it into the margins of my reading notes, and use it intermittently as a social media avatar.
Day 6: Big Papa
For my next act of woodcuttery, I left the early modern for a modern literary figure, Ernest Hemingway. As my silly border around the Shakespeare woodcut gained some very limited Twitter and Facebook acclaim, I decided to do a mashup of literary and rap cultures with this one too.
The design that I chose would not allow for the entire phrase to fit within the borders, so I decided to use this cut to hone my fine detail skills. I prepared myself for failure, since the lettering within borders was substantially easier than lettering cut into relief, but I decided to give it a go anyway.
The details worked better than anything I had accomplished thusfar, but I saved the most difficult task for last. The new tools, however, worked like a charm, giving the lettering a rough, but more smooth lines than the Xacto-knifed details of my earlier cuts. All told, I was pretty happy with the result.
And here is the detail of the floating lettering. This image makes me wonder if I should have done a carving rather than a woodcut, as the cuts in the wood offer a pretty amazing look and texture.
Big Papa was a nice close to my first week of carving. While my woodcuts are still crude and amateurish, I was pretty happy with my rapid improvement. I know I have a long way to go still, but I like the rough look these cuts produce. It’s one of the reasons I decided to carve in solid wood rather than opting for the much easier lincuts. I love to see the flaws, the grain, and where the wood works against any clean and flawless images. The main thing in favor of linocuts is that you do not need to avoid cutting against the grain, but I’m attracted to the idea that the wood and I work to compete and collaborate to produce a woodcut. The wood is never a passive subject of my cuts, but continually exerts it’s influence. I may try some linocuts soon or try to carve in better wood, but, for now, I’m happy with the look that my decent tools and very cheap wood produce.
Since this first week, I’ve made a variety of new woodcuts, and I’m contemplating the purchase of even more and sharper tools. I think this is a hobby I can come to love–and I better, since I just spent the last few days building a home printing press from scratch!7
N.B. I have been withholding this post since I started having problems with WordPress’ editor. I post it now in draft form, but will update and edit it once the editor is back to functioning properly. For gods sake, I’ve already constructed a printing press and would like to post on it, but I haven’t been able to edit this one properly yet. Please fix this, WordPress!
- If I do decide to open an Etsy store, don’t worry. I will create a separate blog and Twitter handle so I don’t annoy those who aren’t interested in them. For those of you who are interested in what I’ve been able to do this past week, the following maps the development of my new carving skills and progress. (back)
- A similar, yet larger and more expensive set can be found here: Cheaper carving set
- It was, afterall, nearing my November 7th birthday. Scorpios unite! (back)
- Let me know if you have a candidate! (back)
- Read about them here or visit my Zazzle store here. (back)
- If anyone has a strong opinion on whether I should keep or remove them, let me know in the comments of this post, on Twitter (@senseshaper), or on Facebook. So far, the consensus seems to be to leave them. (back)
- I’ll probably post on this soon. (back)