Wood Engraving Process!
Hello friends! You responded with such enthusiasm to our last process post, I've returned with another. I aim to please! This time, I've documented the wood engraving process from idea to final print.
I started taking wood engraving classes in January of this year, and have completed 8 engravings since then (about one a month). To see some of my journey in learning wood engraving - check those posts out here, here, here, and here. I really didn't expect to fall in love with engraving the way I have. It's so satisfying to create my own printing blocks and see my ideas come to life. I've done all my previous engravings under the watchful eye & expertise of Carl Montford, but this is my first time working solo start to finish here in the studio. I'm excited about how it turned out, and I hope you enjoy this peek into the process!
1) Have an idea & produce an image. As soon as we brought Atticus home, I knew I wanted to do an engraving of him. I pictured it with lots of detail, and his little orange beak & feet being hand colored. Brad and I gave birdley a little photo shoot, and this image surfaced.
2) Plan initial line work. I printed the image out at full page size and emphasized the lines and shading with a Staedtler pen. This is definitely where a lot of the thought & planning starts - where will the lines, shading and solids be? What will I emphasize? What will I change or leave out?
3) Make a xerox. I walked over to our local UPS store, shrunk the image to the size of the block, and paid the $0.09 it costs to make a photocopy nowadays. (This was not exciting, so I didn't take a photo.)
4) Transfer the image onto the block. I use Resingrave blocks by McClain's, because real wood blocks are crazy expensive. I cut the xerox down to the size of the block, but left a half inch or so on either side of the image for taping. (You don't want the image moving around.) Once it was securely attached face down on the block, I applied a few drops of mineral spirits onto the paper. (It makes it cool and transparent.) Then I used my handy dandy transfer tool! It's a weird power tool that will burn the poop out of your hands if you're clumsy like I am. (Who needs feeling in their fingertips?)
It takes some patience and fortitude, but eventually the image transfers permanently from the paper to the block, leaving the paper looking opaque and white again.
5) Tint the block I used some thinned out red printing ink to tint the block, making it easier for me (and you!) to see what's been engraved.
6) Get to work! I started on the whitest parts of the bird, carefully clearing out the pure white sections. Then I worked on the basic texture of the bird's body, starting to get a feel for the types of strokes required to create this image. I was a ballet dancer for a long time before becoming a designer/printer, and this feels a lot like that - each piece requires a different visual style and quality of movement. It's physical and intuitive. And it's risky! I'm carving and chipping away at the block, and it's easy to become overzealous and remove the wrong parts. You really can't put it back. There's no "control z," but that's what I love about handmade work.
7) Work on the background. This background is fairly simple, but required a lot of patience to clear away the white without taking out a bar of the cage too. There are a few strokes I wish I could take back, but I know they'll give it authenticity when all is said and done. I am not a computer. I am still learning. (Sara pep talk #1.)
8 ) Add more detail. The beauty of a subject matter like bird is amount the texture & detail required. I definitely didn't intend to put in every feather, but wanted to give the general appearance of feathers and light/dark shadows.
9) Head for the iron handpress! Once I've finished a first pass on the whole block, I like to see where I'm at by making a proof. And my friend Wendy is the best for proofing wood engravings.
10) Ink the block. I use an oil based printmaking ink from Daniel Smith for wood engravings. It's smooth, thin, and works really well getting solid black prints. Before printing each piece, I also dampen the paper with a spray bottle and dry it off with a blue paper towel. The water softens the paper fibers and allows for more solid printing & deeper impression.
11) Pull a proof and check it out! I hold my breath a bit when I'm about to see a first proof. It's so exciting to see the image come to life on paper for the first time!
12) Establish what to tackle next. The background in a few sections needed to be cleared deeper, the back foot is disappearing on the branch (oops), and birdley's chest & tail could use some improvement. Time to head back to the engraving bench with proof in hand.
13) Back to the block. It's all gray once it's been proofed and cleaned, so it's important to have the proof next to it for reference.
14) Get stressed out and nit-picky. Make tiny changes & proof it a bunch. Just kidding. Sorta. This part is all about figuring out what needs to be done so that I can be happy with it. At this point, I think the top of the head and the mid-section need some additional work.
15) That's better! It's important to know when to call it finished. You can certainly overwork a block. Once you've taken something out, you can't put it back.
15) Finish it up and give it your personal mark! Carl uses an M for Montford. I've chosen a little star.
16) Print the run!
17) Hand color the beak & feet! Instead of using watercolor (my first thought), I decided to use a Copic marker, because I find them easier to manage.
18) All done! Sort, sign & number the prints and send them out into the world. To take home your own little studio bird (in letterpress form), visit our Etsy store!