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Techniques

Wood engraving

Wood engraving is a relief printing technique which closely resembles the woodcut. In a woodcut, the block is cut along the grain, using planks that have been cut vertically from the trunk. In wood engraving the artist cuts across the grain. Very hard species of wood, like plum or palm trees, are used for engraving. A stronger tool – the burin – was needed to work this hard wood. A burin has a metal shaft that is V-shaped in section, with a sharp point at the end. It would be used to remove the parts of the wood that were not to be printed. This explains the different name of the technique: rather than cutting away the wood, the engraver would work against the end grain. It is possible to include more detailing in a wood engraving, as the burin allows grooves to be cut with more precision. Greys can also be introduced to the image using very fine cross hatching. Wood engravings tend to be fairly small, though larger prints can be made by joining several blocks together.

When working with wood Escher would often alternate between the woodcut and wood engraving technique. He was a fan of both. Wood engraving allowed him to introduce more detail, so he regularly opted for this technique. Considering his entire body of work, however, we cannot conclude that he would allow his choice of a particular technique to be dictated by the image he wished to make. Escher liked a challenge, and he would sometimes opt to make a highly detailed print using the woodcut technique, whereas a wood engraving might seem to be a more logical choice. He never actually worked with the level of detail and grey tones that an artist like Gustave Doré (1832-1883) used, for example. In Escher’s work the contrast between black and white, wood and groove always dominated. He had incidentally made many woodcuts before producing his first wood engraving in 1931: an invitation to an exhibition of his work in The Hague. The print features a statue of a lion in Ravello, Italy, and the lettering for the exhibition. It is a graphic image that would have worked perfectly well as a woodcut. When he wanted to introduce lots of details and grey tones, he would make a lithograph.

M.C. Escher, Nocturnal Rome: Small Churches, Piazza Venezia, wood engraving, March 1934
M.C. Escher, Dragon, wood engraving, March 1952

History

The wood engraving technique was developed by British printmaker Thomas Bewick (1753-1828), based on the woodcut and copperplate engraving techniques. The new technique allowed for more detailing than a woodcut, and was much cheaper and simpler than copperplate engraving. The most famous artist to work with this technique was Gustave Doré, who was highly skilled in drawing, engraving, sculpting and painting. He was able to reach a large audience, as his engravings were used as illustrations for books including the Bible, Dante’s La Divina Comedia, Don Quixote by Miguel de Cervantes, The Tempest by William Shakespeare, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Homer’s Odyssey and La Fontaine’s fables. He sometimes made the engraving himself, though he generally left it to a craftsman. Doré started with a sketch, then made a pen and ink drawing on a block of wood, and used watercolour to indicate shading. The engraver cut the block and added Doré’s name.

Thomas Bewick, Barn Owl (History of British birds, volume 1), wood engraving, 1797-1804
Gustave Doré, Crucifixion of Jesus, wood engraving, 1866

When electrotyping (also known as galvanoplasty) was invented around 1850 it became possible to make duplicates of wood engravings and woodcuts. An impression of the original printing block would be made in bee’s wax and then hung in an electrotype bath to create a durable copy of the original wooden block in copper or zinc. This allowed books and magazines to be printed simultaneously in several editions with the same illustrations. The technique was frequently used for popular scientific illustrations, and for newspapers and magazines. Towards the end of the nineteenth century wood engraving as a method of reproducing artworks or illustrating publications was replaced by photography, which was much quicker and more efficient. After that, wood engraving was used mainly by artists. Some became well-known for their wood engraving, including Edward Calvert, Clare Leighton, Eric Gill, John Buckland Wright and, in the Netherlands (besides Escher), Nico Eekman, Nico Bulder and Pam G. Rueter.

Pam Rueter, bookplate for Lou Hoefnagels, n.d.
Edward Calvert, The Brook, wood engraving, 1829. Collection: Tate