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HE thing that makes the woodcut valuable in commerce is the ease with which it is combined with type matter, and printed with it. If the cuts are made on type-high blocks they may be used directly instead of having electrotypes made from them; that is, in any but the web press, which requires a curved printing face. So, that is an economy.
It is natural to think of initials in connection with woodcuts. In designing anything containing letters, it especially has to be borne in mind that the design reverses when it is printed. A mirror can be so arranged that letters appear in reverse, and in the right position - upside down if the example is put flat on the table. All right-handed subjects should be made left-handed on the block.
Letter-heads, trade-marks, mailing labels, book decorations, designs for cloth-printing and so on, offer possibilities. And there ought to be opportunities for applying the technique to poster design. Common planks from a lumber yard could be used if no great amount of detail is planned. The design could be made up in sections if the poster is to be large, or a carpenter could join the boards and make any width by any reasonable length. Any combination of blocks of any size or shape - limited only by the capacity of the printing press - can be arranged on the composing table. The above mentioned things have been done before, so that it is no novelty to mention them - merely a reminder. They are mentioned because a modern slant may be put to them.
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The technique should accentuate rather than obscure the peculiar qualities of the woodblock. It should not seek to simulate a pen and ink drawing any more than a water color should simulate an oil painting. Nor should the obvious limitations of the block be exceeded. Where the etching needle glides over the plate the gouge has to be urged, often with a good deal of force. The mere fact that tools are used sometimes under considerable pressure should lend a ruggedness not easily obtained in the more fluent media. Conversely, the more delicate the tools used and the easier their manipulation the less vigor results. The fundamental and peculiar qualities of a medium should be the easiest to exploit.
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The artist will have to bear in mind certain limitations of the printing machine when designing woodcuts for books to be printed on high-speed presses. Owing to the exigencies of commerce, certain books must be put out as cheaply as possible - cheap paper, cheap ink, rapid printing with perhaps some cheap help thrown in for good measure. As these books are made primarily to be read quickly and not studied, the type matter receives first consideration. The ink-feed is adjusted to the minimum to produce clear impressions of the type, which in very many cases is really not fully black. Now, in the ordinary course of affairs if the woodcut has large areas of black they would in consequence print very gray. If on the other hand, the ink-feed is adjusted to meet the requirements of the black areas, the type matter would be getting too much ink, and that would get smudgy. In other words, the engine is likely to be either too big or too small for that particular car. Therefore, it is essential that the white lines and spots should be as wide and as deep as possible and the black areas as small as possible when a woodcut is to be printed with type matter on cheap paper with a high-speed press. That is a mechanical consideration.
As it happens, the mechanical and the aesthetic considerations are in accord. The printed page has to be considered as a whole. The woodcuts are serving as dessert to the dinner - unless the meal is of woodcuts. Ordinarily, large masses of black are not desirable on a book page. The proportion of black to white is something for the artist to work out. He should know how the book is to be printed, what face type will accompany the cuts, and the kind of paper it will be printed on, for the more absorbent the paper the more ink will it soak up, and the grayer the blacks will be.
There are other relations to bear in mind than that between the woodcut and the type face; the relation of the woodcut to the subject of the book, pamphlet or catalog. You cannot use the same approach in a catalog to be devoted to lingerie that you would if you were bringing out the advantages of one iron foundry's product over another's.
So much for commerce.
Now for high art: From the looks of things, ducks and dogs as subjects for prints seem to be the best sellers. Well, that looks like commerce, too. With the whole world full of material an artist ought not to need advice on the subject. It might not be amiss, however, to make a few suggestions, the first of which is to look about him, and to do the things nearest him, and the things he knows best. Another is the necessity of keeping his purpose clear and definite; the stream must not be muddied. The insect world should furnish endless subjects - bumble bees, grass-hoppers, beetles; grasses, the smaller growing flowers and weeds; frogs, toads and turtles; filling stations, factories, pool and lunch rooms and such evils; Chinese laundries, antique filling stations, shoe-repairer, pants-presser and barber shops, and the more obvious pictorial subjects to which no particular glory attaches.
Finally, a woodcut may be beautiful apropos of nothing at all. The presentation - the technique may be sufficient reason for its being.
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It is up to every artist to divine and define art after his own concepts. There is the talk against literary and associative content; of introversion and extroversion - the subjective as opposed to the objective - the inlook against the outlook; conservatism against modernism; the emotional against the intellectual, and so on. Nothing comes of the talk, for the people who make the big talk are not the artists.
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Quite a few heavy thinkers have given much thought to the question of Art - to the philosophy, nature and mechanics of it. Whether their labors have been justified or not is for the Master of Arts to say. As far as the artist is concerned, it all looks like love's labor lost. The greatest art has been produced without the aid of philosophers and scientists - the artist producing in blissful ignorance of the art machine. Consequently, I doubt that anything is to be gained by studying philosophical or scientific treatises dealing with art or art criticism. I think it is far more important for the artist to join in the life of his community and age. I don't mean that he should be arty because he happens to live in an art colony, but to get in with the ordinary common people, the average citizens, and join in their daily activities. He can't set himself apart, and crawl into his Ivory Tower and bolt the door after him. Studioitis is an affliction to be avoided. The artist might better concern himself with realities - his own experiences. Art is a by-product of life, and a career is a by-product of art.
Art used to be associated with religion. Perhaps it still is with real religion. Our creeds and sects seem to have become so stultified as to have lost their push. If an art expression moves one, makes one aware of intangible cosmic forces - that is a contribution worth while, and certainly a dickens of a lot more important than the reaction one generally gets from the modern isms. Horizons could be widened, emotions deepened, imaginations stimulated and the understanding quickened.
In the last analysis all art derives its life from the common man; it must be significant to him.