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How I Make Woodcuts and Wood Engravings

Hans Alexander Mueller



The Woodcut in Book Illustration


IN MY OPINION, it is in the use of the woodcut and the wood engraving that book illustration has attained its finest flowering.

A book illustrated with woodcuts can be one of the finest products of the printing press, if for no other reason than that the same principle, the relief process, applies to the printing of both type and illustrations. In this uniformity all good printers and publishers recognize an advantage over other methods of reproduction. It is of great importance from a technical and practical viewpoint that in most cases the illustrations and type can be printed at the same time.

Whether an illustration is printed from the original block or from a facsimile of it, the electrotype, is immaterial. A good electro reproduces the original to minute detail. And it is advisable to take good care of the original, since wood is not so hard as metal and in printing a large edition the block might be damaged or split. The making of an electro is cheaper than any method of reproducing an original drawing. On the other hand, the artist's fee for making his illustrations in woodcut is slightly higher, but that is justified on various grounds, and should not be an issue with the publisher in giving the commission.

It is to be regretted that, in general, woodcut illustration is comparatively little used. And one cannot claim any popularity for the woodcut illustration so long as only a few such books are found on the market.

Although the choice of literary material suitable for illustration is limited, there is still plenty of fertile ground left untilled by the illustrators. It is not easy to decide what literary material does lend itself for this purpose. But much as this subject tempts me, I must refrain from a discussion of it within the limits of this book.

But if an illustrated book is to be made, the text must be dominated by the illustrations, no matter how unobtrusively. For that reason I consider a book with only five full-page illustrations a most unsatisfactory production. At the five places in question the illustrations are too full, too conspicuous; the spaces in between appear empty; the interruptions are too great. In my opinion the illustrations should occupy from one-third to one-half of the printed space, and there should be no great gaps in their sequence.

Illustrations should appear in a book like residents of a house, not like Sunday visitors. They should not enter at certain high points of the story, but should accompany it all along the way. The illustrations may be very free, even digressing from the text, so long as they maintain the mood of the story, or they may follow in detail the events portrayed. This depends entirely upon the literary material and the style. In no case may they introduce a disturbing or foreign element. The ability to feel at one with his subject is one of the most important attributes of the illustrator.

There are some lovers of books who dislike illustrated books. As far as I have been able to analyze this dislike, it is based, in some instances, on books not really adapted to illustration; in others, on books whose text and pictures do not harmonize stylistically; or again, on books whose illustrations are merely a disturbing repetition of the events of the story.

From the point of view of aesthetics, an illustrated book may be considered a good job when pictures and text are interwoven like the threads of a fine English tweed, through whose grey background a single red or blue thread runs, distinct yet unobtrusive. Anyone who understands the beauty of type, the layout of the type page in relation to the white margins, the quality of paper, the placing of illustrations in the text, will turn the pages of such a book full of expectancy, especially if the book is richly illustrated and he can figure on being taken unawares every two or three pages by the varied placing of the pictures.

Perhaps it is because of my love for and obsession with the woodcut that I venture to express the opinion that no other original graphic medium is so suitable for book illustration. To produce proof of this I admit is not easy.

Probably the underlying reason is to be found in the handicraft, for both type and woodcut are made from blocks (metal or wood), with similar tools, and were made, perhaps, in earlier centuries, by one and the same hand.

Neither lithography nor etching is so well adapted as the woodcut to half- or quarter-page or even smaller illustrations within the text, for the process of printing from the lithographic stone or the etched copper plate does not have the same close relationship to the printing of type that the woodcut has. Consequently, it is a matter of the greatest nicety to make an etched or lithographic illustration an integral part of the printed page. To print it at the same time as the type is altogether impossible. The wood block, however, can be inserted without difficulty at any desired place in the text page. Also, there are difficulties in the selection of paper for intaglio and planographic printing. The range of papers suitable for the relief printing of woodcuts is much greater.

The various pros and cons so far given have been, for the most part, of a technical nature. Lithography and etching, it is true, could be used for full-page illustrations printed separately; but this again would introduce the full-page illustration, which I have already disposed of unqualifiedly.

Wherever purely artistic things evoke a response from the love of beauty in mankind, aesthetic sense, taste - whatever one may call it - the elements of style emerge as the arbiter and guide through the chaos and confusion of human emotions.

Style dictates proportion, direction, limitations. In considering the book as a whole, it prescribes choice of type, technique of the illustrations and their placing in relation to the text, whether black-and-white or colored, line or tonal, and their size in proportion to the paper and type page.

We may easily be reproached with drawing upon the term 'emotion' when no more pertinent formula comes to hand. We artists, unfortunately, are compelled to use this word more often than we ourselves like. The more we rely on this 'emotion' the more we experience its power, the more unequivocally it differentiates right and wrong, the less vague the concept is to us - and the more meaningless does it become when we speak of it before others.

So I see in the production of illustrations by lines or surfaces cut in relief the closest connection with printing type, which is likewise in relief. And this time I am speaking not from the point of view of technique, but of style. Not the combination of the lithographic stone and the greasy crayon, nor the etched lines of the copper plate, nor even the fine lines of the copper engraving can achieve the optical unity with the printed page that the lines and surfaces cut in wood possess.

With this I bow my head and patiently await the onslaught of my colleagues whose preference for etched illustrations, I must admit, is backed up with equal obstinacy. But I look forward to the attack without expectation of complete destruction. For if my own defense is not sufficient, 1 am assured of the support and protection of several unbiased experts outside of our artists' camp.

If, in conclusion, I undertake to picture the genesis of an illustrated book, it is done only at the instigation of a particularly inspired and understanding booklover. This is in no way to be taken as an infallible recipe.

The best illustrated book will always be one whose literary content and style appeal especially to the illustrator - one that he has chosen himself, or one that he has written. In the latter case the whole proceeds naturally and smoothly, one thing growing out of another. Often the pictures predominate, the text playing a complementary, connecting role, both as to content and space. The development of such a book consists of a progressive shuttling back and forth between pictures and text. During the telling of the story there are pauses and the tale is carried forward by pictures, and vice versa. The illustrator holds all the strings and is his own director - what a grand feeling!

After the pages are made up, see where something must be added or omitted - where a chapter needs a tail-piece, perhaps. Then he can deliver to his publisher (if he has found one) a book complete in all respects.

The usual initiation of an illustrated book, however, is a commission from a publisher to supply pictures for a manuscript that he has on hand. I assume that the publisher has selected a story suitable for illustration and an artist suited to the job.

The illustrator begins to read in a mood of keen awareness and with closest attention. He is forced to curb his enjoyment of the story, absorbing its most intimate details with a certain coldbloodedness, of which, however, no trace must appear in the final pictures. The style of his illustrations will usually be determined after two or three pages, often after the very first sentence. It is an instinctive process and sets the character of the whole book at once. The book is practically complete in his mind; the hardest problem has been solved.

Practically, the style is established after several preliminary pen or brush sketches have been made, perhaps even a trial woodcut. From this point on the artist can concentrate entirely upon the pictorial aspect of his illustrations. He has read the story pencil in hand, and has made notes in the text where, in his opinion, a picture was indicated.

Everyone in reading a story unconsciously builds up a mental image of the situation. The illustrator must retain these images with the greatest attention to detail, without at the same time making the mistake of giving a purely superficial reproduction of the chosen situations. A good illustration must show why the artist created it, must give something of the artist himself, be it only in what he emphasizes and what he leaves out as unimportant. It is not necessary to show the whole family at table every time they are mentioned in the story.

The style of speech, the period, the moods produced by descriptions or landscape, the spirit of the story - these elements form the mental background which determines a light or serious handling as well as the number and arrangement of the accompanying pictures.

Of how, in the last analysis, this is all achieved, I must of necessity keep silent. Once more, as we try to grasp these intangibles of artistic creation, they slip between our fingers.

But there still remains something to be said about the illustrated book as a whole and the book illustrated with woodcuts in particular. Cooperation between the illustrator and the printer is essential if the book is to be a beautiful typographic production. If the illustrator himself knows type, composition, paper, presswork and binding, so much the better. Good illustrations alone do not make a good book, if they are made without consideration for the printed page as a whole; and a good piece of composition may not, by a long shot, fit in with the pictures. Mutual appropriateness, therefore, is the requisite which determines which should be planned first, the illustrations or the text page. A satisfactory result will always be obtained when the designer is given a free hand in all respects. He will be only too willing to accept the suggestions of compositors and pressmen and take advantage of their specialized knowledge.

The best assurance for the creation of a 'fine' book lies in the way in which the publisher gives the commission. An intelligent publisher is well aware of the parts played by all the factors involved. For his part, he has done all he could for the success of a publication when he has chosen his artist and his printer. All that remains for him to do is to set the amount of the honorarium and the date of publication. Any further interference is only harmful to himself. The artist and the printer will feel themselves under such obligation to his generosity and restraint, not to mention the joy of the work for its own sake, that they cannot choose but give their best.

An illustrated book is doomed to be born crippled the moment a publisher lets fall any remarks likely to cramp the artist's freedom. To enlarge upon this subject would be highly amusing, but would require a chapter to itself. My own adventures as a beginner, and the experiences of my advanced pupils which I lived through vicariously as their teacher, have been both cramping and disheartening and always humiliating.



If a book is to be illustrated with woodcuts, it is very helpful to the wood engraver to have the text set up in galleys before him as he works. He can then occasionally paste up a proof of a woodcut with the text in actual page size and study the effect. In this way he can decide whether a picture should be placed at the beginning of a chapter, in the middle or the end, and on a right- or left-hand page. This also permits him to regulate the size of his cuts depending upon the amount of text in a chapter. During the period of making the illustrations he works under a prolonged self-enforced tension and inspiration.

So, page by page, he fashions the whole book. It is obvious that the woodcut is particularly adapted to this kind of interweaving of picture and text. One cannot deal so easily with an original drawing, aside from the fact that usually it is drawn larger than it is to appear in the book. The lithographic and etching techniques are not so flexible, for they require much more complicated equipment.

All the tools for woodcutting can be stuck in your pocket if necessary. I have them with me on every trip, whether in a remote inn in the mountains or in the cabin of my sailboat.

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