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Learning by making

A hands-on guide to chiaroscuro woodcuts

Published 3 March 2014

Inspired by our ‘Renaissance Impressions’ exhibition, Stephen Chambers RA decided to create his own chiaroscuro woodcut. Here he shares his discoveries and includes his step-by-step guide.

  • From the Spring 2014 issue of RA Magazine, issued quarterly to Friends of the RA.

    At times, for a prosaic man like myself, the practice of examining a picture includes making a version of it – this is a way of looking at its core. I find that what the eye has assumed it is seeing doesn’t always prove to be the case. I discover things through this process that I might otherwise miss and, without sounding too fey, I become involved in a visual conversation with the other painting.

    I have made versions of William Blake’s Gates of Paradise and Bruegel’s Twelve Flemish Proverbs, both images I have long loved. It is a way of getting beneath the skin of an artist. In the same way that re-reading a novel reveals new facets of it, when I make a transcription of another artist’s work, I experience the image differently.

    The curiosity that led me to make a chiaroscuro woodcut, however, was slightly different. It was still a way of discovering, but I was looking at a process rather than at a particular print. I had been aware of chiaroscuro woodcuts, with their implied three-dimensionality, but had never tried to make one. The first task, therefore, was to work out how they were done.

    There were two basic ways in which chiaroscuro prints were made: the German printmakers tended to create a black line block, which was then superimposed over tonal blocks; the Italian printmakers, however, tended to omit the black line block. This block (also known as the key block) makes for a tidier image.

  • Stephen Chambers RA, Point West

    Stephen Chambers RA, Point West, 2013.

  • Arguably, the German method is easier; the line block defines the edges of images. A print by Cranach, for example, initially appears more sophisticated than a print by Parmigianino. But if you were to remove the line block from the Cranach, you would then appreciate the true complexity of what has been required to convey the visual information in the Italian print.

    For example, if, say, you were describing a goat standing in front of a bush, on a rocky hillside with a sunset in the distance, all in a few tones made from only two or three blocks, then the work would demand hugely complex orchestration to show where objects begin and end. Dropping on the line block saves much of this hassle. The Italian prints in the Academy’s show may appear more innocent but in reality they were the more demanding to produce.

    Consequently, being a novice, I took the German route. I made a three-block print where one of the blocks was the line block. Of the other two blocks, one was the dark tone, the second the lighter tone. The lightest tone of all, the highlights, are provided by the white of the paper peeping through.

    The image in the print I made, Point West, is set at some undefined moment in the past and has a suggested narrative. I usually limit an implied third dimension in my work, and my backgrounds are often simpler than the one in this image, but this print is an attempt to embrace the chiaroscuro process and tradition. It intentionally utilises an aspect from a classic chiaroscuro woodcut: a protagonist in an environment.

    Renaissance Impressions is in the Sackler Wing at the RA, 15 March – 8 June 2014.

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  • Making a chiaroscuro woodcut

    • Chiaroscuro 1

      Step 1

      The design for the print is drawn on paper. Then the surface of a block of pale plywood is covered with black ink. Using carbon paper, the outlines of the drawing are then transferred onto this black block.

    • Chiaroscuro 2

      Step 2

      Cutting away all the spaces between the outlines exposes the pale plywood beneath and leaves the line block – the perimeters of the figures, trees and clouds – as proud black lines.

    • Chiaroscuro 3

      Step 3

      When the ink is applied on the block, it is these lines that are inked, with the rest cut away so as to be out of reach of the roller.

  • Making a chiaroscuro woodcut

    • Chiaroscuro 9

      Step 4

      The first tone block is made by transferring the drawing to the surface of another piece of plywood, as in step 1. Areas to be highlights, or the palest areas, are then cut away.

    • Chiaroscuro 4

      Step 5

      Creating the highlights involves removing much less wood than the linear block. The first tone block looks like an aerial photograph of a golf course – the bunkers are the removed areas of ply where no ink will be applied.

    • Chiaroscuro 5

      Step 6

      A second tone block is made to create the midtones. This block has more wood removed from it than the highlight block, although less than the line block.

  • Making a chiaroscuro woodcut

    • Chiaroscuro 6

      Step 7

      Each of the two tone blocks is covered with a different tone of ink – one paler, one darker.

    • Chiaroscuro 7

      Step 8

      The two tone blocks are pressed one at a time on the paper. The pale tone block is printed first.

    • Chiaroscuro 8

      Step 9

      The two tones are produced, plus the actual white tone of the paper, which are the highlights, where no ink has been applied. Finally, the line block is applied so that its outlines lie over the two tones.

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