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Wood engraving with Anne Desmet RA

Weekend-long masterclass

Short courses

  • 16 June 2018, 10.30am — 5.30pm
  • 17 June 2018, 10.30am — 5.30pm

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Anne Desmet RA, Temple Steppes, 2012.

Wood engraving & monotype prints collaged on convex glass. Diameter: 18 cm.

Led by Anne Desmet RA, an internationally renowned printmaker and collage artist, this two-day practical workshop will introduce the remarkable art and craft of traditional wood-engraving printing and its specialist materials, tools, techniques and history in an intimate, small group setting.

Wood engraving is at once the simplest and yet one of the most exquisite forms of printmaking. From fine art through to editorial illustration and advertising to packaging, wood engraving finds more applications in the real world than most printmaking media.

In 15th and 16th-century Europe, woodcuts were a common technique in printmaking and printing, yet their use as an artistic medium began to decline in the 17th century. The beginnings of modern wood engraving techniques developed at the end of the 18th century with the works of Englishman Thomas Bewick. His work differed from earlier woodcuts in two key ways. First, rather than using woodcarving tools, Bewick used a copper engraver’s burin (graver). With this, he could create thin delicate lines. Second, wood engraving traditionally uses the wood’s end grain, while the older technique used the softer side grain. The resulting increased hardness and durability facilitated more detailed images.

Wood-engraved blocks could be used on conventional printing presses, which were going through rapid mechanical improvements during the first quarter of the 19th century. The blocks were made the same height as, and composited alongside, movable type in page layouts, so printers could produce thousands of copies of illustrated pages with almost no deterioration. The combination of this new wood engraving method and mechanised printing drove a rapid expansion of the medium in the 19th century. Its heyday lasted until the mid-20th century with exponents including Eric Gill, Eric Ravilious, Paul Nash and Gertrude Hermes RA. Though less used now, the technique is still prized in the early 21st century and is promoted, for example, by the Society of Wood Engravers in the UK.

Besides interpreting details of light and shade, from the 1820s onwards, engravers used the method to reproduce freehand line drawings. This was in many ways an unnatural application, since engravers had to cut away almost all the surface of the block to produce the printable lines of the artist’s drawing. Nonetheless, it became the most common use of wood engraving. Examples include the cartoons of Punch magazine, the pictures in the Illustrated London News and Sir John Tenniel’s illustrations to Lewis Carroll’s works, the latter engraved by the firm of Dalziel Brothers.

Until 1860, artists working for engraving had to paint or draw directly on the surface of the block and the original artwork was actually destroyed by the engraver. In 1860, however, the engraver Thomas Bolton invented a process for transferring a photograph onto the block. At about the same time, French engravers developed a modified technique (partly a return to that of Bewick) in which cross-hatching (one set of parallel lines crossing another at an angle) was almost entirely eliminated. Instead, all tonal gradations were rendered by white lines of varying thickness and closeness, sometimes broken into dots for the darkest areas. This technique appears in engravings from Gustave Doré’s drawings.

Towards the end of the 19th century, a combination of Bolton’s “photo on wood” process and the increased technical virtuosity initiated by the French school gave wood engraving a new application as a means of reproducing drawings in watercolour wash (as opposed to line drawings) and actual photographs. This is exemplified in illustrations in The Strand Magazine during the 1890s. With the new century, improvements in the half-tone process rendered this kind of reproductive engraving obsolete. In a less sophisticated form, it survived in adverts and trade catalogues until about 1930. With this change, wood engraving was left free to develop as a creative form in its own right.

● Fully booked

● Cancelled

  • 16 June 2018, 10.30am — 5.30pm
  • 17 June 2018, 10.30am — 5.30pm

The Clore Learning Centre, Royal Academy, Burlington Gardens

£540. Includes all materials, lunch and wine reception .

Book now