Woodcut is one of the oldest ways to make multiples of an image.
In the hands of an expert, ceramics can look like wood, wood can look like fabric, fabric can look like paper, and paper can look like canvas.
Much great art, though, seems to emerge from a collaboration between the artist and their medium. It’s hard to learn how much (or how little) your will should overpower the tendencies of your tools.
Making a woodcut is a great way to learn how the voice of the medium can add strength and vitality to your own voice. So let’s make woodcuts!
What you will need:
- A piece of MDF (Medium Density Fiberboard). You can get this at your local hardware store — they may only have big, 4’x8′ sheets, but they’ll cut ’em down into a reasonable size if you ask politely. You can also you any other piece of smooth wood — but MDF has no grain, and is fairly soft — making it much easier to cut.
- A set of woodcut tools. I recommend powergrip tools. You can also get a much-cheaper speedball set; but they’ll dull terribly by the time you’ve cut a few blocks.
- A pencil and a permanent marker.
- Acrylic paint in a dark color — brown or dark blue. You can mix the color; you can also use ink, dye, or any other transparent coloring agent.
- A piece of glass. It doesn’t need to be big. I stole mine from a frame, and put it back later.
- A rubber roller (brayer). A cheap speedball roller works. Bigger is better, but even a tiny one will work.
- A wooden spoon. You can also use a baren, but you can find a spoon in a nearby drawer, while a baren will be harder to obtain.
- Relief printing ink. This is possibly the smallest, cheapest tube you’ll find. This is really the only specialty item; you can get water-soluble ink, but I recommend the oil-based kind; the color is better.
- Paper. Any paper will work as long as it’s not too textured — if you’ve got an art store nearby, ask them for suggestions — but you can use xerox paper if you’re desperate. You can also print of fabrics (they’re easiest if you first temporarily mount them to a bit of cardboard with spray-adhesive.)
- Baby oil. This is for cleaning up the ink.
- A razor blade. This is for cleaning up the ink.
- Newspaper. Ink is messy.
You probably have most of these things, or can obtain them at the corner store. The only unusual items are the MDF, cutting tools, roller, and ink. If you get the cheapest of everything, those four items might cost you around $30. You can spend several hundred dollars, if you choose to be fancy. Cheap will work just fine for your first few woodcuts!
To begin, take some time to think about the image you’d like to create. Make thumbnail sketches. Discard your first idea. And your second. And your fifth. Try a few dozen compositions, and pick the one that excites you most. Remember that you only have black and white! You can approximate gray with cross-hatching — but part of the fun of a woodcut is the graphic contrast between rich black and creamy white. Do an internet search and take a look at images of woodcuts for inspiration.
Once you’re ready, sketch your image onto the MDF, and then darken it with the sharpie. REMEMBER: YOUR PRINT WILL BE THE MIRROR IMAGE OF WHAT YOU DRAW ON THE BLOCK.
Now you’re going to dye the block. Water down the acrylic paint until it is quite thin, and rub it into the surface of your block. I use a paper towel to apply the paint, and I apply a few layers. The aim is to make your block quite dark while still being able to see the sharpie.
Why dye the block? It makes it much, much easier to see where you’ve cut; the cut will still be pale, and the surface will be dark.
Once your block is completely dry — and dry is important, so don’t get impatient — you’re ready to cut.
The two tools you’ll use most frequently are the v-gouge and the u-gouge. They’re V-shaped and U-shaped.
You’re going to cut away anything you want to be white. This is the opposite of drawing with pencil on paper. Play around with the direction in which you cut. See what kinds of marks you can make with your tools. Be careful, but have fun. The feeling of a chisel in wood is extraordinarily satisfying.
I put a bit of rubbery stuff underneath my block to hold it still — I think it’s intended to go underneath rugs to hold them in place. You could also use a tackcloth, or a shelf liner.
Once you think you’ve finished your cut (take it slow, it’s OK if you take several days, or even weeks, to cut) then you’re ready to print. Gather your materials, and lay out a healthy dose of newspaper around your work space.
Put a kidney-bean sized blob of ink on the piece of glass, and roll it out into a thin layer with the roller. It should completely coat the roller — up/down and right/left to ensure this. Roll it out until it makes a hushed sound, and looks a little like an orange peel.
Carefully, roll the ink onto your block. If your roller is small, you’ll have to be careful to make sure the block is evenly coated (it helps to look from a low, glancing angle) and no ink ends up where it shouldn’t be.
Your first print or two will be “kinda janky“. A master print maker would call these “proofs”; but “proof” just means “kinda janky; I’m still working on it”. For your proofs, it’s best to start with cheaper paper — newsprint, or big sketchbook paper. Take your paper, and lay it onto the block. You get one chance at this — don’t shift the paper once it’s down. If it’s a little crooked, you’ll just have to live with it.
Put one hand onto the paper, to hold it in place. Don’t let it move! With the other hand, grab the wooden spoon. Choke up on the spoon, like you’re about to bunt. You should be holding the handle right next to the bowl of the spoon. Now, using the back of the spoon, burnish the paper onto the block. Go slow! Press hard! Make sure you’ve rubbed everywhere!
You can take a peek, if you want — keep on hand on the paper, to keep it from shifting, and carefully peel up one corner. You’re aiming for a uniform black where things are black, and a crisp edge wherever they turn white.
When you’re done (or exhausted — spooning art is hard work!) peel the paper off the block in one go, and admire the result!
It’s a proof — so it’s OK if it’s not perfect. And don’t go touching it: the ink will take a day or so to completely dry, depending on what kind of ink you use.
Each time you print, you’ll apply ink to the block, lay down your paper, and spoon away. You can adjust how much ink you use, what kind of paper you use — and you can grab your cutting tools to make adjustments, if you decide there’s black where there shouldn’t be. If you’re using good, heavy artist’s paper, you can also try dampening your paper with a spray-bottle first.
When you’re happy with it, start printing on the nice paper, and count how many you print — you’re officially making an “edition”: a set of identical prints.
To clean up, scrape the ink off of the glass using the razor blade. You can get the class pretty darn clean with just the razor. If you’ve scraped heaps of ink and don’t want to waste it, you can scrape it onto some foil and fold up a little ink packet, which will last a few days, anyway.
You can clean up the remaining ink on the glass (and all the ink on the roller) with a little squirt of baby oil and a paper towel. If you’ve done a good job with the razor, then one paper towel is probably enough to do both the glass and the roller!
The internet is full of useful tips and tricks for woodcuts. Experiment! Now that you have the supplies, make lots and lots of prints — MDF and paper are cheap, a tube of ink will last for hundreds of prints, and you can hone your tools with a scrap of leather.