October 15, 2015

Chapter Three [The Technique of the Color Woodcut]


Brush the water-color vigorously over the block, which should be damp—but not wet—on the surface so that color will not dry too quickly on it. Add a little paste and brush again, this time more carefully and evenly, the final strokes as delicate as possible, covering the whole printing area and in one direction.

As to the amount of paste, a block six inches square would require as much as would flow on a Canadian nickel (or an English threepenny-bit). Too much paste —I am speaking of starch paste —will pull fibre ends from the paper or, worse still, a fatal slice of its surface. The latter catastrophe happens only when the paper is soft owing to weak size, or when you neglect to wipe from the wood the gathering film of superfluous paste which in a very short time becomes sticky enough for a fly trap. Rice paste does not offend so badly in this way. Paste, pigment, and especially water must be used sparingly; there should be no free moisture or superfluous color anywhere, neither in the hollows nor between lines.

Make sure the pigment does not lie in streaks.


Immediately the color is laid satisfactorily take up a sheet of damp paper in the fingers leaving your thumbs free to hold the right hand bottom corner in the depression you made to receive it, and the bottom edge on the left side snugly against the other register mark. Let the sheet fall gently over the block, holding on at the register marks to ensure its correct placement.

Unfortunately my early education in this craft was deficient. I have developed certain bad habits; among them a method of laying paper on a block-a method which on one occasion excited an unreasonable amount of hilarity in my friend Mr. Giles. I will describe it for what it is worth, but I will not recommend it unless you cannot manage the other. The block is turned so that the register marks appear at the top. The paper is picked up in the normal manner, that is with thumb and forefinger, but is held between the lips so that both hands are free to guide the corner and the edge into their exact positions.

Now lay a sheet of butter paper over all and rub with your baren. If it is a line block little pressure will be needed, but a large area like a flat background or an unbroken sky will require energetic rubbing. Don’t rub small disconnected patches; take long sweeps up and down in the latter circumstance, beginning at the left side, and let the direction of the stroke be at right angles to the ribs of the baren. Do not go over the same ground twice if you can possibly avoid it. Too much or too vigorous rubbing will make spread lines or edges on your print; that is, the paper will he forced over the sides of cut shapes, picking up pigment which never belonged to the surface.

Peel the paper off the block gently, and put it under a damp sheet.

Before doing that, however, let us examine it. The first print will show whether any waste area needs further excavation. The first impression of a line block usually discovers the need for more work with the knife and the gouges; that of a key-block should be compared with the original drawing. If masses of color appear mottled, too much water was used; if blotched, that is faint and dark in patches where you expected a smooth tint, then the paper or the color on the block was too dry. There is no need to let a printed color dry before adding a contiguous one. They will neither run, nor offset.

The order in which the blocks are printed depends upon many things. Generally the largest color area is printed first and the lines last. The former needs a damper paper, and each exposure to the air helps the paper into condition for the lines. But at times one color must be imposed on another and the order cannot be reversed; a transparent color may be required to give a bloom to an opaque one, for example. Sometimes it is advisable to print the line block first, in which case the sheets must be redamped for the colors.

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