When I first went to art college, over 30 years ago now, I wanted to learn wood engraving. I was squarely told at Exeter where I was doing my degree that ‘wood engraving was for the fine artists and of no use to an illustrator.’ For me I think that was where the rot set in with my course there. I stayed for two terms, hated it and then transferred to Bath Academy, where I had just missed a block of work inspired by Hannah Firmin! ( Exeter’s parting shot at me was to tell me that they didn’t mind me leaving as I was going to get kicked out anyway, and that I would never make it as an illustrator: thanks for that Exeter, always good to have some positive feed-back and encouragement!)
So, over 30 years later it took the death of a good friend to pull me up short and stop wasting time. James Mayhew had borrowed the engraving and cutting tools I had bought years ago and never used, I ordered blocks from Chris Daunt and a book on engraving, spent ages online looking at wood engravings, pulled out my books on Eric Gill along with a good quantity of dust and decided to get on with it.
With little idea of what I was doing and a possible commission to work on a novella by Robin Hobb with black and white illustrations I set too, learning the best way, by doing it. The blocks I bought are beautiful, boxwood, lemonwood and pearwood, just a practice set to begin with. The language is a whole new one to learn, of scorpers and gravers and spitsticks, tympan and frisket, burins and bullstickers. I soon learned that the length of the tools is important. I have small hands. So when I ordered more tools from Lawrences I asked to have them shortened and now await their arrival, along with some resingrave blocks.
In between bringing to life a new book, The Boy Who Loved Music and Hares, I have been playing and so far have produced two practice pieces, crude and needing work into them. A few of the things I have learned are these; I love the way the tool moves through the wood as it cuts, that I have a steady hand, that the work is very very close and fine, that the learning doesn’t stop with the cutting as inking and printing are skills I really need to work on, and most of all that it is so good to do something that isn’t watercolour.
To see how this is done properly and with great skill have a look at Chris Daunt’s gallery and also the wonderful work of Andy English. Andy’s blog is wonderful too, showing the magic tools of the trade and presses and being full with skill and colour. And on his website there is a page for bookplates. What a wonderful thing to give to someone who loves books, their very own bookplates designed by someone with such a skillful and beautiful eye!