Old dog, new tricks.

Tools and James Mayhew's new book.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 ย 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.

Wood Engraving by Simon BrettWoodblocks, a practice set

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.


Block with dog imageSeahareonboxwoodpoor print of dog blockproof of seahare printTo 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!


About Jackie

I am an artist and writer. I live in a small house by the sea in Wales where I write, paint, walk and watch and dream of bears and whales. I love to read, have a wish for wings and prefer the company of animals to that of humans, though at times I can be quite friendly. I am learning how to work with wood engraving tools and hoping to show that you can teach an old dog new tricks.
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14 Responses to Old dog, new tricks.

  1. Wow. Thanks for sharing. The detail is amazing. I can’t wait to see what you produce. C

  2. Both beautiful. There is something very alive about the grain in a woodcut that brings an extra element to the picture. It feels like the tree speaking through your tools and ink and adding it’s voice to a harmony. I really love the direction you have taken here; can’t wait to see where this will take you.

  3. Carrie says:

    Love the Mer-Hare! And the fact that the blocks are shaped and not square… wood and lino cut are something I’ve been wanting to get to grips with for long time too, and just realised I can use the hard-press at our framing workshop instead of buying a printmaking one… nothing stopping me but me!
    Have you seen Julia Manning’s printmaking? Huge slabs of wood…. very good…

    Loved the exhibition at Oriel Y Parc by the way, what a great place, especially the round tower… as a group all your art sings so well together, I hope you’ll all exhibit together again ๐Ÿ™‚
    And the John Piper exhibition stopped me in my tracks…. amazing work isn’t it! Just what I needed to see…

    • Jackie says:

      The blocks are random, from Chris Daunt’s ‘practice sets’. I guess it pays to have a few around to test out mark making. Have done lino and wood cut before but it is the engraving I have always wanted to do.

  4. Carrie says:

    Oh yes… and it turns out the friends we were staying with over the weekend know little Evie of ‘Evie and the dark woods’ and her mum… Lovely how it works out after seeing Catherine’s paintings at the exhib too… small world…. ๐Ÿ™‚

  5. Stuart Hill says:

    Hi Jackie, I love wood engraving too and have often dreamed of ‘having a go’ though I strongly suspect it’d be way beyond my limited skills. I have a tiny book of the work of Marie Hartley which is superb, and I also own two original pieces, one by an artist called Geri Waddington and another by a lady who lives on the isle of Skye. Unfortunately I’ve forgotten her name and I can’t decipher her signature on the print.
    Anyway, good luck with your rediscovered venture; your pieces are beautiful and intriguing. I especially love the ‘Mer-hare’. You must write the story behind that one!

  6. Georgia says:

    How exciting for you. I can see this medium really suiting your style, and I can’t wait to see how you progress.

  7. Now I’m inspired! I inherited a set of carving tools from my late aunt and am going to give them a try when I get back to Vancouver. These are more for carving masks and totems and not woodcuts but who knows what I can do. Thanks for the link to Andy’s blog; now to find time to read thru. ๐Ÿ™‚

  8. Donna Baker says:

    Of course they are beautiful. I love the dog. I just found your new site after so many months. It is nice to follow you again.

  9. Brenda says:

    Good for you, Jackie, for pursuing your wish to do woodcut prints. (I’m sorry, not sure if this is the right term for it). Some of my favourite older books feature woodcut prints, and there is something very special, and I can’t think of a better word, about them.
    I really loved the illustrations in 2 books by Harold Goddard, “The Meaning Of Shakespeare”, (illustr. by I think C. Staubs), and these were amazing. And another favourite book, The Long Christmas, by Ruth Sawyer, and illustr. by Valenti Angelo (1941). Ijust thought I’d mention in case you would like to see their work, although you probably do know their work. These are books I treasure, and the woodcut prints make them extra special.
    It’s interesting to hear of you choosing to do some of these kind of illustrations.

  10. Brenda says:

    Oh, Jackie, I am so sorry, I checked and the illustrator for The Meaning of Shakespeare was Ralph Creasman, who worked in lino cuts. I should have checked before my first comment.
    I have to say your first wood cuts shown here are wonderful!!!
    I think there is something really imaginative in these kind of illustrations. They will be a wonderful addition to your repertoire!

  11. Kim says:

    Beautiful :0)
    I too have gripes with Art Colleges and their strange need to put a label on people instead of encouraging versatility( My daughter starts her Illustration degree at UWE next month,after much ado).
    You might be interested in this link… a friend of mine lives and works( runs textile workshops etc as The Textilery at Cherryburn) at Thomas Bewick’s house Cherryburn.( http://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/cherryburn/)

  12. Julie Clay says:

    It’s good to hear that the words coming from your old Uni course did not put you off for life, I personally believe they should just encourage, we all get so much better with practice and more practice etc. My Uni course was crap really if i’m honest, it was always try and find the tutor time?? They set a brief and then disappeared?? My foundation course was completely different, full on, experimenting and so encouraging. Good for you for getting down to doing something you’ve obviously had a hankering for, I think you will do well at this, I know you will! I’m going to check those folk out you’ve mentioned, Thanks!

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