Richard Sloat
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Journal of the Print World, Spring 1991
"Woodcut... An Artist's Perspective"
by Richard Sloat

Woodcut, the oldest of print mediums, has enjoyed an expansion of interest in the last decade in both America and Europe. It has long been the artistic print medium of choice in the non-Western world. Partly this is because of tradition such as in the Orient, where until this century woodcut was practically the only form of printing. Moreover, the simplicity of woodcut medium means that anywhere in the world the tools needed to execute a woodcut print are readily available. A block of wood, a knife, brush or roller, ink, paper and a simple wooden spoon or other rubbing tool is all that is needed.

Very fine line often has been and can be used in woodcut. Oriental book illustration, including the Chinese characters themselves, and Western wood engraving are cut very fine indeed. Yet in a modern Western sense woodcut is commonly conceived as broad blocks of color against a negative space. This is its essence. In the most usual case the positive color is black against a negative white. Black and white being the highest contrast obtainable, they create images of great strength.

Positive and negative spaces must work together in any medium but this is especially true of woodcut. It is simplicity itself; a marriage, so to say, of the contrasting spaces joining hands in a seamless union. It is quite possible for the black to work without the white working or the white to work without the black. Yet if one doesn't have union the total woodcut image will not be able to achieve its potential.

A general rule (rules are always meant to be broken) might be put forth that as a simple, direct medium woodcut works best with the simple, direct use of color. That is the use of few colors executed in a broad manner. A prime example of this would be the woodcut prints of the German Expressionists. Even those who use color most subtly, as Edward Munch or the old Japanese masters, this general rule, for the most part, holds true. With Munch's subtle use of the grain and layered colors, or the Japanese fine cutting of their hardwood blocks, the colors are still few and used broadly. As is well known, this bold, direct use of color by the Japanese woodcut artists influenced Western art greatly, most notably through Van Gogh and the post impressionist line.

One way woodcut differs from other mediums is in the way the organic nature of wood influences the artist. Often an image or line is "seen" in the living wood much as a sculptor might see form in a block of wood or stone. Moreover, every wood, even plywood, cuts differently as does cutting with or against the grain. The line employed must vary within the dictates of the wood. In addition, grain and so-called imperfections, such as knots, must be considered. At times these greatly affect the design of the image. The grain or imperfections can become a major part of the image itself. Not infrequently the organic aspect of the wood is highly dynamic and creative.

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