Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Wood Engraving and Digital Art

The public domain image shown here is a beautiful wood engraving by Thomas Bewick.

During the 19th Century (and previous centuries), wood engraving was one of the most common methods of creating high-quality relief prints which could be affordably printed in large quantities and distributed in books and magazines.

Gustave Dore is another artist known for his wood engravings (including numerous scenes from the Bible). Albrecht Durer, who was perhaps the greatest printmaker of the Renaissance, also created numerous wood engravings, although they are often erroneously described as woodcuts. Durer's "Four Horsemen of The Apocalypse" (which illustrates a scene from the biblical book of Revelations) is considered by many experts to have been one of his greatest prints.

Handheld tools such as "burins" and "gravers" have traditionally been used to engrave images into wood engraving blocks, but I have long wondered if it would be possible to use laser engraving machines for the purpose of engraving photos and various works of digital art into end grain wood blocks which could be used for the purpose of making such prints. Personally, I don't see why it ought not to be possible. If it was possible, it would make it significantly easier to carve highly realistic images into the wood engraving blocks. Of course, the images would first need to be converted into line art, possibly with software designed to digitally screen continuous tone images using various screens such as halftone screens, mezzotint screens (sometimes known as "diffusion dither"), aquatint screens and so forth. Andromeda Software makes a program (known as the Cutline filter) which can screen images so that they look like traditional linocut or woodcut prints.

Strangely, most companies offering laser engraving services seem to have little knowledge about wood engraving as a printmaking process. Such companies usually use their machines in order to produce more mundane products such as decorative plaques, or other products where the engraved piece is the final work of art rather than being an intermediate step (as all printmaking plates and blocks are) used for the production of art using traditional techniques.

As I see it, one benefit of using laser engraving machines for the purpose of preparing wood blocks for traditional relief printing techniques would be that one could accurately and truthfully describe the final prints as "wood engravings," without feeling compelled to mention the fact that hand held tools were not used for the purpose of cutting the wood. Consequently, unlike giclee printing using printers such as the Epson 9880, such print production methods would enable photographers and digital artists to circumvent the biases of the people in the fine art community who still regard digital art with suspicion. (In particular, there are some fine art fairs and competitions which still do not accept digital art.) Hopefully, such anti-digital bigotry will eventually fade away; but meanwhile, it's worthwhile to consider possible strategies for overcoming the bigotry.

Since wood engraving prints made in such a manner would use the same inks as wood engravings made with blocks which had been cut with hand tools, no one could plausibly claim that the prints were not archival. Wood engravings made by Albrecht Durer and others have lasted for many centuries.

Traditionally, the wood blocks used for making wood engraving prints have been quite small. But I recently contacted a company known as Art Boards, and while 9"x12" is the largest standard size they offer, they told me (via voice mail) that they could produce wood engraving blocks in custom sizes as large as 24"x30", which is considerably larger than the largest wood engraving Albrecht Durer ever produced.

When using laser engraving machines for the purpose of preparing relief printing blocks, my guess is that one would need to experiment in order to find the best settings to use in terms of engraving depths. Probably the best way to do this would be to engrave multiple blocks using the same image with different depth settings. An engraving depth which was sufficient for display purposes might not be deep enough if the objective was to make prints from the engraved blocks.

It also seems likely that the viscosity and type of printing inks would play a role. Ink which was too thick might not be capable of printing fine details. Again, experimentation would probably be necessary.

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