Saturday, 19 July 2014

Wood Engravings

Wood Engraving by Francois Marechal

Wood engraving as we know it today involves cutting finely into a wood block so that the etched image stand out in relief on the end grain. When the surface of the block is coated with ink, the raised surface of the block appears as black when pressed hard into paper, whilst the wood below shows as white on the paper.

The image can be cut by reference to the image in front of the engraver, or the image can be traced onto the block and cuts made into it (bearing in mind the relief nature of the final printed images).

Woodcuts are different from wood engraving, in that a woodcut is cut into plank wood, whereas wood engraving is done by etching into the end grain box or other hard wood. The former tends to produce broader images that incorporate the wood grain, whilst the latter produces work of finer detail.

Book Illustrations,  Bookplates and Prints

Wood engravings are used to illustrate books, and have been widely used in the popular ‘Folio Edition’ series. Wood engravings have been used by Fine Press printers, such as the Canadian Barbarian Press, or the British Whittington Press, to produce fine quality limited edition books, as the small print run can allow the illustrations to be printed directly from the original blocks onto the paper without damaging the wood.

The starkness of wood engravings can add a sombre note, where appropriate to the text, or make the reader look at a landscape, a figure, an animal, with new interest. Wood engraved images can be immediately recognisable for what they are, or surreal in their interpretations of familiar scenes; they can illustrate mythical scenes, make metaphorical points, or used to explore the artist’s own ideas in a stream of consciousness way.

Wood engravings can also be joyful and vibrant in its execution – the work of John Lawrence, for example (above) – can be playful, expressing a joie de vivre in its style, colour and movement. 

Equally, their starkness can be used to good effect for social commentary purposes in books or journals – as the illustration of the five nuns (see below) suggests. The engraver, Hilary Paynter, was inspired to engrave this, with the sardonic title, ‘The Sisters of Little Mercy’, based on the unhappy experiences of her sister-in-law, who attended a Catholic boarding school run by nuns. The dark habits of the nuns lent themselves to the stark tones of the wood engraving.

Wood engravings are a popular medium to create distinctive bookplates, and engravers will work closely with a commissioning reader to produce Ex Libris plates that express something of the reader’s personality or interests (see example below).

Wood engravings are also produced as original or limited edition prints. Traditional and recognisable rural scenes are very popular as prints, but metaphorical interpretations of land, sea or animal life, in its relationship to mankind, have made a big impact in recent years. The Russian engravers, Rudolf Kopylov, and Vitaly Moiseev, and Polish engraver, Hubert Borys (see example below), for example, make powerful statements about mankind and environment through their work.

 Wood engravers are artists who often work with other art mediums, although there is a particular link and affinity between wood and linocuts, sculpture, calligraphy and printing.

Eric Gill (1882-1940) for example worked with stone, was a calligrapher, typography designer, and wood engraver. Wood engraving then, can be part of the artist repertoire of an artist and used to create a particular effect.


Most wood engravers work in black and white, although, as seen already in this article, colour has been used in wood engraving for centuries, using a number of separate but interconnected blocks inked with different colours; a technique that is still used to this day. A range of engraved materials can be used to combine the colours, including lino cuts, Perspex and other synthetic materials. This can reduce the cost of printing, as box or other similar woods can be expensive to use.

Another method is to use just one block for the entire print. The print is made first in one colour, then more of the wood is removed in stages and subsequent colours over-printed. The use of coloured papers adds another colour dimension to the equation.

The flower image shown below is ‘Chatham Island Forget-Me-Not’, by Ron Hubbard, using boxwood, Perspex and linoleum.

More Information

The UK based Society of Wood Engravers has links from their site to related organisations in North America and elsewhere, as well as to suppliers of materials for wood engraving, fine press publishers, galleries and engravers who are members of the organisation. You can find their website here.

Woodbine Books: You can check out the wood engraved books I have for sale at my site on here.