Today I’ll share something I found interesting about Escher and his greys. Of course Escher did lots of lithographs, in which you find the same sorts of gradations of grey as in a pencil sketch, and he did some mezzotints, in which you can get some of the richest shades possible in any printmaking technique, but as always I’m going to focus on the wood block prints. Escher did lots of pieces with multiple blocks, even for images that were simply “black and white.” That’s because he often wanted black, white, and one or more shades of grey, too. Sometimes his grey blocks were printed with grey ink: that is, ink that was presumably a mix of black and white pigments. But the thing I found interesting and unexpected was that in many prints Escher appeared to ink his “grey” blocks not with grey ink but with black ink spread so thinly that the white paper showed through and made it read grey. This is the sort of thing that’s hard to see in a reproduction on a poster or in a book (or, I’m afraid, a computer screen), so it was one of those revelations that come from seeing the art in person.
All three of these pieces posted here have a related composition, with the misty grey scene in the background, framed in a black silhouette almost like cut paper in the foreground. As an idea for a multi-block piece this is really inspiring me and I’d definitely like to try for myself something with this concept. Escher, of course, takes an idea that I might toy with and pushes it to the extreme. This third piece, for example, is made from not just two blocks, but black plus five greys! I could barely even pick them all out while looking at the original. Looking at Escher’s work makes me feel dreadfully lazy - the talent and skill are obvious, but the sheer amount of dogged work he put into his planning, carving, and printing is mind-boggling.
One more note regarding the printing of these pieces: it was the norm for artists not to print their own blocks but to have them printed or “published” by professional printing studios. Escher did do a fair bit of his own printing and was proud enough of himself for it that he marked self-printed pieces “eigen druck,” which translates basically as “own printing.” But I did not note in the exhibition whether these particular pieces were “eigen druck” or not. I think getting the level of grey correct would be pretty tough, since the grey comes from the rolling of the ink rather than mixing ahead of time. I’m guessing that means Escher was more likely to get the professionals to do it, but perhaps it means he would prefer to do it himself to get it exactly the way he wanted.
[Pictures: Calvi, Corsica, wood block print by M.C. Escher, c 1933;
Cloister of Monreale, Sicily, wood engraving by Escher, 1933;
Coast of Amalfi, wood block print by Escher, 1931 (Images from WikiArt).]