July 19, 2016

Provincetown White-Line Prints

        Provincetown, Massachusetts has had a thriving artistic community since the end of the nineteenth century, and around 1915 a group of printmakers there devised a new style of wood block print.  Inspired by Japanese wood block prints with their full range of watercolor inks, the Provincetown group came up with their own way to make full-color prints using only a single block, instead of the traditional Japanese method with different blocks for each color.
        In the past couple of weeks I’ve finally gotten around to experimenting with this technique for the first time myself, so I’m going to break this topic into two posts.  Today I’ll show you a few of the original Provincetown white-line wood block prints.  Then in another post I’ll go into the method with my own samples.
        The first piece above is in fact a Provincetown scene, by Blanche Lazzell (USA, 1878-1936), probably the most famous of the white-line printmakers.  It illustrates a number of common characteristics of the Provincetown style - the cheerful colors; the everyday scenes; the flat, simplified shapes; the influence of modernist art styles that were in the air at the time.
        Next I have two pieces by  Mabel Hewit (USA, 1903-1987).  Her colors tend to be a little duller, and you can also see in her work a little more influence of cubism or the fracturing of planes.  You can see it in the way the tree and greenery are broken up into quite abstract geometric shapes in The Old House, while the lines of the rain in The Storm have a similar effect.  Because it’s hard to ink very large areas at a time, breaking up an image into smaller, simplified shapes makes the technique much easier, and I like the way Hewit takes advantage of this property of the medium, and uses it to add interest to her compositions.
        This piece below by Mary Mullineux (USA, 1875-1965) has a much more detailed look, with more realistic shapes, less geometrified (if that’s a word).  She also uses shading in her colors, instead of simply a single flat color for each area.  And in the water she’s made all kinds of different colored shapes without any carved guidelines at all.  All the ripples and reflections appear to be painted freehand on the single large area of water.  It does make the water look a little more watery than sharp outlines would allow.
        You can imagine that inking freehand would make for variations from each impression to the next, and in fact Provincetown white-line prints are known for being very varied.  For a traditional Japanese or multi-block print, you print the entire edition’s worth of one color, followed by the entire edition with the second color, and so on.  In the Provincetown method, all the colors are done on one impression before the second impression of the edition is begun.  This means that each impression can be done with its own color choices - any two impressions from the same block could have the same colors, or a completely different palette.
Here are two impressions of another piece by Lazzell, and you can see some variance between them.  The clearest difference is the roofs of the buildings, but the small triangle of grass in the lower right is completely unlike, and there are many other subtle differences.  The first of these two (actually the later of the two to be printed) is my absolute favorite of all these Provincetown white-line prints.  I love the colors and the curved composition, simple enough to be bright and bold, but with enough details to draw in my imagination.
        I’ve chosen to show you some of the originals, but this is not a dead technique.  There are plenty of artists using this style to great effect now.  As I said, stay tuned for a future post, where I’ll use my own efforts in white-line printmaking to illustrate more about the process.

[Pictures: Backyards, Provincetown, color woodcut by Blanche Lazzell, 1926-7 (Image from William P Carl Fine Prints);
The Old House, color woodcut by Mabel Hewit (Image from The Cleveland Museum of Art);
The Storm, color woodcut by Mabel Hewit, c 1935 (Image from AEQAI);
Anchored, color woodcut by Mary Mullineux, c 1925-35 (Image from Smithsonian American Art Museum);
The Monongahela, color woodcut by Lazzell, 1922? (Image from wickedlocal);
The Monongahela, color woodcut by Lazzell, 1919 (Image from The Met).]

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