August 13, 2013

How Homer's Drawings Become Prints

      Winslow Homer (US, 1836-1910) was first known as an illustrator.  His most famous illustrations are those printed in such major publications as Harper's Weekly.  Here's a representative piece, showing his richness of detail, his touches of humor, his groupings of figures in various activities, and his attention to the interest in everyday life.  But his earliest freelance work was illustrating children's books.
        Here's a cute little piece from a book entitled Eventful History of Three Little Mice.  (This book was an example of a practice I mentioned in another post: it could be purchased for 12.5 cents in black and white or 25 cents with the illustrations hand-colored.)  Appealing as it is, however, it's not so much a "real" wood block print as a drawing that's been reproduced by the wood block technique.  That is, while the
physical piece was certainly relief printed, the printing was merely a method of reproduction, a necessary afterthought, not the target medium in its own right.  But whether or not that's a valid distinction to make, I think the method of reproduction is an interesting process.
        Princeton University's Julie Mellby explains, "This is how the production was often handled: For each drawing, a blank wood block was sent to Homer’s studio. The block usually consisted of a number of closely fitted pieces of boxwood bolted together. Homer drew directly on the block’s whitened surface and returned it to the publisher (later he was allowed to submit a drawing on paper). The master wood engraver cut the lines that ran across the joints. Then, the blocks were separated and assistants would engrave the different parts of the design. The blocks were then reassembled and electrotyped, to create a metal plate for printing."
        I was quite fascinated to learn that the blocks were carved in separate pieces by different people.  I wonder if you look closely at the bigger piece above, whether you can see slightly different styles of carving in different areas.  (I don't know whether the Harper's Weekly carving office worked that same way.)  I was also surprised to learn that the woodblock was turned into a metal block for actual printing.  I wonder why!  (If you're curious about the electrotyping process, there's a little video that explains it here.)  It's a reminder of block printing's funny and somewhat ambiguous history as an artistic medium.

[Pictures: August in the Country - The Sea-Shore, wood engraving by Winslow Homer from Harper's Weekly, 1859 (Image from 19th Century American Paintings);
Wood engraving by Homer from Eventful History of Three Little Mice, 1858.]
Quotation from Princeton University's Graphic Arts blog.