History of Wood Engraving: Introduction

"Perhaps no art exercised in this country is less known to the public than that of wood engraving."

-William Andrew Chatto. A Treatise on Wood Engraving. London: Charles Knight, 1839. Engraved by John Jackson.

Hands carvingThe origins of wood engraving are obscure, although references to some of the techniques may be found in 17th- and 18th-century printed sources. Wood engraving is a relief process, that is, what is printed is raised, but it differs from woodcut in both tools and materials used. The graver and the burin, tools associated with intaglio engraving, are employed, and the end, not the plankside, of the woodblock is carved. These allow for finer lines and a wider range of tonal effects.

Wood engraving was developed as an artistic technique in the 1790s by Thomas Bewick and other artists. But it quickly became the most common method of illustration because of its fast and inexpensive production. A line that could be cut with a graver in one stroke would require four separate cuts with a knife; therefore, a wood engraving was easier and quicker to produce than a woodcut. Wood engraving became ubiquitous, and consequently degraded, as the proliferation of books and periodical publications during the mid-19th Century demanded a method of fast and cheap illustration. It turned from an artistic medium to one of slavish reproduction. In the late 1800s, it was replaced by photographic processes. After the 1920s, however, it once again regained stature as a dynamic method of artistic expression.

BurinThere are two methods of wood engraving, the black-line and the white-line. In the first, the design is formed by the lines that are left raised after the block has been engraved; in the second, the design is formed by the white spaces created by the engraving. It is like the difference between drawing with a pen on a piece of paper and drawing with a piece of chalk on a blackboard. This latter technique was developed into an art by Thomas Bewick and has been taken up by modern artists, who have perfected its remarkable range of artistic expression.

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