Woodcut Printmaking Process | Guest Post by Jon Renzella

12:00 AM

Woodcut Printmaking

Guest Post by Jon Renzella,

author of Schism

Woodcuts are one of the world's oldest forms of reproduction, with some of the best examples coming from Ming China, early Renaissance Europe, and 18th Century Japan. In early 20th century United States and Europe there was a wave of wordless woodcut novels, most often political in nature, dealing with issues of class and worker struggles in rapidly modernizing economies. Lynd Ward and Frans Masereel are the most well known of this movement.

A woodcut is basically a wooden stamp. I get large 4'x8' sheets of wood from a lumber yard and cut them down with a hand saw to the size I'm working with. When I lived in America I used Baltic birch plywood, but in Taiwan most of the woodcutters I know use MDF board. For beginners, linoleum is best because it's softer and easier to carve, and for children styrofoam is a good choice because it can be carved with a pencil.

My process typically begins with some thumbnail sketches to work out basic composition and content, but I do a lot of thinking on the wood itself. The most important thing to remember is that the image must be drawn in reverse, so when it is printed it comes out the right way. I usually start with very loose pencil drawings, working out spatial relationships and perspective. I like to build up a lot of quick, light marks in pencil and gradually darken them up as the drawing takes shape. I keep a mirror handy so I can check the composition. It also comes in handy if I'm drawing traffic that has to be moving in the right direction, or if I'm using words or Chinese characters, which can be tricky to render in reverse. If it looks wrong in the mirror, it's wrong.

The next step is to 'ink' the drawing, sort of like a comic book artist does. I use Japanese unipin markers because the tip holds up well on the rough wood surface. I also use a fatter chisel tip marker for larger lines and blacks. I don't usually make what I would consider to be a finished drawing, because in woodcuts this step is just notes for the carving stage. I've developed my own shorthand which is a big time saver.

Once the drawing is complete it's time to carve. I use an assortment of v and u gouges. Because woodcutting is a reductive art form, the white shapes are carved away and the black shapes are left, which is the reverse of making a drawing. Some people have trouble figuring out this stage. I think a good, simple way to get the hang of it is to tone a piece of paper with charcoal and draw on it with an eraser, pulling out the highlights rather than drawing in the shadows. If you want to make a line, you have to carve out either side of it. When carving it's important that the block doesn't move. You can either build a bench hook or just get a rubber placemat to put under the wood. Remember to always carve away from yourself, or you'll end up with little V and U shape cuts in your hands!

When carving there is no eraser or undo button, so you have to be confident in your marks. You also have to be careful not to slip. If you accidentally carve something you shouldn't, you must either pretend it was what you meant to do all along or take some wood glue and try to put the piece back in. This only works if you don't have a mountain of shavings to search through for your escaped piece.

The final stage is the printing. You need relief inks, a spatula or putty knife, a piece of glass, an ink roller, paper, and a wooden spoon. Roll out a slab of ink on the glass. The slab should be thin enough that it has a smooth texture but thick enough that you can't see the glass through it. Roll it onto the woodcut. The ink should cover the areas you didn't carve out, while the carved areas should remain ink-free. Make sure you ink the entire image area of the block.

Now, things get delicate. Gently place your paper on top of the inked woodblock, making sure it doesn't shift after it's made contact with the ink, or your print will be blurry. For larger blocks I pile up heavy books all around the paper. Smaller prints are a bit trickier. You can hold the paper with your hand, tape it down to the table, or maybe use a small object that's really heavy but smaller than the woodblock. Once the paper is secure, use the wooden spoon to burnish the back of the paper. I like to get very dark, velvety blacks in my prints, so I have to push down as hard as I can. If your spoon isn't rubbing smoothly against the paper you can run it through your hair (we learned that in art school). I imagine some kind of oil will also do.

If you're very careful, you can peel back a corner of the paper to check your printing. If the image isn't dark enough, you can try burnishing harder or add more ink to the block, being careful not to let the paper shift. Once you're satisfied with how it looks, remove the paper from the block and let it dry. I use oil-based inks because some of my larger blocks can take 6-8 hours to print and I can't have the water-based inks drying out. The downside is that the prints can take several days to dry. 

I hang my prints to dry, rather than using flat drying racks. The benefit in this is that I can look at the piece and see if there are any areas I want to change. If so, I can carve more and print another one. Of course this only works in one direction. You can continue to subtract, making white shapes, but you can't add any more blacks once they're carved away.

My inspiration comes from everywhere, but the most important thing for me is a variety of life experiences. Living abroad and traveling frequently help feed this, but also not being afraid to try new things and putting myself in new situations. Often the most daunting or scary things end up being the most fulfilling. Aside from this, I read fiction and non-fiction, follow the news, listen to podcasts while carving, go to exhibitions, and talk with the amazing diversity of fascinating people who come through Taiwan.

The Sunderland Volume 1: Schism

by Jon Renzella

Published: 2015

Published by: Lei Press
Page count: 450

Society is fractured. Life for most is a desperate struggle. Natural Resources are scarce and the discovery of a miracle source of new, clean energy only serves to deepen the cracks. As the planet reaches breaking point, the sudden appearance of two mysterious pillars…

This is the first graphic novel written by Jon Renzella and Eric Weiss, with 450 pages of black and white woodcuts and text.

Buy the book

About the author

Jon Renzella (雷強) is an American woodcut, comic book, and tattoo artist who has been based in Taichung, Taiwan since 2008.

Since 2010 he has run the non-profit community art space Lei Gallery, with the goal of building connections within the foreign and local communities in Taichung.

His works have been exhibited across North America, Europe, and Asia. In 2015 he published the woodcut graphic novel Schism, which he created with his longtime friend Eric Weiss.

You Might Also Like