In researching and reading about the art and business of woodcut illustration in the 19th Century, it is almost inevitable to end up with Gustave Doré. More than a master draftsman or illustrator, he possessed a practically supernatural ability to simply draw. He was recognized as a prodigy at age five, was carving in stone at twelve, and by fifteen he was supporting his family by drawing caricatures for French magazine Le journal pour rire.
Although Dickens and Doré never met as far as I can determine, their lifespans overlapped, Dickens being born in 1812 and Doré in 1832. And while Dickens labored in the world of British popular fiction and monthly magazines, the French Doré was producing high-quality illustrated art volumes of what we would call “The Great Books”, e.g., Voltaire, Rabelais, Cervantes, the Bible, Paradise Lost, The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, and many, many others, much of it for a British audience.
It has been said that Inspector Bucket, the police detective in BLEAK HOUSE, was the very first fictional detective, pre-dating Sherlock Holmes among others. I don’t know about that, but I do love this great Dickens character!
It’s tempting to compare him to others of the genre, and I often think of Columbo for some reason, but that’s not even close. Bucket is not rumpled and never feigns confusion, but the attribute they share is a totally disarming likability. Bucket’s greatest skill as an investigator is instantly being everyone’s best friend and confidante. He can speak to little children, Lords and Ladies, or street sweepers, and within a sentence or two bond with them like an old friend.
London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes–gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun.
She partly drew aside the curtain of the long, low garret window and called our attention to a number of bird-cages hanging there, some containing several birds. There were larks, linnets, and goldfinches–I should think at least twenty.
“I began to keep the little creatures,” she said, “with an object that the wards will readily comprehend. With the intention of restoring them to liberty. When my judgment should be given. Ye-es! They die in prison, though. Their lives, poor silly things, are so short in comparison with Chancery proceedings that, one by one, the whole collection has died over and over again. I doubt, do you know, whether one of these, though they are all young, will live to be free! Ve-ry mortifying, is it not?”
As I’ve been exploring the world of hand-made printing techniques of various kinds, more and more I find myself looking at, investigating and writing about woodcuts. There’s a good reason for this, apparently!
As a rule I’ve stuck to just one-color linocuts mainly because my printing setup at the moment is fairly primitive. What I want to talk about here is going to be about woodcuts, but the same rules apply to linocuts and the process of pulling prints.
The main thing to solve when doing more than one color in a hand-pulled print, is getting the colors to line up. In any multi-color printing process, this is called “registration” and it applies to pretty much all color printing, whether it’s magazines, cereal boxes, or your inkjet printer. You know when you put a new ink cartridge in and you have to print out that one sample page? That’s so your printer can register the colors.
There are a few materials that have been traditionally used for coating with ink and pulling prints by hand. The most common, linoleum and wood, have no intrinsic quality that makes them suitable for inking and pressing paper onto to make a print. Any flat surface will do, in fact there are many other mediums (steel plates, copper, even potatoes!) that are used one way or another for making prints.