Beginning Again: Wood Engraving with Rik Olson

For two Sundays, I stopped time and took a class at the San Francisco Center for the Book. It was Wood Engraving, taught by Rik Olson, artist and master carver (although he would modestly disagree with those descriptions). In addition to his woodengraving work, Rik has been carving huge pieces of linoleum for the Center's Roadworks Steamroller Print Festival every year. Each day was eight hours of looking, listening, drawing, and carving. Mostly carving. With Chad Johnson, SFCB's Studio Manager and friend, on my left, and book artist, Bettina Pauly (someone I had heard of but had never met) on my right, along with seven other students I did not know, we made the journey through wood together.

I had thought, going in, that my decades of carving linoleum would be of aid, that all I needed to know was what tools to use and how to sharpen them and I would be good to go. Smack the forehead and hit the gong here. I was so wrong. Very soon I learned I was a beginner again.

Rik is an extremely mellow, relaxed teacher who gently directs and encourages. He began by showing us a brief Powerpoint presentation he had prepared for a talk elsewhere, but it was very helpful to see the overall process right away. He brought books and books and examples of the most virtuosic woodengravings one might hope to see, which had an awe-inspiring affect, but also a most humbling one. As he showed the works he often said that the creator of those were artists. Rik was taught by artist and master carver Barry Moser, known for several of his book illustrations, and perhaps most famously for the 100 illustrations in the Arion Press version of Moby-Dick (1979).

I sat staring at the photo of ivy winding through chairs that I was going to work from and realized immediately that it was too small and too detailed for a first block. Chad was working on a simple initial letter F. Bettina was planning to carve a carrot, but her image was too long and thin for the size blocks we were given, so she switched to a turnip. Both of them wanted to carve something they could use. I let that go, deciding instead I would experiment and relieve myself of the stress. I went for the ivy, experimenting first on a practice block to see what kinds of marks to make. The woods Rik recommended: boxwood, maple; you can also use Corian and Resingrave. I asked if there were any well-known women wood engravers and he said Abigail Rorer, and she uses Corian. Her work is amazingly photo-realistic.

Wood engraving tools are quite different from linocut gouges. They are knives, with a single sharp edge at the very tip. Rik said that linoleum cutting was bigger cutting with bigger tools, which would make this small cutting with smaller tools. But after studying the engravings he brought in, I decided this was not the case. Wood engraving, for the most part, has a very specific look: the image is created with lines, not unlike a pen and ink drawing, where the entire surface is made up of lines or dots/stipples. You can do this with linoleum, but that is not how I work. I also realized that I work, and prefer to work, in color, using color for shading. I would have to use lines close together and far apart to shade. Dots together and far apart. And work much, much, more slowly.

I didn't mind the slowness. I liked the feel of the wood handle in my palm as I carved, the steel in my fingers, the tiny marks and flecks of wood at my fingertips. It mesmerized me. Slow processes are familiar: I set type, each metal letter one at a time by hand. 

We had eight tools in front of us to start. Staring at eight without knowing what marks they made was too overwhelming, even trying them all out was too much. With linoleum gouges you can see the little Vs and Us at the end. I started feeling more connected to the tools after asking Rik if he could only pick three, which three would he choose. So I limited myself to those. It took me until the middle of the second day to really understand what I was looking at with the wood engraving tools: elliptical tint, flat graver, and round graver. Elliptical would make a varied line depending on pressure applied. Flat cleared out wide areas. Round made perfectly even lines. The numbers gave a clue as to how wide the lines were, but only in relation to each other. Rik kindly carved out an E on the handle of elliptical tool for me so I could find it more easily. I circled the tools in the McClain's catalogue he gave us.

My block on a sandbag on a bench hook, with wood engraving tools.

My brain was exploding. I got up frequently, made myself some tea in the kitchen there, nibbled at the baked goods Chad generously brought in. Wandered around to see what the other students were doing, and engaged Chad and Bettina in conversation. The room was quiet for most of the time, as if everyone were sitting in solitary. I kept carving, trying different things. Too much going on, and muddled. Like a party on a block.

I found a book of work I absolutely fell in love with. More expressive illustrations than the others, and more like what I aspired to make. But I couldn't get there, yet. When I got home after the first day, I searched for the artist and the book online, but was unable to find it. So the second Sunday, I took pictures. Very 1960s. Wood Engravings by Imre Reiner.

Broken down, the process sounds simple. Make a sketch. Transfer it to the block, first making sure that any letters will be backwards on the block. Outline it in Sharpie. Rub a little ink into the block to darken it. Choose a place to start. Carve for a while. Rub a piece of broken glass over it to remove the little bits of wood sticking up. Shake a little talc or baby powder onto the block and rub it in to see where the whites will be. Keep carving. Repeat. It's all about lights and darks. Contrasts. Being aware of the light source in the picture. Being aware of the shadows. I still think it would feel more familiar to me to work more abstractly, more flat.

We finished up carving. Chad set up the older hand press so we could see how it worked, then we printed a "printer's dozen" on the Vandercook cylinder press. We printed with rubberbased ink so it would have to dry before being stacked.

I was satisfied with the process, but could see that mine was definitely by a beginner. Still quite muddled about the middle. "It's a chair," Rik said. He suggested I try working with scratchboard. Chad made a very nice, simple F and he was happy. Bettina, in the week between the two classes, sanded down her blocks and started again. She made the most beautiful fish, clearly showing her gift for the process. I was so pleased that she wanted to trade and asked me first, because I didn't feel I could ask her for one.

Bettina's fish

I was very glad to have taken the class. To meet Rik. To learn how to look at wood engravings. To talk to new people. To have a new process I can incorporate into my art practice. And remind myself that it is always a good thing to be a beginner every now and again.