The wonder of woodcuts
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In Tom Hammick’s Bermondsey studio, a new woodcut print is in progress. A plywood board, inked up in broad blocks of colour, is rolled through the press before another layer is painstakingly hand-carved with a chisel and mallet. “What you carve out reveals the colour underneath,” says Hammick, explaining that the shapes created can vary from “quite rough and ready” to intensely intricate, taking six months or more. He shrugs. “It’s stupid, really: why in the 21st century am I using a medium that is so clunky and old-fashioned?”
It’s exactly these traditional, hand-worked qualities that make woodcut printing appeal today, suggests Helen Rosslyn, director of the London Original Print Fair. She has noted “a marked renewal of interest in woodcut among contemporary artists”, one that “chimes with the renaissance of the hand-crafted artefact”.
The technique of woodcut printing dates back to Chinese antiquity and then spread to Europe around the 15th century, used by book illustrators and Old Masters such as Albrecht Dürer. “By the 17th century, engraving and etching were seen as more refined printmaking techniques,” adds Rosslyn, “so fewer woodcuts were produced – until the process was adopted by Munch and Gauguin at the end of the 19th century.” Variations in between included Japanese ukiyo-e prints (using multiple carvings and colours, and softer water-based inks) and British wood engravings (cut in the end-grain to produce more detail, and currently soaring in price, says Brett Tryner, director of Cheffins auction house’s Fine Art Division).
“There’s a huge range to what a woodcut can be,” says London-based printmaker Jake Garfield, a former student of Hammick’s, whose work has recently been acquired by the British Museum. “They can be very rigid or really washy; very energetic, as with the German expressionists, or extremely meticulous, like Dürer. You can have tiny, pocket-sized engravings, and then the massive, woodcuts that Kerry James Marshall and LaToya Hobbs are making today.”
One of Garfield’s recent woodcuts, Man Wrestling an Angel (2022), measures 3m across, in nine panels, all printed from hand-carved blocks. “I could have laser-cut it, which is what a lot of major artists do, but in this case the labour reflects the subject matter,” he says. The piece, inspired by the “epic, Biblical struggle” of Jacob and the Angel, will be shown alongside his smaller pieces (£150-£800) at the London Original Print Fair (30 March to 2 April). Other woodcuts at the fair range from 18th-century ukiyo-e at Japan Print Gallery to contemporary Chinese works at The Muban Educational Trust, and Grayson Perry’s Six Snapshots of Julie (2015) at Manifold Editions.
Hammick too will show new woodcut work with Manifold, including the luminous Night Swimmer (2023) (£9,000; edition of 13). Night-time and “wonderment” are recurring themes in his prints, as well as his paintings. Print-making began as “an antidote to the seat-of-your-pants horror and impossibility of painting”, he says. “As an emotionally wobbly youngish man, the attention to the detailed craft took me away from the introspection that days of painting can conjure in the studio.”
In Copenhagen, Israel-born artist Tal R paints and prints in parallel. He refers to his woodcuts, sometimes gouged into old chopping boards, as “a kind of autopsy” of his practice. “There’s a hundred ways to do a woodcut wrong,” he says. “You can’t be psycho about the line; it will go according to the structure of the wood – and I really like that.” He is currently working on a new series to be published by Borch Editions, whose previous releases with the artist include 2021’s floral prints (from €1,600) and the 2020 series Adidas Boy (€2,050 per print).
Other artists combine painting and woodcut in the same artwork. London-based painter Jimmy Merris increasingly incorporates woodcut elements into his figurative compositions (£900-£6,000, via Marlborough Graphics). In Cologne, twin-brother duo Gert and Uwe Tobias print their woodcuts (from £39,000, via Rodolphe Janssen) onto canvas, bringing a hazy and textural quality to their colourful and otherworldly imagery. Atlanta-based, Mexico-born Sergio Suárez creates large-scale black-and-white prints (from $2,500, via Johnson Lowe Gallery) that he sometimes paints on top of, working alongside “the wood’s beautiful grains and patterns that developed over hundreds of years”, he says. “Wood as a medium allows me to slow down; it’s a meditative process that speaks of the plasticity of time.”