Northern Stone and Peat Smoke
Updated: Aug 24, 2020
This month I spent a day at Kirby Gallery in England’s North West. I took part with fourteen others in a workshop run by Anthony Radcliffe, a full time woodcut artist printmaker, who spent many years lecturing at Manchester School of Art. The workshops formed a backdrop to his exhibition Northern Stone and Peat Smoke at Kirby Gallery from 20 May to 31 August.
The exhibition is a collection of his most recent work and highlights the remote landscape of Northern Britain. Much of the work uses contemporary poetry and text as a vehicle to explore specific locations fictionalized in local folklore. The show has large 60 x 60 cm woodcut prints, watercolour paintings, drawings and sketchbooks, as well as material illustrating the technical woodcutting print process he specializes in. Yes and wow, his woodcuts are detailed, complex and the mark making completed to perfection. In the twenty five years of dedication to his craft, the standard is professionally superb.
So I was curious to see how he approaches the woodcutting process and here's what I took away on the day....
Anthony's work process involves the use of reduction printing. At the initial stage, he goes out into these remote regions in Northern England to draw, collect material and document what’s there. The focus is past land usage, geology, archaeology, as well as any literary descriptions and historical associations he can find. From this, and back in the studio, he creates compositions tailored to the needs of the woodcutting medium. A composition is then reverse transferred onto the first woodcut block, then painted using black poster paint and washes. This first block gets cut out using a craft knife plus other tools, and printed in dark ink onto a sheet of acetate. The acetate is used as a future overlay.
An uncut second block, the same size as the first one, is then printed onto the edition paper with the lightest colour of the composition. This makes a complete square of ink the same size as the first block and is repeated onto each sheet of paper in the edition, often limited to about five. After the cleaning of the second block, other colours are applied by referencing the acetate overlay (printed from the first block) which is positioned over one of the prints. Using a sheet of tracing paper, any areas he wants to retain in this light colour are traced around and the tracing transferred to the second block with carbon paper and cut around.
The second block forms layers of colours and reprinted onto each sheet of the edition in the remaining colours. I noted that there can be around ten colours to each print. That's a lot of cutting and accurate registration! Therefore at the end, the surface of the second block has been reduced to a few areas which are the last to be printed, hence the name reduction printing.
Finally the first block is inked up in a dark colour which unites all the background colours and very carefully overprinted onto each copy of the edition.
Yes, the cutting of the wood is intuitively labour intensive. It takes a lot of hours and practice to utilise different ways of marking and reducing the wood surface. The ink gets to pick up textures, ink marks and flecks of colour to create interesting incidental surface patterns and qualities.
To register each layer, the papers are lowered onto the inked block, and the back of the paper is burnished with a spoon. Registration is super accurate and ensured by having a fixed position on the print table. The paper is fitted onto dowel pegs along the top side. A hanging bulldog clip holds the front end of the paper above the table while the inked block is placed in position, the paper is then lowered onto the ink.
Surprisingly we used a Stanley knife, rather than woodcutting tools, to create the marks. Apparently it simply works better with more accuracy. So in all, a lot of dedication and hours in the studio combine to achieve the master skill level Anthony demonstrated. A day well spent as a taster!
Note: Anthony has prints in many public and private collections including The British Council, the Parliamentary Art Collection, Manchester Airport PLC, Manchester Royal Infirmary and MMU Special Collections. His work has been purchased by numerous corporate companies and is represented by a number of galleries; he has also exhibited prints in international print exhibitions and print fairs.
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