On woodcuts and wood engravings

The graphic work of Maurits Escher

Have you ever seen the amazing video clip showing one of Europe’s most original graphic artists, Maurits Escher (1898-1972), creating his last great woodcut print ‘Snakes’ in 1969? I have loved this image ever since I was a teenager, but it wasn’t until I saw the original in the Dutch city of The Hague last Summer that it really sank in: ‘Snakes’ is a perfect work of art.

Snake woodcut by M.C. Escher Escherhaus in The Hague

Snake woodcut
by M.C. Escher
Museum Escherhaus in The Hague

For many centuries woodcuts and engravings remained the only methods of reproducing more than one copy of a design. Maurits Escher mastered the technical processes after devoting decades of enthusiastic research into the characteristics of graphic materials.

Usually referred to as M. C. Escher, the Dutch artist is known for his often mathematically inspired woodcuts, lithographs, and mezzotints.

“Anyone who applies himself, from his early youth, to the practice of graphic techniques may well reach a stage at which he begins to hold as highest ideal the complete mastery of his craft.” (M.C. Escher)

What is a Woodcut?

The design is drawn on to a flat block of wood and the areas between the lines of the design are chiselled away until they stand out in high relief. The block is then inked and the design is printed. If more than one colour is required, different blocks are used to print successively on to the same piece of paper, each one being in careful register with the preceding ones.

What is a Wood Engraving?

The woodcut was primitive, limited and tended to be crude. The wood engravings is the natural and exquisitely refined development of it and as with other forms of engraving reflected the subtlety of design and execution flowing out of more civilized taste and the use of finer tools. With this subtractive technique fibers from the end-grain of a woodblock get removed, whereas a woodcut is cut on a cross grain, or plank-side of a woodblock. “A wood engraving allows a variety of cutting techniques and is extremely durable. It lends itself well to illustration in publications as well as limited edition prints. It has a most interesting history of usage as well as an active contemporary application.”*

Difference between the 2 methods

In 1922, Escher left the School of Architecture and Ornamental Design in Haarlem, (Netherlands), having learnt graphic techniques from Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita – a teacher whose strong personality impressed him deeply. From him, Escher wrote, ‘I inherited his predilection for side-grained wood, and one of the reason for my everlasting gratitude to him stems from the fact that he taught me to how to handle this material.”

The main technical difference between the woodcut and the wood engraving is that the woodcut usually produces black lines on a white background, the wood being cut away from both sides of the line to be printed black, whilst the wood engraving gives an effect of white lines on a black background. Each cut of the engraving tool prints a white line. Great care must be used in inking the block and taking off each impression. This method of printing gives a desirable individual quality to each print.

More information about

Woodcuts
*The Wood Engravers Network:
Since 1994, a group of printmakers, especially interested in wood engraving, have gathered and formed an organization called the Wood Engravers’ Network with over 200 members from the US, Canada, Europe and Asia.

Woodcuts and Wood Engravings from the Lloyd’s Collection

The Official Escher Website published by the M.C. Escher Foundation and The M.C. Escher Company.

Escher’s Biography

Samuel Jessurun de Mesquita (Amsterdam, 1868 – Auschwitz, 1944) was a graphic artist active in the years before the Second World War. He was born into a Jewish Family in Amsterdam and devoted himself to various techniques and mediums. He is primarily known for his woodblock prints, etchings, watercolours and drawings of birds, exotic animals, plants and flowers, and fantastical representations, both humorous and grim.

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