Wednesday, February 17, 2021

Block Prints: How to Make Them by William S. Rice

Just the most elementary basics
Block Prints: How to Make Them
is exactly what the title advertises. This instructional book on relief printmaking was written by William S. Rice (1873-1963), an art educator and woodcut artist. I suspect the original edition, published in 1941, was more of a booklet than a book, since the latest edition from Pomegranate is only 72 pages, most of which are devoted to illustrations.

I’ve been making block prints as a hobby for years, and I was hoping to glean a few useful technical tips from a master of the medium. Rice was a very accomplished printmaker of California’s arts and crafts movement. This how-to book, however, yields only the most elementary basics of block printing. It might be suitable as an instructional guide for middle school or high school art students, but much of the information on materials and supplies is outdated. Products do not have the same names as they did in 1941, and at one point Rice points out that if you don’t have a printing press you can use a clothes wringer. Martin Krause, editor of the 2019 edition, has added many footnotes in an attempt to “translate” Rice’s instructions from four score years ago.

Rice clearly intended this book for the novice who has never made a print before. Rice is best known for his Japanese-style color woodcuts, but he barely mentions wood in this book and just assumes that the reader will use a linoleum block. The introductory nature of the text, however, does not mean that it’s easy to follow. Rice’s writing is clunky and confusing, and the book only includes a few instructional diagrams that don’t help much either. I was hoping for some insight into a reliable method of registration for multiple color plates, but I don’t think I would use the method that Rice advocates, for all the sense I could make of his description of it.

For those already familiar with the how-to of block prints, the other reason to buy a book like this is for its images of prints, from which the artist can draw examples of techniques and motifs for use in their own work. Only one of Rice’s beautiful color prints is reproduced in this volume. The book includes 22 of his black and white prints, plus about a dozen examples of student works. For someone who makes block prints of traditional landscape imagery, Rice’s prints may be somewhat helpful as reference, but these don’t appear to be among his better works. The print on the cover, Barn in Calaveras, is the best of the bunch. For printmakers who enjoy landscape subjects, I would recommend the books Walter J. Phillips by Nancy Green, et al., and Gustave Baumann: Nearer to Art, also by Krause. Rice was a very good artist, but this book is disappointing. Printmaking aficionados will appreciate it mostly as an article of nostalgia.

Illustrations from the book, by William S. Rice

Forest Primeval

Winter in Pennsylvania

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