Wednesday, July 20, 2022

The Technique of the Color Wood-Cut by Walter J. Phillips

Old-school secrets of Japanese artistry from a Canadian master
Color woodcuts has been around for almost two thousand years, but the art from is generally considered to have reached its apex of technical development with the work of Japanese artists beginning in the 17th century. In the late 19th century, European, American, and Canadian artists began to study the Japanese methods of printmaking and bring their techniques to the Western art world. Among these Western practitioners, one of the true masters of the color woodcut was Canadian artist Walter J. Phillips, a printmaker, painter, teacher, and author active in Western Canada from 1915 through the 1940s.

All woodcuts involve carving a design into a block of wood, which is then used to print ink onto paper. Multiple blocks are employed for multiple colors. What sets the classic Japanese style apart from typical woodcuts is the use of semitransparent watercolor inks, applied with brush in a painterly fashion and printed on wet paper. This method allows for very subtle and beautiful color effects, but it is a very exacting process requiring much technical skill and presenting many opportunities for error. Phillips was renowned for his craftsmanship and his sublime renderings of the Canadian landscape. As an expert on the subject and an arts educator, Phillips wrote The Technique of the Color Wood-Cut, published in 1926, to extol the virtues of this challenging art form and impart its secrets to aspiring printmakers.

If you have no prior experience with color woodcuts and you want to learn how to make them, this would not be the best instructional manual to consult. For one thing, it’s very brief. For another, Phillips expects some prior knowledge of the process from his readers. He repeatedly refers to recent books on the subject like Frank Morley Fletcher’s Wood Block Printing (1916) and Allen W. Seaby’s Color Printing with Linoleum and Wood Blocks (1925) as if he assumes the reader has already read them. Rather than attempting to write a comprehensive manual of the color woodcut, what Phillips provides in this book is essentially his personal techniques and variations on the textbook process outlined in the guides of Fletcher and Seaby. Because this was written almost a century ago, Phillips does everything from scratch: mixing his own inks, planing his own boards, sizing his own paper. It is hard to say how useful such information is now that most artists just by their wood, inks, and papers ready-made from a printmaking supplier like McClain’s. On the other hand, there probably are some diehard purists of the Japanese woodcut art form that choose to do all that work the old-school way, but likely very few. Nowadays the primary audience for this book is simply fans of Phillips’s art who are curious about how he created his beautiful prints.

The book is illustrated with a few color reproductions of prints by Phillips and other artists (Seaby, William Giles, Yoshijiro Urushibara, and others). There is also the usual demonstration of color separations showing the multiple blocks that go into making a print. In addition, Phillips has created a few black and white instructional illustrations of cutting tools, brushes, and such but nothing absolutely essential for anyone attempting a woodcut. The main attraction here is the text in which Phillips outlines his process, and there’s only about 36 pages of it. Nevertheless, Phillips is a good writer, and fans of his will enjoy reading what he has to say about art. Those fans would be better off, however, reading Phillips in Print: The Selected Writings of Walter J. Phillips on Canadian Nature and Art, edited by Maria Tippett and Douglas L. Cole, which can be found online with a Google search and downloaded for free in pdf format.

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Instructional illustrations by Phillips

Color frontispiece by Phillips

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