Wesley Bates on “The Colour in Black and White” –

Wesley Bates on “The Colour in Black and White” –


Ladies and gentlemen welcome to the
annual Pathy lecture my name is PJ Carefoote I’m the head of the department
of rare books and special collections here at the Thomas Fisher Rare Book
library. Before we begin I wish to acknowledge the land on which the
University of Toronto operates for thousands of years it has been the
traditional land of the Huron-Wendat the Seneca and most recently the
Mississauga’s of the Credit River. Today this meeting place is still the home to
many Indigenous people across Turtle Island and we are grateful to have the
opportunity to work on this land. Many of you as donors I know will know that the
initiatives of the Thomas Fisher rare book library have featured prominently
very prominently in the success of the University’s 2.4 billion dollar
Boundless campaign. I am very pleased to have the chance to thank you sincerely
once again for your contributions which nurture collections and services for
our students faculty and our researchers if you would like to know more about how
you can support the library through the boundless campaign my colleague Megan
Campbell who is at the back will be very very happy to speak with you. So welcome
very warm welcome to this year’s second Friends of the Fisher library lectures.
We are so pleased to have Mr. Alex Pathy there he is, Mr. Alex Pathy with us this
evening for this the 19th annual Pathy lecture. Tonight’s presenter is Mr.
Wesley Bates. Mr. Bates is a son of the Yukon but he was raised in Southwestern
Saskatchewan and after leaving Mount Allison University he subsequently moved
to Hamilton Ontario where he pursued a career as a painter and a print maker. In
1981 he began work as a wood engraver and freelance illustrator. Primarily
known for his work as a wood engraver Mr. Bates has worked for many major
publishing houses and has illustrated books by such authors as W.O. Mitchell,
Wendell Barry, Ed McClanahan, Richard Taylor, Stuart McLean, and Timothy Findlay.
He now lives and works in Clifford Ontario
and we have the great pleasure of hearing him speak this evening on the
Colour in Black. Mr. Bates [applause] [picks up glass] We have two kinds of solvent in my print
shop one’s called Varsol and the others called McClelland’s. Got to keep ourself standing up somehow. Um I just want to thank the the Pathy family for having
this lecture series and for inviting me along. I’d also like to thank PJ Carefoote
foot who you just saw for inviting me along. I’d also like to thank PJ Carefoote
foot who you just saw for inviting me here tonight and also David Fernandez
who’s one of the rare book librarians Shoesmith who is their outreach librarian
and he’s been an acquaintance of mine for a while and made sure that all of
this worked. I sent a bunch of raw stuff and
they actually got it to work and Liz Ridolfo who’s just sort of
looking after the minutia of somebody who doesn’t know where they are.
Actually I have some sense of where I am this is a lot bigger than the library in
Clifford I have to tell you. Clifford’s about a thousand people so
you guys have a lot of books. So the title the Colour of Black. In a world
of marketing sometimes you have to be a title the Colour of Black. In a world
of marketing sometimes you have to be a little bit provocative and you have to
try to poke at people a little bit so that’s partly what I’ve done here with
this title but I hope to elaborate and about what that means. What we have here
is just a page of text it’s a page from a book called Emblemata
Amatoria published by Aliquando Press and Will Rueter as the sole
proprietor, type washer and cook at that Press and Will Rueter as the sole
proprietor, type washer and cook at that page of text.
Many years ago I attended a talk through the Typocrafters
organization and the designer was talking about a page and he talked about
the color of a page of text. I looked at the that-I was fairly green- I looked at
that page and it was black type on a the that-I was fairly green- I looked at
that page and it was black type on a virtually white sheet of paper and I
thought I understood what the designer explanation. The meaning of the color of
a page of text has haunted me ever since and I was for many years
trying to understand it as having color. Color theory as it pertains to light,
says that white is the presence of all color and the black is the absence of
color, and color theory with regards to color and the black is the absence of
color, and color theory with regards to of all color.
And I remember at school or my mother even can telling me that just mix all the
colors that you have on your palette you’ll get something that’s close to
black. But looking back now at what the designer meant, I now see that the color
of a page of text has a nuanced meaning referring to the effect of type
inhabiting the surface of a page. referring to the effect of type
inhabiting the surface of a page. amongst the characters and the lines, the
tone and the overall attractiveness to the eye. There are pages that glare at
you as if in full sunlight and make the the eye. There are pages that glare at
you as if in full sunlight and make the reader squint there are others that
become soporific and a kind of twilight sleep properly. And then there are those
pages that speak to us through a clear afternoon kind of light as if we’re
underneath a shade tree. Those are the pages that that bring you through the
text that you’re reading. Will is a very fine book designer, he was the head
designer of University Toronto Press for many years so I didn’t really spend much
time looking for a page in his oeuvre, because they’re all good. But this just
the idea of how the marks on a page and their association and just the overall
effect the designer was saying had a – he called it a color. It’s interesting how
we’re attracted to a text even when we know nothing about the meaning of the
author’s words. Is this mic being a bit too rambunctious and can you all hear me,
can you hear me at the back? Okay no I should speak up a little bit louder even? Okay okay the well here we go right now I even hear myself. It’s interesting I think okay now can you hear me at the
back? Now can you hear me John? It’s interesting to know how we’re
attracted to a text even we don’t know the meaning of the author’s words. We are
attracted to the page by the designer’s use of the elements of design. Typeface,
point size, length of line, character weight margins and spacing, and all of
those can make or break a book in about two minutes when you’re looking at it in
the bookstore you can say ‘I’m not interested in this whatever this books
about’ and it may be a fascinating book but it just doesn’t it just wasn’t
designed properly the color wasn’t right. In each of the 750,000 books that rise
above you here in the Thomas Fisher collection, there was an orchestra of
artisans that made that book happen, the authors, binders, typesetters, type makers,
paper makers, designers of type, book designers, printers, just only to
acknowledge a few. And oh let’s not forget the artists who add the
illustrations. If there’s two forget the artists who add the
illustrations. If there’s two illustrations per book which i think is
probably being conservative and that’s what we’re doing these days is being
conservative there’s probably a million and a half
illustrations that rise above you in this beautiful space so it’s a it’s a
thing I feel like I’m kind of accompany the texts here. The author of
the book is a composer but I like to accompany the texts here. The author of
the book is a composer but I like to guest soloist. I hope that’s in focus
that people can see that properly this is an engraving of mine called The
Collector. I’ve come to understand the colour black as it pertains to my work as
a wood engraver because what makes a page of text have color is the same for
a wood engraving. The relationship of black and white lines and marks, the
direction of the lines, the fluidity and the grace of line, the texture, the
balance of light and dark and middle tone, and the crispness of the image
these are the artists alphabet that bring the content of the image to the
viewer. In this particular situation I was asked to this was for a cover of a
British Journal called Parentheses and they wanted an
illustration that was going to sort of hint at the different articles that were
in there in that particular issue. They had articles on early typefaces or early type
forms letter forms it should say the articles on early typefaces or early type
forms letter forms it should say the was old very early in in somewhere in
England I’ve forgotten what that typefaces what the letter forms are called. There
was also books on insects and that was a lot of fun there. There were several articles
on photography and then there was one on the printing the actual printing process
of stamps in the early days. So I just tried to blend them all
together in a bit of a whirlwind. But the way that the marks are on the page, I
was trying to trying to compare this in this engraving with Will’s page of type. His
was a lot calmer and but this but the this engraving with Will’s page of type. His
was a lot calmer and but this but the the relationship of all the marks create
a color it’s not just that the content of the image it’s not just the what they
call the design of the image it’s the of black. Now before I go any further I
know I’m in a room with people who are of black. Now before I go any further I
know I’m in a room with people who are Bewick into it just because we just
sort of have to set they have to set the tone proper tone for the rest of this. I
mean I feel like I’m in a Cathedral so we got to talk about Bewick. So this is a
portrait by John Jackson who did the who created a big treatise on the
art of wood engraving he was an apprentice of Bewick’s for a short while
and Bewick lived from 1753 to 1828. And he’s credited with inventing wood
engraving, a leap of imagination that made him sort of the Steve Jobs of his
day. His invention revolutionized made him sort of the Steve Jobs of his
day. His invention revolutionized go-to method replacing images alongside
type for about a hundred years. There’s actually some debate over crediting
Bewick with the invention but his remark actually some debate over crediting
Bewick with the invention but his remark those who debate his authorship
conceding the point. Um see what I mean about things we kind
of have to poke people a little bit here and there.
Bewick grew up in on the banks of the Tyne River in Northumberland not
far from Newcastle north of in the central part of England. Bewick became a
tradesman metal engraver with an established business in
Newcastle, but his early life along the engraver with an established business in
Newcastle, but his early life along the History and the pleasures of country
life. In those years of the late History and the pleasures of country
life. In those years of the late mostly either etching or metal engraving. Here’s a metal engraving in the Art of
Cookery made Plain and Easy published in 1747
so Bewick’s business was as a metal engraver he didn’t do illustrations, he engraved
things like silver platters and placed you know those beautiful brass plaques
that go on the outsides of buildings and business cards and calling cards and
things like that would have been. But on business cards and calling cards and
things like that would have been. But on forays into wood engraving were a book
on mathematics and algebra I think it is. forays into wood engraving were a book
on mathematics and algebra I think it is. from a distance and things like that.
Wood engrav–uh, wood cuts were kind of from a distance and things like that.
Wood engrav–uh, wood cuts were kind of grade publishing like children’s books
like this one. Woodcuts had had quite a long run before, and then as etching and metal engraving became more popular they were kind of shoved to the
side. But Bewick wanted to pursue his interest in Natural History and he
set out to illustrate a catalog of quadrupeds, and it wasn’t just the quadrupeds of his neighborhood it was the quadrupeds of the world it was a it
was a big deal. And it was eventually published in 1790, and to accomplish this
project he needed to reduce the cost and published in 1790, and to accomplish this
project he needed to reduce the cost and so he chose to use wood engraving by
adapting his metal engraving tools and surface as opposed to the side grain
surface that’s used in woodcut and also milling the end grain block to the
same height as type. He was able to place also milling the end grain block to the
same height as type. He was able to place the type and the illustration in the
same press and therefore eliminate one press operation and cut his cost
significantly so the the advent of wood way to make things less expensive. And
his book on quadrupeds shows the point way to make things less expensive. And
his book on quadrupeds shows the point this kind of animal before but anyway
this would have been this is from a facsimile book that I have- I bet you
there’s the real deal in this place somewhere and it would be kind of fun to see that
someday. Anyway it was a it was a project that took him in approximately 10 years
to to produce. He was working from the that took him in approximately 10 years
to to produce. He was working from the animals that he knew the the best
illustrations people often say are the straight-ahead idea of what they
were but things like and creatures like straight-ahead idea of what they
were but things like and creatures like this one were probably either he was
working from a taxidermy sample or would have. And this is one of Bewick’s illustrations
for the his History of British Birds. It was published in two
editions the first edition in 1797 and the second one in 1804. The first one was
land land birds and the second one was water birds. They also published a
supplement in 1821 so the British Birds became his masterpiece. Now he was
dealing with with birds in their in became his masterpiece. Now he was
dealing with with birds in their in with birds. And so it’s highly regarded for
its accuracy and the engravings of the birds and it was the it’s considered to
be the first common field guide. It was a 25 year project altogether and only
finished a few years before his death. In his quadrupeds and in his birds he
added tail pieces that weren’t necessarily
about the subject of the books. They were his private medium of his own
personal expression. He was an avid his private medium of his own
personal expression. He was an avid fisherman so this is one of those but
the previous one was also one of his ways of expressing his point of view
about country life and people’s with the look to Bewick’s tale pieces for information
of that time period in the area that he lived. They all seem
to be focused in the Tyne Valley and Newcastle area, and they’re very
narrative and lots of them are lots of humor and most of them are pastoral. Now the color of black I’m going to now
we’re going to have to perform a trick Now the color of black I’m going to now
we’re going to have to perform a trick with me when you think about it think
about wood engravings. This is and this is very much – what we’re about to do is
about what wood engraving is really about. It’s black that brings the image
to the page. I wish I had a wand but but about. It’s black that brings the image
to the page. I wish I had a wand but but to read the black but instead in this
image to read the white. It’s actually the white in the image that creates the
image. Conceptually wood engraving is the white in the image that creates the
image. Conceptually wood engraving is bringing in the light.
Etchings and metal engravings and the lowly woodcut were all black line images
in the day that in the days of Bewick and Bewick’s real gift to art is that he used
his tools in the most natural way on the endgrain block. The act of engraving
lowers the surface and therefore creates a white mark when the surface is rolled
with black ink, so the real color of the wood engraving is actually white on the
page. And this is the reason I think that wood engraving is actually white on the
page. And this is the reason I think that it’s the old saying that
opposites attract. So here we are back with the creature
that was in the page and you can see So here we are back with the creature
that was in the page and you can see that he’s put the white substance in
here is what he probably would have it’s just excellent. And when you engrave
and you put that in it fills the lines it’s just excellent. And when you engrave
and you put that in it fills the lines therefore reinforces the idea that it’s
the white that’s telling the story. You got to make sure that when you – before you put the block in the press though that you eliminate all the cornstarch because
it thickens the ink like crazy. So the you eliminate all the cornstarch because
it thickens the ink like crazy. So the buy the where I thought this reference
from they said they were Buicks tools – the metal engraving tools that he would
have used on a everyday basis, the face the metal engraving tools that he would
have used on a everyday basis, the face have been sharpened at about a 20 degree
angle off parallel off level. And in have been sharpened at about a 20 degree
angle off parallel off level. And in order to make it work in the wood he
changed the angle to a 45 degree angle didn’t really change his tools all that
much. And what’s really interesting is didn’t really change his tools all that
much. And what’s really interesting is the tools that we use are the same tools
that Bewick used and we’re using the wood the tools that we use are the same tools
that Bewick used and we’re using the wood in the same way that he used we’re
applying the ink pretty much in the same to itself all these years later. Things
like photography is not available to a wood engraver like it is in an etching
or a metal engraving you can etch the plates with a photography silkscreen can
use photography and there’s so can lithography use photography, but wood
engraving is still one of those things that you have to
to sort of treat it the way Michelangelo did is it’s in there somewhere you just
got to dig it out. But the thing is did is it’s in there somewhere you just
got to dig it out. But the thing is lying down more on a 45 degree angle
than a 20 degree angle. The reason that it can’t lie down so low on metal is
because that makes the tip more fragile. So there we go for that so the same
tools and so before we go into my work and so on I just wanted to make sure
that I thank Mr Bewick wherever he is and so on I just wanted to make sure
that I thank Mr Bewick wherever he is way I express myself the best. So this is what my engraving table looks like and the little pot in
the middle is my cornstarch. I was using things like talc at one point but talc is
a mineral and I thought well I mean one things like talc at one point but talc is
a mineral and I thought well I mean one little dusty there but so I I’m working
with a food substance. So I’ll probably get Miller’s lung. Anyway the where this
the big brown thing in the center the bottom is a pad it’s very
similar to the pad that metal engravers bottom is a pad it’s very
similar to the pad that metal engravers just sat down at his normal desk and did
the wood engraving right there. The pad just sat down at his normal desk and did
the wood engraving right there. The pad is used to put the block on top of so
that when you move when you’ve changed the direction of a line you turn the
block not the tool and the anyway and easily. It’s not a so a good idea to have
too many tools on the table because as easily. It’s not a so a good idea to have
too many tools on the table because as they start clinking around and their
points touch the sides of tools you can tool when you’re trying to engrave. And here’s the engraving work. So the
hand that holds the tool basically operates what I call the dive of the
tool. Most of the engraving tools are
wedge-shaped so that when you put the Most of the engraving tools are
wedge-shaped so that when you put the allow the tool to go the wider the
line becomes so some of the tools are allow the tool to go the wider the
line becomes so some of the tools are little blunter so you get sort of a
stipply or a different kind of line. And then the other hand is what moves
the block so it’s a bit like rubbing And then the other hand is what moves
the block so it’s a bit like rubbing the same time. Now I often get asked what
my influences are and I already the same time. Now I often get asked what
my influences are and I already mentioned the Single Malt but but when I
was kid my mother my mother went to art we moved a lot.
As Pearce said I was raised in the prairies, my father was an RCMP officer
and we in those days they didn’t let them settle anywhere you had to be not
of the community in order to police it. And so we had a very small library that
traveled with us and there were there was a twin set of books from the
Heritage Press or Heritage Club of Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights and it was
illustrated by Ritz Eichenberg who’s the Eyre and Wuthering Heights and it was
illustrated by Ritz Eichenberg who’s the engraver here and whenever I was sick or
was raining outside or when my mother had to get me out of the kitchen she
tell me to go and look at some books and these were my favorites I looked at them
many times I didn’t read them I just kind of got the gist. You know I’d rather
listen to the soloist than the whole Orchestra maybe. And anyway so I didn’t
really understand that when I started engraving that I was had been influenced
by Fritz Eichenberg all these years I engraving that I was had been influenced
by Fritz Eichenberg all these years I and some just a couple of
blocks and I didn’t when I was at the and some just a couple of
blocks and I didn’t when I was at the not part of the subject woodcuts. I
majored in did a double major in not part of the subject woodcuts. I
majored in did a double major in style of key blocks and then color
blocks and I was doing wood cuts up to 14 color blocks. It was a big
production for me and I when I got out cuts up to 14 color blocks. It was a big
production for me and I when I got out of school I thought it was just too too
fussy to carry on with so I just put all my printmaking stuff away and I painted
and tended bar and did drywalling did out. And then when I got those tools I
went to McMaster University’s reference out. And then when I got those tools I
went to McMaster University’s reference the department collected books with wood
engravings in them. There were a couple of books on how-to, most of them were
novels and the ones that I liked the most were I was impressed with the most
were the Leica camera catalogs that were Illustrated with wood engravings. Camera
parts Illustrated with wood engravings. It was fantastic.
At any rate I was looking along this It was fantastic.
At any rate I was looking along this went off and I pulled it down and it was
weathering Heights. And this is Heathcliff holding a tree up
in a storm. Anyway so Eichenberg has been something that is deep is a deep source
for me i think. Joan Hassel he is that one showing up properly good
Joan Hassel i think is Thomas Bewick reincarnated. Her work is a marvel and
she works on such a scale that that you can hardly believe that she could
engrave these little faces. I just want can hardly believe that she could
engrave these little faces. I just want business card. It’s a very small
illustration and all that detail and the expression that she was able to
accomplish is quite remarkable. Eichenberg I should get gives
dates I’m trying to be scholarly here Eichenberg I should get gives
dates I’m trying to be scholarly here still alive I would have made the
pilgrimage. Joan Hassell was born in 1906 and she died in 1988 after I’d seen that
I would have gone and visited her. Agnes Miller Parker born in 1895
died in 1980 Agnes Miller Parker born in 1895
died in 1980 I don’t engrave at all like her I am
just in awe of her work and it doesn’t work. and then born in 1943 Simon Brett, a
British wood engraver he’s sort of the how would be how would we describe Simon
George? He’s he’s probably the most gentlemanly person I have ever met he’s
that he’s a grand human being. And anyway gentlemanly person I have ever met he’s
that he’s a grand human being. And anyway I really admire his work too so getting
back to the theme here again it’s the has the most uncanny ability to make his
images feel colorful to me. It’s not just content he’s got a his way
of manipulating textures and the use of black as its you know for its own self
is very very good. So now I’m going to start on with some of mine
that’s not Varsol in the bottle either. So the this is one of my earlier
engravings not the earliest one and I either. So the this is one of my earlier
engravings not the earliest one and I the wayzgoose in Grimsby that happens
every year for the last forty something years. And so this was this was one that
attracted the attention of some of my my peers there and it’s a mildly
reminiscent of my studio. Oh good this one worked out. Then after I’d been at it
for about ten years Tim Inkster at Porcupines Quill said
that I should have a book of my Tim Inkster at Porcupines Quill said
that I should have a book of my so there it is. This was the engraving I
did for the cover and we called it The Point of the Graver and that’s the tool
that you see down the side that’s freeing the foot of the one of the last
dancers there. I brought this along because costume became a real
interest of mine as because there’s so much opportunity to make texture in line
and so on. This was an earlier one and much opportunity to make texture in line
and so on. This was an earlier one and color of black or the color of white he
had to add color to it he says ‘we’ve got to sell books’. Now this was one that I a lot of this
but many of the pieces that I’m bringing Now this was one that I a lot of this
but many of the pieces that I’m bringing but the comedy dell’arte is an
art form that has interested me and I’ve but the comedy dell’arte is an
art form that has interested me and I’ve engraving. Is this this is not meant to
be a historical representation of a Commedia dell’arte troupe, this is a sort
of the dress up trunk version of it. I worked with a model for six years and we
and she would go to the clothing used clothing stores and she’d come back
with different bits of clothing we’d made costumes out of them. So we would
just call it dress-up trunk Commedia dell’arte which I think would be sort of
fits the form of Commedia. I take on commissions, so this is a commission
from a artists a writer’s representative for Yann Martel I was surprised to find
out that he at the time that I did this he was living in Saskatoon. He was
teaching at the University there and he was living in Saskatoon. He was
teaching at the University there and Saskatoon. Anyway apparently it went over
well they said that their wheelbarrow of books was just a little bit bigger than
the one that I portrayed. And then for Porcupine’s Quill I had a lot of fun
working on the Casanova in Venice and Porcupine’s Quill I had a lot of fun
working on the Casanova in Venice and so the job of the illustrators that are
here tonight is to try and evoke the periods or the the spirit of the book of
course you have to kind of be in there gone to Venice to do it but I had to do
it through the internet. There was but gone to Venice to do it but I had to do
it through the internet. There was but one of them had to had to illustrate the
Casanova and one of the other prisoners when they escaped from the and they
didn’t go through the Bridge of Sighs covered in lead,
lead tiling but I wanted I didn’t covered in lead,
lead tiling but I wanted I didn’t obviously have any way of knowing so I I
used a tourist map to try and sort of put a pinpoint on where I
thought they would be on the roof and what the sightlines might be and it was
really fun to do that. I have no idea that was right but it felt it was fun. This was a book so with the relevance of
wood engraving in today’s world that’s often a topic amongst our gallery owners
for one thing and for between amongst the wood engravers ourselves. I mean
we all like to think we’re relatives because we we paid our taxes and get up
every day but the I got a call from HarperCollins asking to do a book of
Timothy Findlay’s when they were leaving their home he and Bill Whitehead, when they
were leaving their home up in Cannington stone orchard they wanted to do a
book and they wanted wood engravings. I had to make them repeat it back to me
a couple of times and said are you sure you want wood engravings because of the
timelines and they said no that’s what we want so that was really a fun project
you don’t get to do wood engraving so often for the commercial trade. I work in
another medium called scraper board which was invented in the late 1800s
near the end of the of the Victorian period to to imitate wood engraving so
but it’s a calligraphic process and you can you can work a lot more quickly how
am i doing for time okay? So Pearce mentioned Wendell Barry
Wendell Barry I’ve been a devotee of Wendell Berry’s for about my daughter’s
43 now so about 40 years. And he’s an American writer he’s a farmer but he’s
also a writer he’s been farming this particular
and on this particular farm for over 50 years
and he’s got more than 50 books to his credit in that time period, so I guess he
can write and drive horses at the same time or something like that.
But I was really really wanting to somehow be connected to him so I I
bought the copyrights to eight of his poems and I published them under my own
imprint which is blessed metal press and I didn’t actually get the whole project
finished all at once and I was at a Book Fair in New Castle Delaware the Oak Knoll
Book Fair and I met a fellow there from Kentucky his name is Gray Zeitz and in a
room like that you’ve got the Fleece Press, Rampant Lion Press, Whittington
Press all kinds of the big names the big guns Bird and Bull Press,
Barbarian Press all those big hitters were there and in some cases they only
had one book on their table and others maybe had five or six and it was a it
was a place where they actually had pennies in their penny loafers and it
was that kind of a place. Washington slept there too and anyway in the corner
was a fellow who actually had bookcases and they were full and he he
had so many that he couldn’t broadside them they had to be spine out so I was
looking at along the spines and I I start seeing Wendell Barry Wendell Barry
Wendell Barry so I I kind of got excited and I said to him I said ‘Do you know
Wendell Barry? and he says he lives across the river from me
so I ran out to the car cause I hadn’t brought I was what I was down there to
do is trying to get some illustration work, so I was going around introducing
myself and peddling my wares and so I ran out but I
didn’t bring this in because it wasn’t finished so I ran in and got my my
Wendell Barry engravings out and the fella looked at them and he said boy you
should show those to Wendell and I just I laughed he said oh yeah sure that’s
gonna happen. And I get a letter from him about three weeks after I got home and
he says I talked to Wendell about it he’d love to see it. So I just got really
busy and finished the other four engravings and and eventually I was able
to take them a copy so I got to meet him. And so that’s one of the things that
wood engravings done for me too I had no idea that if that working in this medium
would ever have that kind of opportunities. This was a frontispiece I
did for the Calypso story from the Odyssey and and as I did this oh maybe
25 years ago and then I read the new translation by Emily Wilson and she’s
the first woman to ever translate the Odyssey and it’s fantastic so now I’m
working on my version which is going to be a wordless version of the
Calypso story in The Odyssey she’s it so if you haven’t picked it up
it’s a really good read. And here we are with what I call a book monster and this
is how I was first met David he’s very interested in monsters
and right up here if you haven’t already seen it there’s an amazing exhibition
of monsters in books. This is not a monster in the same sense that David
understands them as this is just playfulness but I was really felt
vindicated because when my wife and I got to go to Florence and we were in the
library in San Lorenzo laurentian library and in the stained glass windows
the where I sort of picked up the idea of this creature there was there was
quite a number of them there it’s one of the sort of Renaissance decorative
little creatures they used it as a motif in all kinds places but there it was
in the library that Michelangelo made the stairs for. And here’s what I did with it. Yeah
people say why isn’t it strange but this is my friend Gray from Kentucky so I get
to do portraits from time to time this was a portrait for his 40th anniversary
of his press called Larkspur press and this was my first now now we’re getting
back to color in the regular sense. Gallery owners are a little bit shy of
things that are just what they would say just black on white, and especially when
they’re only the size of business cards. There’s a an economics that
works backwards when you do that because the frames cost five or six times as
much as the engraving does and it’s pretty hard to get ahead so working in
colour I thought well maybe I could join the rest of the gang and get some color.
So this was my first coloured engraving after you know 40 years of engraving. And
and it was it was lots of fun this was for a book on Audubon on the
Audobon – there was a set of sonnets on Audubon. Now I’m just gonna run through
these quickly here so that we don’t take up too much time people ask me how I do
this this would be what a general notion of a sketch for for an engraving, and
there the sketch was transferred to the block and what you’re seeing on top
there is the very first proof. We’ll see a better copy of it in a minute. Here we
go this is what the first proof so I work in when I work with color i work as
i did when i was doing the japanese traditional japanese method of working:
I make the key block first and the key block has all of the information it
has all of the drawing it’s it’s what the it tells this all the story and the
color blocks are just added in behind they’re pretty much flat color. And then
this is how i work out the color design this is just pencil crayon
on top of one of the proofs of the color block or the key block I should say
trying to figure it out. I did this when I was in the hospital of this particular
color when I was in the hospital having a had a heart attack but
the deadline was still there so that the nurses the nurses were great. They
would come in and check on me make sure I wasn’t staying up all night and on
these things so it was it was kind of fun it was actually one of my first real
holidays in many many many years. I have never I’ve never had three weeks with
nothing else to do but my own work it was it was a blast. And the color blocks
are cut from the key blocks so the key block image is transferred to the color
blocks which are cut to the same size as the key block so that when the press is
set up with the key block you just take it out and put the other color block put
a color block in and it’s already pretty much registered. And then for instance in
the lower-right that was one of the pink colors from this image that you’re going
to see so everything that wasn’t going to be pink gets removed and everything
that’s not going to be green gets removed and everything that’s not going
to be red gets removed and then you print them in sequence and when you get
them all printed here’s one I’m registering one of the Pinks against
the against one of the proofs of the key block.
They’ve already printed the yellow on it so I’m getting a couple of extra colors
here I’m getting one one one pink and one sort of orange pink because the
yellow and pink mix and then vice versa you get an orangey – yellowy
orange and the other one so that’s registering one color against the key block.
And then when all the colors are printed that’s what they look like it looks kind
of ho-hum and you have to sort of guard yourself from getting disappointed in
your seven or seven or eight hours of straight printing to get that far and
then when you print the key block on top of it this is what happens. Yeah, that. So
the key block is where it’s not using we’re not using pigment color but the
key block has its own sense of color and its own relationships to the design and
the weight of line and so on. And then the most one of the most or more
recent things that’s happened to me again that’s having to do with Wendell
Barry I got commissioned to do 14 engravings
for a documentary film on Wendell and that was a that was an interesting thing
too so having to work with production people in the film industry they want
they want the images that have a way for the camera to move around in them, so you
have to talk to the producer production people a lot and work out different
compositions and and so on and they wanted one engraving to show trees
growing and then being cut down and I thought well that’s going to be a lot of
engravings he says no I’ve got I’ve got computers with all kinds of stuff he
says just give me the stumps and just give me the full tree so I had to do two
engravings like that he says I’ll make it happen. And and it was pretty
interesting how they did it and that one looks like this and again you have to
you have to understand that the actual image is only about that high in the real world so
that’s and then and the documentary is called Look and See. It’s a documentary
portrait of Wendell Berry and it’s been quite a bit of fun over the years to
have the reaction of people that it was is that the Sundance it was at the
Berlin Film Festival it’s here at Hot Docs, South by Southwest
Film Festival and the New York Film Festival so it went did the rounds and
now it’s on Netflix. So anyway that’s the the lecture as I understand it was to be
is for the Book Arts so I really believe that wood engraving is one of the the
premier arts that it that works for books and like I said before I think
it’s the fact that it’s a white line image next to images that are black line
and they really do marry very well I think. So I just want to thank you for
your attention thank you very much [Applause] I’d be happy to answer any questions. Audience: What kind of wood do you use? Wesley: I use maple wood – it’s hard the the two characteristics of the wood that
works best for wood engraving are hard and dense and people often say well what
about oak? Well oak is hard but it is not dense and amongst wood engravers I think
it’s pretty much agreed that they the best wood would be boxwood which is very
hard and very dense and very expensive and hard to get nowadays. The way I engrave
I mean I I wouldn’t know where how to put myself but I if you were on a scale
of 1 to 10 of the the fineness of the lines engraved I I would not be a 10
there are is that British engraver by the name of Howard Phipps
anyway he’s I would say a 10 in regards to the delicacy of his engravings. And
then we all know or many of us know about Eric Gill who who did single black
line engraving so he’d be the extreme of the open kind of engraving, and I’m
somewhere I mean if I could be so bold I would say I mean I’m in the sort of this
seven maybe an eight some days in regards to the finest. So I can work in
maple because it’ll hold those kind of lines but the boxwood will hold much
finer lines. Anything else? Yes sir Question: How long does it take to do these? Wesley: I worked on this particular one for a
over a period of two weeks now I don’t engrave for eight hours a day and and
I kind of actually like this I used to have a hard time answering this question
but I kind of like this question now because it when I have students they’re
there they want to rush at this kind of thing. The thing about wood engraving and
the way I describe it to people it’s somewhat like a chess game. You can your
first gambit is somewhat possibly you can recover from it right you can you
can make something that was intended to be a dog and you can make it into a
flower if you need to because you’ve got time, you’ve got wood left. But then
there’s a middle game involved where you work all over the block to try and get
things happening and then there’s the end game and the end game can sneak up
on you very quickly sometimes and sometimes it’s just agony it goes on
forever. So but in between the engraving there’s
they’re looking at the at the proofs and that sometimes can take days. You put it
on the wall and you’re thinking how am I going to get myself out of this? And and
the last part the endgame is is a is more or less just a balancing of the
tones you can only add light so where you have it so you’ve already
established your absolute blacks and you’ve played around in the big open
areas and and in the middle tones but now you have you’ve got to be very
careful that you don’t go beyond what what where it should be. So so in those
two weeks there was it was probably I tack – I sometimes tape it to the side
of my door into my studio so that I see it all the time
you know I can’t get away from it. Yes George? George Walker: You said you were a seven or eight – I was hoping you were going to say you were a nine. That means that I’m a five! and I’m wondering if you could speak a little bit about the lining tool, because I don’t think you ever use one, a lining tool at all and I use the lining tool in my work and many other engravers use it too Wesley: yeah George: It’s a tool to get fine detail quickly But it can be overused like in the case of [inaudible] Wesley: Yeah, so you’re talking about a
multiple lining tool yeah that’s it just for those who may not know,
most of the tools will create one line at a time but a multiple tool will
create two and sometimes I think the one I’ve seen is the most was seven. And it
requires an enormous amount of skill to make all those seven points play
together so I I it’s if it has a very nice effect and I and it was designed I
think originally to do if you think of a Victorian engraving think of Gustave Doré a for instance there are clouds scenes in backs of some of his things
that are quite remarkable because how in heck did they engrave those lines so
easily parallel to each other and that’s because they did it with a multiple line
tool. And as far as I know the with those engraving shops those people were
experts in it not just everybody wielded one of those things. So why don’t I use
one? I don’t know I I’ve never got the knack and I think I’m I’m just kind of a
one-line kind of guy. But it has it has a great effect it’s it’s it to me in a way
it’s like using white Conte when you’re working on tone paper with charcoal or
something and if you want something to sparkle you know you just give it a
little go with that multiple tint tool just like you would with the conte. Yes
sir? Question: The tools – especially with the spacing quite close – it must be real work for someone to sharpen them Wesley: now there you go yeah that’s a good
reason not to use one, I’ll tell you. Sharpening is is a you know we never talk about that but
that’s the elephant in the room. Really when when you’re working because I had a
fellow who’s been engraving for 10 years call me up and say I’d like to come in
and work under your under your watchful eye for a weekend. And I was kind of
surprised because you know after certain while there’s there’s not much you can
show somebody who knows what they’re doing right. And he says I can’t get
parallel lines yeah curved parallel lines in particular so I said well come
on over so he did and after a while I was watching him engraving and I mean
engraving should be well we haven’t got time for me to rhapsodize all night so I
won’t to get too far but engraving when when it’s doing really well is not
there’s very little effort. It’s all about your thinking in the line. This poor
fellow he was he was digging he was sculpting the block and I said stop stop
stopping give me one let’s see your tool and the face of the tools must be
absolutely flat because it’s the outside edge of the face the perimeter of the
face of the tool that’s actually the cutting edge and his were domed they
were shiny they were beautiful but they were not sharp. There was no edge and of
course he couldn’t control the tool. So we just changed the whole thing we
weren’t going to talk about composition or how to make a wavy line and all I
think we were just going to sharpen. So for two days we sharpened his tools and
I still get a wave across a room from him every time I see him because he
knows how to sharpen his tools now. But those multiple tools would be
really difficult. Question: What metal are these tools made of? Wesley: They’re are kind of carbon steel I don’t
know a lot about the metal but they’re there they’re like I feel like they
would be similar to the the metal of a very high quality carving knife.
They’re they’re steel they’re carbon steel they’re not stainless steel
or anything like that no. Very much like chisels just the same kind of metal that
a chisel’s made of. Yes sir? yeah Question: Has anyone made a movie of you doing this? Wesley: [laughs] Well in a well well actually it happens
several small little video documentary or video things made but if you see the
movie Look and See the Wendall Barry documentary I I was not aware that they
were going to do this but there’s all the hole at the end of the movie when
all the credits are running they were it got me engraving and behind all that. But
the the production manager sent me uh he said we would walk in they were wanting
to put some of the engraving in them in the film they you know there are it’s
it’s a wonderful film it’s got landscapes and it’s got voiceover
Wendall reading poetry and talking and they wanted to sort of insert little
bits of this there’s a fellow who makes stools and he’s shown hammering a stool
together and they wanted to have me engraving and I said ‘well okay it’s not
like sword fighting or anything like that you know it’s it is it it’s a
different approach’ so they sent me a camera it was a very high-end phone thing
you know look like a phone and a little tripod and he explained quite
carefully how he wanted me to set it up on my engraving table and he says on
this one particular engraving before you start I want you to film for five
minutes and then engrave some more and then later on that day film for another
five minutes and after a while I had about two hours of five minute sections
of me engraving and I thought they were going to maybe use you know ten seconds
of one of those things but there they put them all together in
there on their website and there’s two whole hours of this. Now I’d rather watch
paint dry than watch it than watch a wood engraver engrave, I mean for the
engraver it’s it’s a thrill I mean you’re like you’re you’re right on the
point of that tool and you know if you want you know maybe that’s why I had a
heart attack, I don’t know. If you want a thrill, just try not to make a mistake in a piece of wood. Yes Audience member: Take heart, there are still people buying wood engravings. and willing to pay more for them than they did for the frame I’ve had the good fortune int he last few months to acquire two Agnes Miller Parkers, three Joan Hassels, and several other wonderful pieces Monica Poole, [inaudible] and there are still Collectors around, and people are getting good money for those pieces. Wesley: Yes they
are and my compliments to you for the ones you’re collecting. yeah it’s a
it’s definitely I think people in the know understand and and it took me many
years to understand it myself but they you know they the straightforward the
pure it’s kind of a loaded word but it’s not pure in some senses but it’s the intensity the focus that it takes to
produce a wood engraving is… there are authors that out there that say that
is it’s the one of the most difficult mediums to work in. One more one more
question yes yes sir? Audience member: You didn’t use the word composition very much but you must spend a lot of time working on that Wesley: Yes, that’s true.
Composition composition is a yeah it’s printmaking in general is a as a drawing
medium so drawing is is absolutely essential I mean however I mean people
draw in many ways and what I tell people that want to come
and study it I say that if you’re if you’re comfortable drawing then this will this
will be something that will be less troublesome to take on. Composition like
the the illustrators that illustrate all these books up here they have to have
read the text and they have to have absorbed something in some ways and
done the research for costumes or for landscape or for some kind of relevance
to the to the text so you know composition is a big deal. One last question then we we’ve got treats out
here so we’ve got to get to that. Yes sir? [Inaudible Wesley: oh yes yes yeah yeah yes I know Rosemary and those
those are are just um I don’t know the the Sistine Chapel of wood engraving.
they’re just amazing I know the people that were printing them for that
exhibition and they would it was quite the project to print a block that large.
And I remember talking to rosemary once about bringing a block those came from
England those blocks and the humidity changes and something’s just the the
fragility of the wood it was amazing that they didn’t break up you know but
no she’s a remarkable engraver. Yeah I’m glad they’re doing that and and thanks
as a reminder if you if you’re at all interested in wood engraving and
especially Rosemary’s work go to Hamilton art gallery thank you very much. [Applause]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *