Block Printing and its Impact on Textile and Book Arts

This article was written by a friend who passed away in July 2017.  It was originally self-published in “A Boke of Dayes: A Journal of the Festival of St. Hildegard” (1994)  I have augmented this article with photos from a catalog of his works that was part of his estate.

Gordon not only carved blocks, but taught carving and printing as well, and volunteered much of his time to the furtherance of this art form.  I hope this article will inspire others to continue on that path.

History
Block printing can be traced back to Egypt.  From there come the best examples of printing and tools because items were buried intentionally for use in the next life.  The environment was dry, free from bugs and rodents. Many pieces are available for study, because grave robbers were only interested in gold, and left the more common items behind. 

Block printing appears to have come to Europe from India and Rome.  In early Europe, dyes were used rather than ink, on surfaces that weren’t as well prepared as they were in their country of origin.

Block printing was part of textile production, rather than a separate industry.  By the 10th century, gold and silver were mixed with linseed oil and printed onto dyed fabrics.  Multi-colored prints were done by block printing a dark outline and painting in the details by hand.  This process led eventually to the manufacture of printed needlework patterns 

The process of block printing textiles led to a number of other forms of reproduction.  In China, paper was printed using clay blocks. By the 10th century, clay letters were set into an iron frame for the purpose of printing pages. This technique was developed by the country people, but later abandoned when the government started using the process for their own purposes. With the advent of printing in Europe, manuscripts could be mass produced, although illumination [illustration] was still done by hand. These hand illuminated printed books were the forerunners of the modern day coloring book.

Notes on technique
Linoleum is made by grinding linseed and flax into a paste, and spreading it out into a sheet. Its’ properties and lack of grain make it an ideal substance for the novice block carver to use. Linoleum can also be purchased and adhered onto wood blocks.  Wood is more difficult to carve because of its grain, which makes mistakes harder to remedy. [One of Gordon’s preferred woods was Pear, I assume because of its tight grain.]

The design is drawn directly onto the wood, either freehand or as a tracing from another source. The design is then carved in such a way as to slope away from the design, rather than carve straight down into the surface.  This gives better structural support to the edges of the design. Wood carving chisels are used rather than razor blades, which can break and become imbedded in your work.

A selection of Gordon’s original blocks and prints are available in an album entitled  “Gordon’s Arts” on Flickr

“Dietmar von Aist – a minnesanger – Uf der linden obenedâ sanc ein kleinez vogellîn.vor dem walde wart ez lût:dô huop sich aber daz herze mînan eine stat dâ ez ê dâ was.ich sach dâ rôsebluomen stân:die manent mich der gedanke vildie ich hin zeiner vrouwen hân.”
See his Flickr page for the English translation … 

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