Today’s guest post comes to us courtesy of Gerard Brender à Brandis, a Stratford, Ontario-based artist whose drawings, wood engravings and watercolours have appeared in art galleries around North America as well as in several books. Today’s blog post is a fascinating look behind his artistic process in creating the wood engravings for The Grand River: Dundalk to Lake Erie, now available from The Porcupine’s Quill.
I would like to share with you the process whereby I created my sixty-six engravings of the Grand River and buildings, plants, animals and birds along its banks. Fifty-eight of them are reproduced in the forthcoming book, The Grand River: Dundalk to Lake Erie, which my sister, Marianne Brandis, wrote and I illustrated. We visited the Grand River many times, having divided up its nearly 300 kilometre length into bits manageable for day-trips from Stratford, finding places that I felt would make a good image for my medium and were worth Marianne’s attention as a writer.
Like most of you, I am surrounded by a three-dimensional, coloured world, but as a wood engraver I want to transform my impressions into a two-dimensional, black-and-white image. I must start with close contact and careful observation of my subject, spending some time with it, participating in its reality. For me, that means bringing my folding stool or shooting stick, sketchbook and pencil box, and spending a bit of quiet time. In the process of drawing, I look up and study the subject dozens of times, noticing details on the surface and aspects of the underlying structure that would escape a more casual approach. My sketch is intended to reveal the quality that attracted me to that subject in the first place. While drawing I eliminate everything that might detract from the meaning I felt in it and take away with me the essence of my experience.
Back in the studio, I choose a block of endgrain boxwood on which I plan to engrave. My sketch is never the exact size of the block. It may have to be reduced or enlarged. Also, because a block will always print its mirror image, the sketch needs to be reversed in order to avoid all the finished images being backwards. I solve these two issues by making a preliminary drawing exactly the size of the block onto tracing paper and then turning over the paper. So, looking at the back of my preliminary drawing, I redraw the subject again, in ink, onto the glass-smooth surface of the block. Drawing the subject three times brings my concept deeply into my consciousness and makes it “my own”.
Engraving consists of taking my twenty-or-so burins (very sharp tiny chisels) and incising the lines and areas that will be white in the final print. I take a few proofs during the latter stages of this process to guide me to a satisfying conclusion. Printing is the quick part of it all. I apply a thin and even layer of printing ink onto the surface of the block with a small roller or “brayer”. The roller will not touch the areas where I have lowered the surface by cutting wood away. I then place the block onto the bed of my 1882 Albion printing press, lay a sheet of dampened, handmade, rag paper onto the block, and apply enough pressure to transfer the ink from the block to the paper. The paper is peeled carefully from the block and this fresh print is then hung on a drying rack for forty-eight hours before being titled and signed. During the drying time, I frequently study the print to see if I am really content with it or whether I need to make just a few additional refinements. A block of good quality wood will, without showing any wear, yield more impressions than I could estimate. And so I have the satisfaction of sharing my vision with all those who become owners of an original print as well as those who will have a copy of The Grand River, for which the images have been very skillfully scanned and expertly printed at original size to make them as close to the originals as possible.
The Grand River flows past Doon, the village where the renowned Canadian painter, Homer Watson spent most of his life and where he created so many of his wonderful works. I have one of his etchings in my kitchen and that lovely image has been my guiding spirit through the years of work along the “Grand”.
—Gerard Brender à Brandis
Tune in next Tuesday for the writer Marianne Brandis’s perspective of the creative process that went into creating the illuminating and informative texts that accompany the wood engravings in The Grand River.