The previous post in this series discussed how lines and dots in wood engraving create the illusion of light and shade in three dimensions, and presented some sample illustrations. This post will explore how wood engravings became the preferred mode of image publication in the nineteenth century.
Why did wood engravings become popular? Partly because they made high-quality, illustrated newspapers, magazines, and books easily and inexpensively available for the first time.
Prior to the invention of wood engraving, publishers had to accept a trade-off: either publish books with relatively crude woodcut illustrations printed on the same page as the text, or insert high-quality illustrations during or after the binding process. At that time, fine illustrations (which were usually engravings or etchings) either had to be printed on their own separate pages and bound into books alongside type pages, or they were printed, trimmed, and “tipped in”—pasted—in spaces left for them on the type pages. Both processes were expensive and applied only to books; newspapers and magazines had to settle for low-quality woodcuts or no illustrations at all.
There were two reasons for this state of affairs:
- Technical limitations in printing made it impossible to print type simultaneously with etchings or engravings, because the etching/engraving plates required higher pressure to transfer their ink to paper than type did. Additionally, the surfaces of such plates needed to be wiped thoroughly clean of all excess ink (leaving ink only in the etched or engraved lines below the plate surfaces) before they could be printed. The cycle of inking and wiping the plate clean of excess ink had to be repeated before creating every copy of the print in the edition, making intaglio (“incised” or “engraved”) printing a slow and laborious process.
- Woodcuts could be printed on the same page with type, but looked rough and crude because the grain of the wood blocks made cutting them difficult to control.
Artists historically have used a fine-grained hardwood, like pearwood, for making woodcuts. The grain of the wood block runs parallel to the woodcut surface (“side grain“), usually along its length or width. This means that the carving of the lines will sometimes run parallel to (“along“) the wood grain, and other times will cross it. If the wood is very hard, cutting along the grain will be easier than cutting across it. Cutting cross grain causes the knife or gouge to be harder to control, possibly resulting in rough-edged cuts. The first European woodcuts were often very crude as a result of being made on side-grain wood blocks.