How to do Woodcut Printmaking using a Dark-to-Light Technique
Woodcut prints are made by cutting a design onto a wood block or plank, then coating this with ink or paint and printing onto paper. Chiseling out all the unwanted areas of the surface leaves the design in relief.
Woodcut prints are usually strong, simple designs in monochrome or in just a few colors. Because of this, woodcuts have the advantage of being easy to reproduce, which made them a popular form of illustration before modern printing methods.By courtesy of Henry Mzili Mujunga, artist. . The wood block used for making your woodcut print needs to be flat and smooth. You will need small, sharp wood chisels, gouges and other tools to carve out the image.
The paints and inks you’ll need for printmaking are thick and viscous, so they will stay in place on the relief design instead of running off or beading. You’ll also need smooth, thick paper to print onto.
Traditionally, the wooden matrix was carved in such a way that the areas that retained the light colours were cut out first. This ensured that at the end of the process; only the black outline of the subject remained. With the dark-to-light technique, the process is the opposite.
Artist Henry Mzili Mujunga introduced the dark-to-light technique in printmaking to Uganda in the late 1990s, and it has become popular with young artists in Kampala.
STEP 1: SKETCH THE WOOD
Get a piece of wood. Here we are using plywood, because it is easier to cut in and readily available in Kampala.
Draw the image you would like to print. If you use simple, straight lines, they would be easier to carve.
STEP 2: CUT THE FIRST MATRIX
For cutting, you will need several types of blades. Mzili is here using knives in different sizes to cut, and V- and U-shaped gouges to scoope out.
When you cut, you need to be precise and follow the lines. The idea is also not to overcut in the beginning, because you will scoop out more and more as the printing progresses.
At the end, you have the first matrix.
STEP 3: LINE OUT THE BACKGROUND AREA
Put the matrix wrong side up on the paper. Try to place it in a central position.
You should map the matrix and the paper with an ’x’ in the bottom corner, to remember the orientation.
Then, mark lightly around the board.
STEP 4: MIX DARK COLOUR AND ROLL ON THE DARK BACKGROUND
Now, use pallette knives to mix the ink. The ink Mzili uses here, are handcraft blockprinting ink, in various colours. The background layer must be the darkest layer. Hence, use different dark colours to get the colour you like.
Make sure the ink get the right consistency, not to light or to thick.
Mzili here uses rollers to apply the ink. Apply ink to the roller, and use the roller to cover your background area. It is important to be precise.
Ideally, it takes around 45 minutes for the background to dry.
STEP 5: MIX A LESS DARK COLOUR AND ROLL ON THE FIRST LAYER
From now on in the printing process, you need to mix gradually lighter colours for each time you change the matrix by cutting and carving away bits of it.
Hence, the next layer should still be dark, but some what lighter than the background. If it is too light, that means you have skipped too many stages. If you’d like, you can use a variety of colours for the same stage, as Mzili shows here.
Apply the ink to the roller, and then roll onto the wood matrix.
STEP 6: PRINT ONTO THE PAPER
When the matrix is fully covered with ink, get the paper and put the wood block on the paper. This is called registration, and it is important that the marked ’x’s are aligned right.
Knock on the block a couple of times to make sure it fastens, then turn around carefully. Now, use the palm of the hand or some other appropriate objects to press the ink to the paper. Make sure the ink sticks.
It is a good idea to check if you like the outcome, by lifting one corner. Pull the paper off.
Now, you have the first print. If you want to make more than one print, use the first matrix to print as many copies you would like before the next step.
STEP 7: CUT THE SECOND MATRIX
While waiting for the first print to dry, go ahead with the next cutting.
Clean the wood block. Cut away the areas from the block where you want to retain the colours that were printed in the last step.
It is important to go gradually. And it is better to undercut than to overcut, because areas cut away can not be put back. It is also important to expand the existing lines, so that they don’t get blocked in the second printing.
At the end, you have the second version of your matrix.
STEP 8: MIX A LESS DARK COLOUR AND ROLL ON THE SECOND LAYER
Repeat step 5, mix a less dark colour and roll onto the matrix. Make sure the last print is dry enough.
It is best to mix the ink on the previous colours, in that way you can easily see that the colour is getting lighter. Once again, how many stages you plan to repeat, decides how much lighter the next printing should be.
STEP 9: PRINT ONTO PAPER
Now, repeat step 6. Once again, make sure the wood block is put down the right way and exactly the same place as previously.
Knock on the block, turn around, press the ink onto the paper.
Check, and pull the paper off if you’re satisfied with the outcome.
STEP 10: REPEAT STEPS 7, 8 AND 9 AS MANY TIMES YOU LIKE
The rest of the printing process is a repetition of steps 7, 8 and 9 as many times as you like. Cut wood block, mix and roll lighter ink, then print onto paper. Cut, mix lighter, print. Cut, mix lighter, print.
Finally, your piece of art is ready.