Barry Moser holds a place among the top tier of the top tier of illustrators. He is one of the foremost living practitioners of wood engraving, an unforgiving medium in which he has developed a style characterized by studied realism and fine attention to detail. But he began his mid-August class at Zea Mays Printmaking in Florence, Massachusetts on quite another topic.
On a piece of newsprint, he made a line drawing of an apple, four times life-size.
What is this? he asked the class. Someone, suspecting that it was a trick question, ventured,
Bullshit. It’s charcoal. He showed his hand, now dusted black. He pulled the paper off the board and crumpled it.
And this is what it’s worth.
To drive the point home, he laid a piece of heavy watercolor paper on a table. Using a bedraggled Oriental brush, he moved a puddle of ink around into an abstract design.
I’m letting the brush do what it wants to do. He splashed some water at it in a few spots, then sponged up the deeper puddles. More ink went down as he studied the results with serious regard. He then reached for a stick of compressed charcoal and reinforced the brush marks with black lines. After 15 minutes of drawing, he deemed it finished, pointing out the variations in value and line weight. He then ripped the paper in quarters and threw it in the bin.
If I teach you anything this weekend, it is this: do not be precious about your work. Perfection is reserved for God. He smiled at the class, which was transfixed.
To make images in wood engraving, one is obliged to learn to draw with tiny knives on blocks of particular species of wood fashioned for the purpose, planed flat on the endgrain. (Carving on the endgrain distinguishes wood engraving from woodcut, which entails carving along the grain.) A block two by three inches costs $50. This may be the most precious of mediums. As I learned that weekend, it is also damnably difficult to control. Moser warned us in advance, with his characteristic Southern grandfatherliness, that we would produce nothing of merit on our first venture. This proved true.
At least some good blocks of boxwood were spared mutilation. Moser was an early adopter of a product called Resingrave, a wood substitute suitable for engraving and a fraction of the price of planed wood. This is what we used as well, which made it easier to avoid preciousness. But not much. Rendering rounded forms required a series of carved hatch-marks to be laid alongside one another with impeccable precision, each a little heavier than the next. This is the chief technical attraction of Moser’s work—these lines sometimes snake for several inches in lovely synchrony across his prints. That doesn’t sound like a long distance, but in this medium, it’s a light-year. Moser demonstrated his method for us, which is to carve a series of fairly uniform lines, then successively widen them with additional passes of the graver.
He divulged everything that could be explained. He spoke at length about wood blocks and Resingrave. He brought his favorite gravers and showed how to hold them and push them. He demonstrated how to use an engraver’s sandbag, made of heavy leather and designed to provide a comfortable carving angle. He sharpened some tools on two grades of Arknasas oil stone and stropped them with leather. Once we had some finished blocks, he showed us how to ink and print them.
Cutting is craft, he noted. That is to say, in wood engraving, the art goes into envisioning and drawing the work, less so in the carving, and least of all in the printing, in which one strives for uniformity and cleanliness of execution.
Printing is a marriage of paper, pressure, and ink. In explaining the myriad variables that affect the printing process, he conveyed that it was a marriage characterized far more by duty than inspiration. The ink must be of a certain viscosity, the paper an amenable weight, the application of ink upon the block sufficient to make a rich black but not so thick as to clog the lines in the block.
All the while, though, he came back to the nature of art itself. Chief among Moser’s achievements is his 1999 Pennyroal Caxton Edition of the Holy Bible, which proved by 2001 to be the only twentieth-century Bible illustrated by a single artist. He brought a copy to Zea Mays, along with some out-of-edition prints from its blocks. I particularly admired his young David, portrayed as a Jewish kid with an angry look in his eye and a sling pulled taut.
I am self-taught in everything I do now, engraving, book design, letterpress, typography. But I can do all these things well because I had an excellent foundation—how to make an abstract picture. In fact, it would have interested me to illustrate the Bible with all abstract images. But that wouldn’t have communicated much of anything to my electrician. Moser’s decision to illustrate, in the end, is an extension of his probity.
He would have been a fine abstractionist, but he found that he was better able to make art when he exiled himself from the kingdom of capital-A Art:
My day of emancipation, when I decided to stop calling myself an artist and start calling myself an illustrator, was one of the best days of my life. There is far too much bullshit in the world and I don’t want to add to the feculence. Since then I coined the term ‘bookwright.’ I think that suits me best.