The past few days I've been thinking a lot about eraser carving and printmaking. This made me think about Barry Moser, considered by many (including me) to be the finest wood engraver alive today. He has a book, Wood Engraving: The Art of Wood Engraving and Relief Engraving. If you are interested in wood engravings or the work of this artist you'll want to get this book.
I loved what he said about learning the medium:
While I can really tell a student or an audience everything I know about wood engraving in an hour or so, and while it can indeed be understood in an hour or so by anyone in that audience, it will require of any newcomer years of persistence and dedication, indefatigable energy, and a little blood to perfect it. There are no shortcuts. You will find you have to make a great number of bad wood engravings before you can expect to make a good one. Engraving is its own language, and like anyone who hopes to master a new language, you have to learn the grammar. And, like grammar, you have to learn it, learn it well, and then forget it. There are, however, some things I can say to expedite our understanding of the medium—technical issues mostly: how blocks are made and how to sharpen tools; which drawing media are practical and how to transfer images; how to tone a block and why; how to print a block without a printing press. In the end, however, it will be the muscles of your forearms and hands that will do most of the learning and understanding. I once heard Vladimir Ashkenazy perform Mussorgsky's Pictures at an Exhibition for solo piano. It was a stunning performance—thirty-five minutes of pyrotechnique music. At his level of virtuosity, Ashkenazy had to be thinking of the music, of the 'picture' Mussorgsky was trying to describe in music—not chords or fingering the keys. At some point in his training, his muscles must finally have understood the basics, paving the way for him to be able to play that piece with such force and energy. So much force that when he sat down for his encore, he checked to make sure the keyboard hadn't come loose. This is muscle memory, and it only develops over time, through work, and repetition. It is a struggle at first, as with any new medium. But you move beyond that early stage in your work when, naturally, everything is going to be a little stilted and stiff, to a moment when, like Ashkenzay, you can focus all your mental energies on the images in your mind and on cutting graceful, thin white lines. Once your muscles know how to do their work, your mind will be free to invent.
I love Moser's description of learning the medium (any medium) as analogous to learning a language, a new grammar. And when I go sketching with friends like Linda and Roberta (the first who works linearly and captures an essence of things as if she were creating an icon or logo, a distillation, and the second who captures a representation of the particular without clutter and fuss) I get to see talented people working with their muscle memory and letting their minds create. It's a truly inspiring thing that makes me eager to practice some more, and some more, and some more.
The nice thing about journaling is that it rarely requires we give our blood for it (OK, sometimes when we are making books…but rarely). And any page that doesn't quite work out is simply more practice, and one step closer to a page which happens effortlessly. We can turn the page and have another go.
Keep turning those pages.