Little Basket (2010) and Big Basket (2011) woodcuts – a comparison

basket size comparison wm


These woodcuts were made to explore using woodworking knives, and different woods, for woodcut production. They are different sizes, and different woods – one is a scrap from a friend’s timber stash, and the other is generic wood from the hardware, and in typical fashion, I’ve forgotten what sort of timber it is… all I can tell you is that it’s not the right sort. Hard, and with a grain which makes carving hard.

Back in 2010 I could find very little written research about what was used to actually cut a woodcut or woodblock. My own thoughts were (and still are) that the very early European woodcuts would have been done by those who already carved wood, not artists or specialised woodblock cutters. So I asked a friend who carved wood, and he lent me some tools.

This is the knife I used for both the both the woodcuts, and it was completely the wrong sort of knife. It’s hard to explain exactly why it wasn’t right, but the short, straight blade made anything except straight lines very difficult, and the angle of the tip didn’t help much either.


Not the right knife wm
Above: a nice knife, just not the right knife


And this is what I used to clean up in the flat areas. A good tool, but made for wood carving, not hand cutting – both the handle and the shaft are too long for using as a close-up hand tool.


Cleaning out wm
Above: very good for cleaning out, but about twice as long as the knife above – subsequently hard to use in the hand


Here you can compare the grain of the little and the big. The little is softer, much easier to cut, but of course, softer wood will compact faster over repeated printings. It also has a more open grain which shows more obviously in the resulting print. The bigger basket wood is harder, and smoother, giving a better print result.


Little basket detail 1 wm  Big basket detail 1 wm
Above left: basket detail of Little Basket and above right: basket detail of Big Basket


Little basket detail 2 wm  Big basket detail 2 wm
Above left: foliage detail of Little Basket and above right: detail of Big Basket


At the time, I persevered, and I got a reasonable result. I believe my technique definitely improved from the first (little) to the second (big). However, it was a genuine struggle to get the detail that I managed.

I also managed to give myself a really bad case of tendonitis carving the larger block, as I struggled with what I thought was just a pulled muscle from the strain of trying to use the wrong knife on really hard, nasty wood. As I’d never had problems with tendons before (pretty much everything else, but not tendons), I kept going, instead of stopping, and ended up not being able to do a whole bunch of stuff for over 6 months. It’s still causing problems and limitations, but at least I know what it is, how to treat it, and when to stop now.


large basket block and print 2 wm     small basket block and print 2 wm
Above left: Little Basket and resulting print, and above right: Big Basket and resulting print


The image is taken from a fragment of a very early extant woodcut, that of Saint Dorothy:

Saint Dorothy wm
Above: Saint Dorothy, c1420, coloured woodcut, Staatliche Graphische Sammlung, Munich


A fragment, but what a beautiful, elegant fragment.

After these two woodcuts, I had to take a break, partly because of the tendonitis and partly because I wasn’t sure what knife to move onto. It was time for some more research and experiment.