In the Studio with Nick Wroblewski
Woodcut is a relief printing technique in printmaking. An artist carves an image into the surface of a block of wood—typically with gouges—leaving the printing parts level with the surface while removing the non-printing parts.
IAG-In watching the video of your work on your website, I am stuck by the complexity of the work you do with a process that is simplistic in terms of the tools used and the lack of technology. This concept is so intriguing. How long would you say it took for you to feel you had mastered the technique?
Nick- I wouldn't really feel comfortable saying that I have mastered this particular printmaking technique. I still have so much to learn and often just when I think I have an effect figured out, something surprises me and things go another direction. I have been making prints for more than 15 years and just now am finding that I can answer questions about troubleshooting woodcut printmaking problems. The experiences add up and contribute to a bank of knowledge that I draw upon for imagining new directions when making a print. This still doesn't mean I have it figured out.
IAG- It is evident to me that you have a reverence for the world around you. Do you make trips into the woods for your inspiration? What is this process? Do you take a camera?
Nick-I do try to put myself into outdoor environments that inspire. I am often looking for natural surroundings that are affected by qualities of light, have intriguing compositions, and share a unique gesture or movement that could potentially be captured or portrayed in a woodcut. Sometimes a woodcut emerges from a drawing inspired by a scene or feeling that I experienced while out hiking. Sometimes a piece develops from a series of photos I might take of a unique landscape.
After a few planning sketches, I'll usually then draw directly on the woodblock with pencil. After I am satisfied with the layout, I go over the lines with a pen, and then start carving. If I am working from a photo I purposely do not transfer the image mechanically. I like to leave some room for a bit of interpretation by the hand, and then finally some spontaneity while carving what will be the first layer of color.
IAG-I learned that you have a new book out with Mary Casanova, “Hush Hush, Forest”. How does this work? Does the author send you the text of the book or do you work on the book together?
In this case, the publisher put me in contact with the author. I committed to illustrating two books with Mary Casanova. “Wake Up, Island” was published in 2016 and “Hush Hush, Forest” was just released in September. I am given the manuscript and then I begin to develop sketches for the illustrations. I work with an editor from the publishing company and we go back and forth a little with the plan for the artwork. I was given a lot of freedom to develop the woodcuts for these books. In this case I did meet with the author before starting the first book. This was more for me to see the landscape that inspired the book and also to get a feel for the environment that the author writes from. Mary had a lot of trust in me to create the illustrations, she didn't influence my take on her words that much, but rather gave me free reign on the direction of the imagery.
IAG-The technique you use is ages old. I am not sure there are many still doing this work. Is it a dying art? Do you use any apprentices, or teach?
Nick-This art form is a slow way to make images. It takes a lot of patience and planning. Woodcut printmaking definitely lends itself to a particular type of person who is drawn to process oriented art making. I think it naturally weeds out a lot of people. I sometimes think perseverance alone may be one of the more important aspects of making artwork.
I haven't ever worked with an apprentice but imagine someday it might be a useful arrangement. I do like to teach printmaking workshops and usually offer a class once or twice a year. It's always a great experience and I find so many elements of the entire process reflected back to me in a new light. It helps student and teacher alike.
IAG-Once you make your prints can the woodcut be used again? I assume the last print you make erases most of the rest of your ‘canvas’. Does this mean that each color change (addition)for the print you create would have more negative space?
Nick-Most of my prints are reduction woodcuts, which means as each layered color is printed more is carved away from the woodblock. In the end, the block is basically destroyed and the resulting edition of prints are limited and cannot be made again. I like that this process requires a full commitment to the carving and that one cannot go backwards. Also, I appreciate the value of a limited edition and hope that viewers both relate to the handmade quality of a woodcut and the immediacy of something that cannot be replicated forever.
Wake Up Island was the first book that Nick Wroblewski and Mary Cassanova worked on together. Both books as well as printed cards can be found at Iowa Artisans Gallery.