Breathing Life into Wood Engraving
Sally Hands has been a printmaker for 35 years. Previously she worked in lino- and woodcut but now works exclusively in printmaking as a wood engraver.
She is an active, elected member of Society of Wood Engravers and has exhibited with the Society, the RWA (Royal West of England Academy) and Wales Contemporary, and in 2017 won the John Purcell Prize at the National Original Print Exhibition. She has work in several public collections, including the National Library of Wales.
Like the “happy accidents” printmakers are so familiar with, Sally came to wood engraving in a rather happenstance way about 10 years ago. Feeling she had said all she wanted to say with her current way of working, Sally was looking for a new approach.
She sold her printing press and ordered some very large pieces of plywood with which she intended to make woodcuts, to be burnished by hand. The wood failed to arrive, but she did have a couple of engraving tools and a small boxwood block of only 5 cm square which she started to work on. She hasn’t looked back since.
Sally readily admits that she does everything at speed, and one reason she enjoys wood engraving is that it has made her slow down: the wood is very hard and the tools make very fine marks.
It takes between two to three months to cut a 12 cm square block, the size she usually works with. She has made a number of larger prints, up to A3, the blocks for which each took nearly a year to complete.
Another pleasure is working with a natural material: Sally’s preference is for boxwood. She uses a magnifying LED light which means that the block doesn’t get hot. Because the blocks are end grain cuts of wood, they will crack if they become hot or get wet.
Although Sally is working in such fine detail, making tiny marks, the expressive energy of her previous woodcuts has carried through. She cuts freely, lending her wood engravings a lively style, different to that which you would see in more conservative, traditional wood engravings.
Working in black and white also appeals to Sally. “It asks a lot of you to make something out of it”, she says, adding that her wood engravings are “more like etchings, with lots of grey”. Sally used to make etchings which sold well but she changed to woodcuts because she wasn’t comfortable with the etching process and because woodcuts were much more accessible – she could work on a block at home when her son was young.
If she wants to use colour, she will turn to watercolours or perhaps in the summer, take her iPad or phone outside to draw on. She does this simply “for fun” and sees it as separate to her printmaking It is also a very different approach to how she draws for a wood engraving; where she will happily use her finger for an iPad drawing, for wood engraving it’s always a fine 2H pencil.
Trained in drawing and painting at Edinburgh Art College, Sally’s drawing skills are crucial for her work: “when it’s a good drawing, it will be a good print,” she says.
She feels drawing well is vital for wood engraving generally: “Every mark is a drawing mark that you cut.” And with art students now not drawing as much, she feels this will affect artists and wood engravers coming through in the future.
Sally almost always draws from life. In situ drawing “makes you really look and it breathes much more life into your drawing.”
She draws round the woodblock onto paper so that she is working directly with its size and then makes a lot of drawings before creating a composition from several of these. Originally she drew direct on to the wood but now makes a lot of landscapes where the image needs to be reversed before it is cut. The composition of several drawings is done on the table at home.
Her prints are not illustrative, she is looking to create a piece which will be interesting to cut, with lots of angles and tones. Once she has her composition, she scans this and reverses it onto the block.
The reversal of the composition creates a separation between it and the image she is cutting. In fact, once the image is on the block, she won’t refer to the original drawing again, making any alterations on the block. “The finished piece is what matters not the original.”
She almost never makes changes to the block after proofing the print and then will print up a part of a big edition (usually 20 at a time) using a very thin layer of letterpress ink and the Albion press in her home studio.
When she has a print she is happy with, she always wants to move on straightaway to the next piece and back to the cutting process which she enjoys so much.
During the pandemic, like many artists, Sally adapted her approach to printmaking, taking inspiration from closer to home.
She worked on still lives – creating compositions from objects in the house, flowers and sometimes animals. She created a print of a friend’s dog, using video so that she could see and capture the animal’s movement.
But her main focus of work was on landscapes, including the “real” landscapes (landscapes of mainly trees and undergrowth) which Sally had previously been reluctant to attempt, feeling she wouldn’t know how to cut them. Sally took local walks and would then return to a particular spot to draw in situ.
The Path Ahead is Sally’s favourite Lockdown print, her first and very successful attempt at a “real” landscape.
Going forwards, landscapes of south Wales, in particular the Valleys and Port Talbot, will remain her passion and focus. In these prints, man-made objects or people are often included which contrast with the natural environment, making commentary on the human influence and impact on nature.
Sally is a long time supporter of Swansea Print Workshop and she has offered a selection of prints for sale, the proceeds from which will be donated to SPW. These can be seen and purchased on our main website
More of Sally Hands prints, including her recent work, can be purchased via her website: https://www.sallyhands.co.uk/
Sarah Jackman | writer | https://sarahjackman.com