Creating anything with an organic material such as wood is both challenging and hugely rewarding, particularly if your aim is to work with and show off wood as a medium rather than hide it. Woodblocks have been used in printmaking for millennia, with the earliest surviving example originating from China and dating back to 220AD. Ordinarily a carved wooden block is used to repeatedly print onto paper or cloth, with the woodblock itself seldom celebrated, and in modern printmaking wood has long-since been replaced by more easily worked materials such as lino. We recently discovered a Cornish artist though whose one-off pieces are the woodblocks themselves, and who turns to the sea for much of his inspiration. We were full of questions, so caught up with him to find out more about how he makes his wooden works of art. Meet woodcut artist Robbie Jones:
A question that people often ask of us regarding our surfboards is, ‘Why Wood?” and I guess that you must also get asked the same thing. What led you to creating your art on the medium of wood, and why do you continue to use it?
Before I was making woodcuts I was drawing in a way that resembled traditional woodcuts, and after some research I decided to try it out for myself. I love seeing other printmaker’s wood blocks after they’ve printed with them and see them as the artwork instead of the print. All the work that went into that woodblock is sometimes cast aside in favour of the prints, whereas I prefer it in its original natural form. I’ve always loved the organic properties of wood and transforming something from nature into a piece of art.
How does the organic nature of the wood that you use, the patterns of grain and knots, affect your work?
Working with a medium like wood that can have a lot of imperfections does make it more of challenge, but I love all the characteristics that the different grains and knots add. Sometimes I’ll have to change the designs slightly to work around and incorporate the knots into the artwork. I try to utilise the grain of the wood as a textured background pattern to add depth to my woodcuts.
What timbers do you use, and do you have to be selective in what you use so as to avoid features such as knots?
I first started using pine as it was easy to come by and it was good for practicing whilst I was getting used to working with wood. Later on I found an old book filled with woodcutting methods. It suggested using birch plywood as it carves smoothly and wasn’t full of knots. Also a huge factor in using birch plywood is that I’m able to cut it into any shape or size so almost any idea is possible.
What is the process behind one of your works?
I always start with a rough sketch in my notebook and then develop the design further until I’m happy. After that I’ll re-draw it to a scale and apply the stencil onto a sheet of birch plywood. Then I’ll cut out the shape with a jigsaw, sand it all down and apply a layer of paint. Once all that’s dry, I’ll re apply the stencil and begin to carve out all the lines. Finally I’ll tidy everything up and apply a layer of varnish to protect the wood. It’s a fairly lengthy process, but it’s always a satisfying feeling seeing the final product.
How did you learn and develop these techniques?
Using pen and ink drawings I had, it was mainly trial and error to transform them into woodcuts, playing around with different styles and methods. Finding out which gouges worked the best with different types of woods until I found a style that suited me the most.
What tools do you use?
I use a hand jigsaw and mini palm gouges for carving, much like the ones you’d use for lino cutting.
So they’re part sculpture, part print? In that you use print-making techniques, but that the printing block is the final artwork, and therefore each one is a true one-off?
Yeah that’s pretty spot on, I use print making methods to create the woodcut but never actually print with it. I love making each piece unique. Sometimes I get people asking me to make the same piece again but that gives me some freedom to make something similar but with lots of little changes to keep each piece unique.