Studio Views: The Woodcutter’s Dance

sv bowen woodcuttingtools Studio Views: The Woodcutters DanceBlue. The cold rugged face of the Wintermaker is blue. So is the wide border. The duck and the tree branches are green and purple. The smoke from the wigwam is yellow and orange. To make this image come about, I make a woodcut. Each piece of wood will print only one color at a time. For starters, I carve away anything that is not to be blue. Each part of the picture can be solved by a yes or no question. Blue or not blue?

Cutting these blocks is like solving a puzzle. I think it is like trying to grasp a piece of music that is sounding in my head. A tone sounds vaguely as I imagine the story and the characters and the moment that I am making a picture about. To hear the music, I must find the notes on the piano, or make the rhythm as a dance. To see the picture, I must pick up this piece of wood and cut.

The motions of carving are vigorous, pulling an X-Acto knife to define the edges, and pushing a gouge to tear the wood away. I dump off the chips and turn the wood so the light goes across it, and the shadow shows the progress. My feet crunch across the chips on the floor on the way to the press. Lock the block in place. Roll the ink across the marble slab, then onto the block. Grip the paper in place. Crank the steel drum to pass over the block. Up comes the print. For the first time, the shapes are visible, the blue face is actually shouting its message. Some tone has left my head and has printed itself onto paper.

I will start the sequence again for the purple. Then my picture will have three notes — blue, purple, and the chord that is the overlapping colors.

Author’s note: I work in a print shop that is in a little room off the side of Sterling Dance studio.

From the March/April 1998 issue of The Horn Book Magazine: Special Issue: Picture Books.

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