Tuesday, 5 February 2013



The talk last Wednesday at Richmond on Thames was given by Colin Wiggins,
who I find to be an excellent lecturer, as well he might be, as he is Head of Special Projects at the National Gallery.

The talk was Prints and Printmaking, and Colin first of all stated his great interest in the print medium, stating that making pictures is his main interest, and he is most passionate about prints.

He started off talking about woodcuts, explaining that these early works, from Germany and other parts of Europe, were designed to reach a mass audience, they were the first impressions that could be produced en masse.  Particularly interesting was the images from Ars Moriendi, The Art of Dying, as people were very involved with the necessity of having a 'good death'.  Devils lurked under the bed of the dying….

Durer was the great printmaker, until Rembrandt came along. Durer worked with woodblocks but at first he was not allowed to cut his own block. He made the drawing, and then a block maker transferred his drawn line onto the wood, this explains why some of the early Durer images are crude and inaccurate. Colin showed examples of the original drawing by Durer and compared it to the final image from a woodblock. Durer then demanded that the cutters did a better job and the final images are those amazing prints that are so well-known. Follow the link above to see examples of these.

In 1498 there were images of 'The End of the World', because most people thought that the world would end in 1500 and the Apocalypse series was made.  These images were particularly disturbing and macabre.

Engraving, into a metal plate, was the new art form.  At that time copper plate was used, and the copper was made into a plate by a smith who hammered the copper flat. The copper plate was very amenable to the aim of an artists who wanted to create very black blacks.

The Burin, a pointed tool, cuts into the copper plate, which is then inked up.  Durer created the famous image of St Eustace in this way. The copper plate was covered in a layer of oily ink and then run through a printing press.

Another master of the technique is known as the Master LCZ, of whose work only a very few images remain, and nobody knows his name or place of work, but probably he worked in Germany.

Etching followed, and the usual method was to cut into a layer of 'hard ground' with a sharp tool, then the plate is etched in a bath of acid.

Etching is nowadays usually made on a zinc plate, as these days copper is very expensive, and in any way, copper plate is now run off in a press rather than beaten flat into shape.  This means that the blacks of a traditional etching print are not so deep and impressive, as the lined in the zinc will deteriorate if left in the acid too long.

Rembrandt is considered to be the greatest printmaker and Colin finds his etchings of greater fascination and magnificence than his paintings.

Unfortunately Colin did not have time to talk about the etchings of that other great master, Goya.

Rembrandt was one of the few Northern artists who never went to Italy, he worked on images of himself a great deal, and had a repertoire of expressions that he used.  Of course it is well known that he used his wife Saskia as a model too.  Colin showed us some magnificent prints by Rembrandt, particularly of a sleeping pig, the Pancake Seller, and various versions of a spectacular Crucifixion.

The lecture ended all too soon, when Colin talked briefly about the work of Gainsborough, who used acquaint, as did Goya, and the mezzotints of Constable. These were produced by Lucas and are in the British Museum Print Room, with Constable's notes.  

Lucien Freud also produced etchings, and apparently he wore his gasses to do them, which is why they are better than his later paintings - the paintings were done without the glasses!

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