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Botanical Art History – Pictorial Printmaking


“The love of wilderness is more than a hunger for what is always beyond reach; it is also an expression of loyalty to the earth, (the earth which bore us and sustains us), the only home we shall ever know, the only paradise we ever need – if only we had the eyes to see.”  Edward Abbey

Dear Friends:
It is pretty clear that from the beginning botanical art and illustration has been in the service of botany.  Our need to understand the botanical world around us, and its influence on our health, has not changed since the beginning of time.  What has changed over time is the expression of that information and the methods by which we the artist and the audience inform and become informed. 

The earliest natural history reference is seen in cut stone or clay tablets and captures something about the physical world and human experience in visual language.  For the individual discoverer, botanical art was portrayed for the select few and recorded for reference and used by those whose purpose it was to record and retain such information: perhaps the teacher, the philosopher, the tribal medicine man, the clan’s mid-wife, etc.  Early hand written and illuminated manuscripts that recorded botany were one-of-a-kind masterpieces that until the advent of printmaking had to be reproduced by hand and such copying as we discussed in previous newsletters only distorted the information.  The necessity to reprint information exactly and distribute it to a wider audience influenced the onset of printmaking.
 Pedanius Dioscorides
The road that leads to pictorial printmaking “was ever uneven and many external factors affected its course, some beneficial, others retrogressive.  As a result, botanical prints and illustrations range from the crude to the magnificent from the patently experimental to the technologically sophisticated.  In the long term botanical artists were very well served…At its inception, however, this new technology, which was principally concerned with multiplying words, was slow to devise successful and economical methods for accurately reproducing graphic works.” Gavin D.R. Bridson, “Printmaking in the Service of Botany,” 1986, Hunt Institute for Botanical Documentation – reprinted with permission.

10th Century Buddha
Printmaking originated in China after paper was invented about 105 A.D.  Relief pr
inting first flourished in Europe in the 15th century.  “Daring ideas are like chessmen moved forward.  They may be beaten, but they may start a winning game.” – Goethe.  The greatest influence of success was at the hands of Albrecht Durer who raised the art of picture engraving to a truly detailed, fine art form. His quest forged the road for future printmakers.  In 1503 he created, “The Large Piece of Turf” and documented the natural world so that scientists could study it in detail.  He created more than 100 engravings, etchings and drypoints and more than 300 woodcuts. 



Likewise, Rembrandt’s engravings and etchings were used to run editions for almost 300 years continuously.  Unfortunately, printmakers who would endeavor to create pictorial prints found themselves at a disadvantage because the skill of their workers could not compare to the height of expertise found in great artists like Durer and Rembrandt.



Even though great botanical art was plentiful in the 16th century, the earliest botanical book illustrations left something to be desired.  The early era of botanical illustration reproduction is marked by the best-known botanical incunabulum (book printing prior to 1501) published in Mainz…”Hortus Sanitatis,” or “the Garden of Health” in 1491.  Rich in pictures it paved the way for future publications leading the way to the last great English woodcut herbal “Theatrum Botanicum” in 1640 by John Parkinson, which describes over 3000 plants with 1755 pages.

After woodcut printing new methods of printmaking catapulted book publishing.  The methods of printing pictures fall into three categories that relate to the printing surface and not the image:  1) Relief, 2) Intaglio, and 3) Planographic.

1) Relief:  “Woodcut” printing involves cutting out a design in relief on a block of wood which leaves the designs on the surface after the spaces between are cut away.  This design, referred to as a Matrix, is used to make an impression on a piece of paper, thus creating a print.  The ink is applied to the surface portion and not allowed to run into the cut portion.  The paper is then pressed onto the woodblock and picks up the ink from the surface of the wood.  The printed portion of the paper, depending on the pressure, is compressed because the paper is moistened slightly before pressing in order to pick up the ink more easily.  This form of relief printing was used until the early 1500s.  It is the earliest and most enduring print technique.

2) Intaglio:  For an intaglio surface the image is incised or etched into wood or metal in reverse.

            a.  Wood Engravings are made from the end grain on a block of wood.  Designs are cut into the wood in fine lines affording great precision and detail.  Then the paper is printed in the same way as in copper engraving.  This method was used simultaneously with woodcuts.

            b.  Metal Engravings for printmaking were made during the mid 1400s but the method was not used extensively until the mid 1500s.  After the invention of mechanical presses and the popularization of printed materials in the late 1700s and early 1800s, steel became the metal of choice because of its capability of producing thousands of pulls from a single plate.  The ink is rubbed into the grooves cut in the metal, and the excess ink is wiped off the surface.  This leaves ink only in the engraved or cut out lines.  The paper is then moistened and pressed onto the metal plate with great force, picking up the ink in the grooves.  The great pressure required leaves two kinds of imprints on the paper.  One is the “bite” or lines made on the paper where it was pressed into the grooves in the metal.  This corresponds to the printed part.  The other distortion of the paper is the line or dent around the edge called the “platemark.”  Copper, is a soft metal and therefore easier to engrave than steel allowing more artistic freedom and producing prints with a warm and rich feel.  Copper also allows for changes and corrections more easily.  However, because of its softness, engraved plates yield only several hundred prints before wearing down, cracking, or breaking off.

            c.  Etchings are designs that have been “etched” or “eroded” on a metal plate by acid.  After coating the surface of the plate with a waxy mixture to give a hard, smooth film, the design is cut through the coating with sharp instruments (scribes) exposing the metal below.  The areas between the incised lines are left coated. The plate is then immersed in an acid bath that bites or etches the exposed metal.  The coating is then removed and the plate is ready to be inked for printing as in any other intaglio or engraving process.
3) Planographic:  A Planographic surface is a flat porous stone, or a gained metal plate.

            a.  Lithographs are prints taken from just such a flat surface.  A drawing is done with greasy crayons, pens, or pencils.  Then a solution containing Gum Arabic and dilute nitric acid is washed on the stone (or plate) to fix the design in place.  The entire plate surface is washed with water and then inked.  Print paper is applied and sent through a press, transferring the image from the surface to the paper.  To achieve a tonal lithograph, one would use two stones or two plates.
            b.  Offset Lithographs are prints created by transferring an image from a stone, or plate, to an intermediate surface and then to the print paper. 

            c.  Chromolithographs are printed on a textured surface. 

            d.  Mezzotints require the entire surface of the plate to be roughened by a spiked tool called a rocker, so that, if inked, the entire plate would print in solid black.  The artist then works from “black” to “white” by scraping (or burnishing) out areas so that they do not hold ink, yielding the mezzotint’s modulated tones.

To quote Mr. Bridson again, “a print is only ink and paper, perhaps with added watercolor.  But the nature of the paper, the way the ink sits on its surface and the method of application are features that contribute to the character of a print and are worth of study.” 

I wish you and all of yours very blessed holidays and a new year filled with peace, miracles, and lots of love etched in stone! 

God bless.  OM


  On Talking


Kahlil Gibran

And then the scholar said, Speak of Talking.
And he answered, saying:
You talk when you cease to be at peace with your thoughts;
And when you can no longer dwell in the solitude of your heart you live in your lips, and sound is a diversion and a pastime.
And in much of your talking, thinking is half murdered.
For thought is a bird of space, that in a cage of words may indeed unfold its wings but cannot fly.

There are those among you who seek the talkative through fear of being alone.
The silence of aloneness reveals to their eyes their naked selves and they would escape.
And there are those who talk, and without knowledge or forethought reveal a truth which they themselves do not understand.
And there are those who have the truth within them, but they tell it not in words.
In the bosom of such as these the spirit dwells in rhythmic silence.

When you meet your friend on the roadside or in the market place, let the spirit in you move your lips and direct your tongue.
Let the voice within your voice speak to the ear of his ear;
For his soul will keep the truth of your heart as the taste of the wine is remembered
When the colour is forgotten and the vessel is no more.

Excerpt from The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran

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