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Wood Engraving art – Get to know Peter Bosteels
Artists, Techniques

Wood Engraving art – Get to know Peter Bosteels

Wood Engraving art

by Peter Bosteels

Who in his right mind picks something as strange as Wood Engraving to be an important part of his life?

It has something archival, it seems. To use wood engraving, a print medium already obsolete for over a century, in the contemporary art scene is, to say the least, a rarity. Especially when the interdisciplinary tendency is bigger than ever, such an elaborate skill based on experience and slowness, don’t fit the picture.

It’s exactly this that has convinced me to continue practicing it. Nevermore, the necessity to make a stand and cling to the technical approach and to visualize the ability, has been greater than before. It gives a feeling of rebellion and counteraction which show the imperfections of the contemporary dynamics. Slowness as a filter; elaboration as respect to the material; attention towards unmentioned details, which are overlooked but contribute to a refinement; these are all elements which would belong more in a book of Richard Sennett then on a website.

The depreciation of the public towards visual forms of expression with a technical undertone is related to the waves of an image of time within certain cultures. Wood engraving is related to western cultural evolution which started as a reaction to the first mass-media wave. This, once so popular image-creation skill went down because of his own success. The disintegration of the manual engraver industry was initiated by the incapability to satisfy the ever-increasing demand for images in a system in which itself has risen to the top as well as by to stay adaptable towards changing organizational aspects.

To be able to cope with the demand, a team of engravers needed to work on the same engraving. A big block was divided into many smaller blocks to be engraved separately and later assembled again to be finalized by the Master Engraver. This meant all engravers needed to use the same style. Individual creativity was not permitted at all and this way a ‘dry’ style was created. Engraving schools and companies thought only craftsmen and not artists.

After the commercial breakdown only, few artists- engravers were able to surpass the level of skill of the trade engravers and who were able to go beyond the illustrative character. At the same time, the image visualization during and short after the world wars had changed drastically and wood engraving got a connotation as being a witness of the past and was branded as being outdated. But this doesn’t mean the quality of the trade engravings were outstanding.

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The tip of the tool is pointed, but the sides are curved. This makes it possible to draw long, fluid lines which twist and curve gracefully, and which taper away rather than terminating in a flat or round edge. Used lightly, a spitsticker will score a thin line; the line will swell if the tool is engaged further into the wood.

Tint Tool

Designed for cutting straight lines of constant width.
The trade engravers of the Nineteenth century referred to a series of parallel lines as a ‘tint’. They used tints to depict color and form; by varying the width and spacing of the lines that made up their tints, they were able to attain a sophisticated range of mid-tones, between the white of the paper and the black of the ink.

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Like most of the people who want to create visual art images, the research on what sort of material would confirm the best to your choice of image in accordance with your character is best performed at an Art school.
In my days, to make a choice in this matter was not evident. The choices were limited, and one had to choose from the start and the number of options was very small. For some this choosing was frustrating but for me, it was a natural derivative of given circumstances. Even in my youth, I was enchanted by old illustration out of books and especially by 19th-century wood engravings.

At home, I went through several series of antique books and I admired the illustrations of dramatic events. To me, they all radiated an eerie atmosphere.

Only a relief printing technique, initiated from a black density is able to obtain that specific light.

I’ve always admired the way in which the engravers were able to translate the greys in dark parts as well as in the lighter greys.

My family are ebonists. Always the respect for the material and a craftsman’s approach was present. That’s why most of my images are only partly based on intellectual/ conceptual input. To me, the possibilities, provided by the material are an important creative link.

Practice-based creativity provides images out of an experience.

It took two years at the ‘Saint Luke’ Fine Arts Institute in Ghent to create my first wood engraving. The image was bad but I felt like coming home. Because I was raised in the ebonist shop of my family, it was easy to come by high-quality wood and the craftsmen in the studio were able to compose the best blocks ever.

There wasn’t a teacher who could teach me engraving and so I had to learn everything by myself. Most of my early engravings were copies and still-life, which served as studies on texture and translation. Only later I started a more artistic approach. Happily, the teachers saw that these works were parts of a working process and gave me the opportunity to develop further into this direction.

Wood engraving seemed to fit my person and the way I want to express myself. After my studies in Ghent I went to Antwerp. At that time Prof. Gerard Gaudaen, a well-known wood engraver, was director at the Royal Academy of Fine Arts and he has always been in support. Some years later I had the good fortune to become member of the teaching staff of the printmaking department at the Royal Academy myself.

During this period few students only have followed in my footsteps in this passion. Off course, The fact that young people connect less easy to the slowness of engraving and choose to create their images in a faster way, is evident.

This young eagerness, together with the specific demands of contemporary art education does not meet the learning curve of engraving in wood.

At the same time, the connotation people have towards wood engraving is one of old-fashioned and not conforming to contemporary imagery. In my opinion, this is a wrong assumption because in the East wood engraving is on the rise. Art educational centers organize specific wood engraving studios and wood engraved prints are present in exhibitions and competitions!

This engraving block is made of solid lemonwood, the properties of the wood allow for faster cutting which makes it ideal for those who are working to a deadline. It will still hold a large amount of detail. These blocks are type high and can be used alongside type in a printing press.

Booxwood is the ultimate quality wood, very hard and will take the finest lines – the first choice for wood engravers. Hand finished to “Type High” (23.32mm) or just under.

The melancholia of the light, so typical for late 18th century ‘Gravure de Teinte’, has me still in its grasp. It intrigues and inspires me. Because tactile creation is being pushed back in favor of the fast, indirect image creation, I want to be a counterweight to this trend but at the same time a negotiator between old and new visions. In my work, I like to use multiple layers which, on one hand, refer back to the old masters, in Fine arts as well as literature, and on the other hand have a message on today’s questions and personal experiences.

The seemingly contradictory action of destroying the long and tedious obtained result (the print or even the block), which I’ve done in my latest works, puts even more attention to this matter, as well as the framing in traditional recycled frames.

This article was written by Peter Bosteels and all images copyright © peterbosteels 2019

You can get to know him better on his Facebook.

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