William Blake’s printing process

Michael Phillips demonstrates William Blake’s printing process, explaining how it relates to his work as a poet and artist. Filmed at Morley College, London.

More information about William Blake’s printing process is available on Michael Phillips’s website: http://www.williamblakeprints.co.uk

Some rights reserved. © British Library Board / British Library

William Blake trained as an engraver for seven years, beginning when he was aged twelve. It was in order to learn a trade as an artisan that would enable him to make a living and indeed, he depended upon that for the rest of his life.

Right from his earliest childhood, Blake was driven by two extraordinary and powerful aspirations. On the one hand as a poet, on the other as a painter and as he matured, but even during adolescence and as a teenager and young man, Blake was writing his first poems and making his first drawings, so how was he going to bring these two together in a form that would enable him to publish his own images in illustration of his own poems?

From the 16th century down through including the 17th and 18th and the beginnings of the 19th century, illustrated books were produced as the result of two workshops. On the one hand, a letter press printers workshop that was responsible for printing the text from raised lead type and a rolling press or copper plate printers’ workshop, where the illustrations were printed and laid into the blank spaces left following the printing of the text. Both workshops employed a whole succession of specialists who were responsible for each stage in the production process.

What's extraordinary, is just how profound and far reaching Blake's innovation was in terms of the production of his illustrated book of text and design, word and image. It enabled Blake, with the exception of making the paper, to be responsible for every stage in the production process, from writing the poems, making the drawings, using the stop-out varnish to write his text, etching and printing the impressions. When Blake realised how he might achieve a means by which he could print himself both his text and his design in one printing process, he used the stop-out varnish like ink and the copper plate like a sheet of paper and wrote his text in mirror writing onto the plate with the stop-out varnish and drew his design above, below or interweaving it. The stop-out varnish is critical because once dry, it prevents the acid, the mordant, from biting into or dissolving the exposed areas of the copper surrounding it.

His invention started with the choice of his pigments. Very limited, bone black, gamboge, yellow ochre, prussian blue, madder lake, two or three others, so that Blake would take tiny portions of the dry pigment and place it on the stone and then, using this honey like reduced linseed oil, put a drop of that on the stone and with his pallet knife, work it in and work it in. Blake worked up a sort of a leather covered dauber that he could then stomp into the ink that he'd prepared and only with the very delicate thin layers, gently touch or tap those raised surfaces, but because the pressure has to be controlled with such extraordinary skill, it's only possible to do this successfully by repeatedly gently touching these raised surfaces and building up microscopic layer after layer of ink until the raised surfaces are fully inked and ready to be printed. Inking with the dauber also creates a certain kind of texture or surface to the ink that is like under a microscope like the surface of the moon with peaks and troughs and hollows, which gives us extraordinary mottled effect when printed. With the plate inked, wiped and prepared to be taken to the press, Blake would take it to the bed of the press, lay it face up on the sheet that had been marked, gripping the star wheel of the press, hand over hand, the bed is passed between the two rollers top and bottom of the press and emerges on the other side, with sufficient pressure having been exerted by the rollers to transfer the ink into the fabric of the paper. The wool blankets are then lifted back and out of the way, the waste sheet lifted and set to one side and very carefully often using a folded piece of paper to protect from any ink on the thumb and forefinger, the printed sheet will then be lifted away from the copper plate and taken over and laid down to be pressed and dried.

In Blake's single room on the ground floor of number 13 Hercules Buildings, in Lambeth, he did it all.

Blake was an extraordinary original when it came to his thinking, his emphasis upon imagination. His antipathy toward, for example, to use but perhaps one of his best known expressions, ‘The Dark Satanic Mills’, the grinding, the machinery, all these things that it seemed to dehumanise his fellow man and there, right in the middle of his life, is this machine, this large lumping, huge, wooden, heavy machine, with this great star wheel that takes enormous pressure to turn and it creaks like a sailing ship and is absolutely at the centre of his life. He's not a Shelley, or a Wordsworth, or a Keats with a fine quill pen and ethereal thoughts staring up to heaven and glancing through his manuscripts and leisurely leaning back and contemplating what he's written and then passing it to his publisher to put it into press. Blake is a mechanic. He's this extraordinary man who is physical. Blake was not a big man, but he was enormously strong, enormously powerful – yet the creator of these extraordinary ideas and these extraordinary poems, that just go right to the quick of our imagination and our heartthrob as human beings.

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