A Woodblock Printing Workshop with Adele Scantlebury

A behind-the-scenes look at an Adele Scantlebury workshop. 

Leaving Adele Scantlebury's Isfield home, I help her load the car with supplies for the day’s workshop. Having never done woodblock printing before, I am clueless about the various tools she passes me to place in the car boot. The workshop is going to be held at Wilderness Wood, in The Barn, their main building. It’s clear The Barn acts as a bit of a hub for art and community, with Wilderness Wood hosting a variety of events, retreats and workshops. One workshop is even hosted by Adele’s personal friend, Martin Brockman. Martin hosts a wood carving workshop at the site, and The Barn is filled with his captivating carvings that were originally part of a storytelling exhibit. The members of today’s Woodblock Printing Workshop arrive and Adele finishes setting up and greets them all.  The café workers make everyone aware that there is tea, coffee, and cakes for sale. Today’s group is rather large, a group of 8. Some have received the workshop as a Christmas gift, others have returned having enjoyed the workshop before and some are just keen to try something new. 

So, What is Woodblock Printing?

Woodblock Printing is the technique of carving an image into a flat piece of wood that will then be used to print the image onto paper or textiles. Once a carving is finished, the woodblock can be used to create and reproduce multiple prints. Adele talks to us about different types of Woodblock Printing and shows us some examples of other artists. We also look at some of Adele’s work, such as Running Horse (pictured below). She explains to us that we will need to decide what parts of our prints we want to appear white, which will use the negative space, and which parts will use ink. Running Horse is an intricate piece that uses the negative space to emulate light on the horse's back and add detail to the grassy meadow and leaves, adding movement to the horse’s gallop. She also asks us to remember that our prints will be mirrored when on paper. Luckily, Adele has provided mirrors for those like myself who had trouble envisioning this!

Carving our Woodblocks

Today we will be using plywood as it is easily available, affordable and accessible. Adele briefly delves into how different wood can produce a different final effect, for example the inclusion of the wood grain was commonly seen in Medieval prints. Each of the group chooses their piece of wood from the pile provided, taking into account what Adele has said about using the grain of the wood as part of our print. Adele also informs us that different cuts of wood may splinter as we carve them, and we are encouraged to think about how this could affect our finished prints. Some members are very prepared and have brought their own reference photos for their prints -  I had not even made up my mind of what to create at this point! Adele points out the reference books she has brought and we all leaf through them for inspiration. I settle on an abstract design of flowers and stars and begin sketching on my plywood, others have chosen countryside scenes, foliage and animals. As we finish mapping out our designs, we shade which parts we want to be chipped away at, which will then become negative space in our prints.

Adele moves on to teach the group about chipping, the method of carving for woodblock printing. We have been with provided traditional woodblock printing tools that Adele has chosen for their durability and ability to create detailed pieces. We have each been given a bench press as well, these will stop our pieces of wood sliding away as we chip our prints. At the head of the table, Adele demonstrates how to hold the tools and reminds us to always carve away from ourselves for safety. The most common tool we will be carving with are called gauges, a V gauge is used to outline our design and a U gauge is used to chip away at the bulk of the wood. Adele also shows us how to chip using the grain of our unique pieces of wood. Using the tools is not as effortless as Adele’s years of experience make it seem, both strength and control are needed to create the smooth shapes we have sketched out in pencil.
I struggled at first with my own woodblock, my wood was splintering more than I had anticipated and I took a while to grasp the chipping technique. I held my tools incorrectly and ended up chipping with my very sharp tools towards my face, but with some quick guidance from Adele, I was soon chipping away at the task at hand (pardon the pun). I had chosen to use a lot of negative space in my print, I did ultimately alter my design to cut down on the amount of chipping.

Creating our Prints

Once most of the group had finished chipping, we were ready to print!
We followed Adele through to the main room of The Barn where Adele had been busy setting up for the next stage of the workshop. Printing by comparison to chipping appeared much easier, but still required skill. Adele provided us with a choice of black and green ink for our prints today. She takes the tube and squeezes some onto the glass she has brought to protect the table. The ink is very thick and sticky as she covers a roller in it, advising that only a thin layer of ink is needed. For this demonstration, Adele is using one of her own woodblock prints. Once the roller is evenly coated in ink, she moves to get her paper ready for the print. Adele has brought a wonderful selection of Japanese handmade papers for our prints, all with different finishes. To print, Adele places her woodblock down and aligns her paper over it, once the paper is down it cannot be rearranged as this will smudge the image. Once down, Adele uses a combination of a wooden spoon and a wooden doorknob to press the woodblock into the paper. I was shocked when she said she uses doorknobs, but they work well to make sure all the detail of the woodblock is shown in the print. The amount of time spent pressing the paper into the woodblock, how much pressure is applied and whether or not you choose to reapply ink to the woodblock straightaway are all ways that you can alter the final print.

For my first print, I opt for green ink and orange coloured paper to match my funky design. Adele helps me get the splinters out of my woodblock with a paintbrush before I roll ink onto it to make for a smoother application. When rolling my ink, I manage to get it all over myself and the table but luckily Adele is armed with a cloth and a bucket of water! I press my print into my woodblock with a doorknob so I can get all the detail of the woodgrain in my print. Adele warns us that our first prints may be slightly faint as the virgin wood has not had a chance to soak up the ink. I did not have this problem as I used far too much ink!  This will also make the woodblock more robust and will make it will be easier to create future prints from it. Some members of the group go back to carve out another woodblock, with one member managing to carve 3 woodblocks in total! After experimenting with different coloured papers, I hang them on the washing line to dry. Adele has made make-shift drying boxes so that people can transport them home as the ink can take up to 1 week to dry fully.

At around 4 pm after an impressive 6 hours of carving and printing, the workshop comes to an end. Everyone walked away with an armful of prints and a new skill, with the group managing to fill up 2 washing lines with their prints. The workshop has been an excellent insight into the craft of Woodblock Printing, I left with a newfound respect for the amount of time it must take to create the detailed pieces in Adele’s portfolio.


Be sure to keep a lookout for Adele’s upcoming workshops and exhibitions on her Instagram @adelescantlebury as well her website!