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Dürer's woodcuts and engravings

Speakers: David Drogin and Beth Harris. Created by Beth Harris and Steven Zucker.

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  • leaf green style avatar for user 福龍丸
    On the left of the picture, there is a human skull. Were skulls actually displayed like this in the painter's time or in the Middle Ages/Renaissance in general? Were they serving any purpose except for their visual impression? Thanks.
    (15 votes)
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  • male robot hal style avatar for user KEVIN
    At how big is the actual piece of wood that the print was made from?
    (10 votes)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user Steven Zucker
      From the author:Hi Kevin,
      The print that Beth and David are discussing, Albrecht Dürer's the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, from 1497–98 is indeed a woodcut and the print is 15-3/8 inches high by 11 inches wide or 39.2 x 27.9 cm. Remember that this is a direct process, the inked wood presses against the paper to make the image so there is a one-to-one ratio in terms of size. The size of the image corresponds directly to the size of the block of wood that was carved, inked, and pressed. I hope this helps.
      (17 votes)
  • leaf grey style avatar for user Mathew
    What is the relationship between art and religion?
    (8 votes)
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    • leaf green style avatar for user 福龍丸
      Before the Renaissance (and after it for a significant amount of time) religion and art were so tightly intertwined, that art often made sense only in a religious context. The great (or at least the most famous) works of art from antiquity and medieval times had an inspiration from the divine, the mythical, the supernatural, and so did most of their obscure counterparts. Quite often, works of art were explicitly created to serve the religion or belief system, by being incorporated into temples, mosques, churches and the like.

      Certain works of art were also created to be worshiped themselves, as in the so called "pagan" peoples, all the way to monotheistic Christianity (for example the worship of icons in Byzantine times which even spawned a civil strife).
      (12 votes)
  • piceratops ultimate style avatar for user Matthew DeWard
    In the engraving work of Albrecht Durer, I noticed that there was a skull around the painting. Can the skull be meant to represent scholarly learning? Carvaggio made a similar painting of St. Jerome during his time. Leonardo da Vinci drew skulls and many other anatomical drawings. So I'm just wondering if the drawing of the skull in art has any Scholarly or knowledgeable connotations to it?
    (6 votes)
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  • leaf blue style avatar for user Julie Phillians
    Are engravings in reverse in the end? I can't seem to wrap my head around it. Does the burin cut through the metal and the ink leaks through from the top? I feel like that wouldn't work. If it's just grooves, and the ink is poured on top then wiped away, then would the paper be pressed on top (and come off in reverse)?
    (2 votes)
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    • starky ultimate style avatar for user Steven Zucker
      The latter. The burin cuts shallow grooves into the plate. When the plate is inked and then wiped clean, the ink only remains in those grooves. Then, when paper is pressed against the plate the ink is pulled out of the recesses by the paper and yes, you get a reverse of the image cut into the plate. Does that help?
      (9 votes)
  • mr pink red style avatar for user WallAvi
    On the woodcuts:
    What is the depth of the portions carved away?
    and
    What is the height of the wood remaining that receives the ink?
    (6 votes)
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  • female robot amelia style avatar for user silvina  rodriguez
    how long did this take to make a wood cut
    (4 votes)
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  • female robot ada style avatar for user Danielle IS AMAZING tbh
    What type of wood did Albrecht use? :)
    (5 votes)
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  • hopper cool style avatar for user Christi
    Does anyone still do art with woodcuts?
    (3 votes)
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  • aqualine ultimate style avatar for user theworldismybookmark
    How would shading be achieved in a print made with a wood block? It seems to be analogous to binary as far as I can see, with 0 representing not being shaved away, and 1 being shaved away. Was very fine cross hatching and similar techniques used, similar to shading produced in a tempera painting?
    (3 votes)
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    • leafers ultimate style avatar for user Raymond Phile
      The areas that are black are the raised areas of the carvings, or rather the areas that are not carved away. One way to achieve greater shading, although shading would be rather difficult to achieve with this style of printing, would be determined on the thickness of the lines or the areas of the wooden block that are not carved away for the print.
      (2 votes)

Video transcript

BETH HARRIS: We've talked about Durer as a great painter from northern Germany. But Durer was also a great printmaker. DAVID DROGIN: This is an excellent example to talk about Durer's printmaking, in part because it's a woodcut. There are several different types of printmaking that are popular in the late 1400s and early 1500s. And the woodcuts was the first and most popular type of printing at the time. There's a couple of reasons for that, but maybe one of the most important ones is the way that a woodcut is made. When we're looking at a woodcut like this, what we have to keep in mind is that all of the lines that have been printed on the page were raised up off the surface of the printing block. And so we need to imagine that on the piece of wood that this was printed from, when we look at this cloud, there was a thin piece of wood standing up from the surface. And the carver-- sometimes Durer himself-- had carved away everything that's white and blank. It's like a stamp. It's very labor intensive. But it's worth it in the end, because you can make a lot of them. And you can make money that way, as Durer did. You can spread your point of view that way, because they can be distributed. They're very portable. And so a lot of effort goes into it at first. But then once you're making the prints, there's a lot of them. They're inexpensive. They can be carried around easily. And so they helped spread your name or your ideas very quickly. I was going to say that they were popular because they could be combined with the printed word, which is printed more and more often at this time. Because, like letters in a typewriter, the images are raised up off the surface like the letters. And so they could all be combined in the same printing press and used together. He was interested in other kinds of media, too. Because although he could achieve, as we can see, a great deal of light and shadow and some detail in these woodcuts, there are ultimately limitations to the woodcut process, even though Durer was a great master, as we can see. And the primary problem is, as we've said, that you're cutting away what you don't want to print. It's not a very direct way of making a representation. You're not drawing with a pen or painting with a paintbrush. You're making the marks that you don't want to appear on the paper, if that makes any sense. And that creates difficulties. Also, it's very hard in a woodcut, to get very fine lines or very sharp details. Because if you want a very thin line, like the lines in the clouds are, to a certain extent, you have to imagine-- these are very thin thins, basically, of wood that are sticking up. And in the printing press, they might crush. So Durer is interested in other methods of printing that can give him the kinds of details and tonal gradation. And so what he's able to do is then, instead, later in his life, take advantage of the engraving printing technique, which is very different from the way a woodcut is made. The primary difference is that with an engraving, the gestures that you make are the lines that will appear on the paper. BETH HARRIS: Like drawing. DAVID DROGIN: Like drawing. With an engraving, you work with a metal plate. And you use a very sharp instrument with a V-shaped tip. It's called a burin. And you push that through the metal. The lines that you're making with this tool can be extremely thin. You can make the very faintest of lines. Here we can see how Durer's been able to achieve the kind of detail and textural nuances and subtleties of shade and light-- BETH HARRIS: Shadows and light, yeah. DAVID DROGIN: --that he would never, ever be able to achieve with a woodcut. You're carving the lines. Then the ink goes all over the plate, including in the lines. BETH HARRIS: And then you wipe it. DAVID DROGIN: You wipe off the surface of the plate so that the ink is only in the lines. And then you put it through a printing press that presses much harder than in a woodcut printing press. This is one of the disadvantages of engravings. There are a couple, compared to woodcuts. One of them is that, because of the high pressure of the printing press and the faint, very delicate dots and lines of an engraving, you can't make as many good prints. So you can print fewer engravings than you can a woodcut, surprisingly. BETH HARRIS: And that would make them more expensive. DAVID DROGIN: That makes them more expensive, along with the fact that the raw materials that you're using are also more expensive-- metal, instead of wood. BETH HARRIS: And by the way, this is "Saint Jerome in His Study," by Durer. DAVID DROGIN: This is "Saint Jerome in the Study," a later print by Durer from the early 1500s. It's amazing how he's able to achieve, with an engraving, the characteristic features of northern European painting, like the effects of light and shadow, the sense of texture, the sense of detail. And also this idea of the solitary man, working at, probably, the translation of the Bible that Jerome is famous for. That sense of devotion and solitary, pensive thought is also rather northern. We should also add that there are influences of Italian art here. It's quite evident that Durer has used one-point perspective. In the early 1500s, there were not many northern European artists who had the mastery of perspective as Durer did. BETH HARRIS: Yes, which he did. DAVID DROGIN: Since he had travelled to Italy twice in the 1480s. BETH HARRIS: [? It's a bit ?] showing off here, I think. DAVID DROGIN: Absolutely.