Reading, Drawing, Seeing Illuminated Books


Joseph Viscomi *


As a man is, So he Sees. As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers.

(Letter to Trusler; E 677)

Perception, according to cognitive psychology, depends on the “skill and experience of the perceiver” (Neisser 13). If so, what is true of cognition is also true of the study of art: one can see only what one knows how to look for. Consequently, our “anticipatory schemata (together with the information actually available) . . . determine what will be perceived” (Neisser 20). Or, as Blake put it: “As the Eye is formed, such are its Powers.” Reflecting on the formation of his own eyes—or schemata—Blake could say that “the only School to the Language of Art” was “Copying Correctly” the drawings and prints of the masters (E 628; Bentley, Records 423). By copying Blake meant drawing, which is a most effective way to become visually literate, technically proficient, and historically informed. More than a grounding for painting and engraving, drawing could transform looking into seeing; as Kandinsky points out, it was “a training towards perception, exact observation and exact presentation not of the outward appearances of an object, but of its constructive elements, its lawful forces . . .” (Lambert 75). Blake seems intensely aware of this complementary relation between hand and eye, between making and seeing, as exemplified by Los but negated by Urizen, who writes his book on the laws of unity with his eyes closed.

Concern for my students’ powers of observation has led me to develop an exercise in which students make drawings of illuminated prints. They use a method analogous to illuminated printing, which entails drawing, and thus learn about Blake’s composing and printing processes as well as about his prints. They learn to see his particular use of line and gesture, mass and negative space, composition and color. In this light, their reading of Blake’s illuminated books becomes literally a “hands-on” experience, analogous to the complementary relation between hand and eyes, making and seeing, embodied in Blake’s Los and enacted in Blake’s graphic-verbal art.

In 1788, Blake began to experiment with relief etching, the innovative printmaking process he used to create Songs of Innocence (1789) and Songs of Experience (1794) and most of his other beautiful illuminated books. In The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (ca. 1790), he referred to it as the “infernal method” and described it as “melting apparent surfaces away” to display “the infinite which was hid” (E 38). In practical terms, the method involves four basic stages: drawing a design on a copper plate with an acid-resistant varnish, etching away the unprotected metal in acid to bring the design in relief, printing the plates on an etching press, and coloring the impressions by hand in watercolors.

It is inviting to think of Blake, the visionary artist, as having cunningly contrived all manner of innovative techniques instead of intelligently adapting the current printmaking technology to his own needs. But the truth is that the four stages of illuminated printing are not difficult and the tools and materials of each stage commonplace. The difficulty is making illuminated prints that look like Blake’s. The purpose of any class exercise, however, is not to make printmakers or facsimilists out of students but to demonstrate how technique gives rise to different kinds of images, how the materiality of Blake’s execution affected what he said and saw, and, perhaps most important, to enable the student to gain access to a way of thinking and seeing like Blake’s.

Some scholars have suggested that Blake used illuminated printing because it enabled him either to combine text and illustration on one plate or to escape the division of labor inherent in reproductive engraving. That the medium appealed to Blake technically and aesthetically is no doubt true, but text and illustration can be combined, and complete control of production secured, in intaglio printing also, as the etched plates to The Gates of Paradise and The Book of Ahania demonstrate. Only in relief etching, however, could Blake write and draw autographically and reproduce certain book conventions, such as facing pages.

Blake’s basic tools were pens and brushes, and his main material, besides copper plates and acid, a liquid medium. Together these implements exert far less dictatorial control over the hand and eye of an artist than do burins (or any other metal tool heavy with convention, technique, and translation), making possible spontaneous looking and calligraphic lines. Indeed, the execution of the design in illuminated printing is drawing in a literal sense: one produces rather than reproduces the appearance of drawing and writing because the acts one engages in are writing and drawing. With no resistance to the hand, the execution of the design is autographic, and, formed by a dark “impervious liquid” on a copper plate, the design is positive and direct. That is, the marks made by the tool are dark on a light background, unlike those in etching, which are light against the smoked ground, and they are the marks that directly print—unlike those in woodcuts, which do not print but delineate a shape that does. But like woodcuts, relief etchings are essentially two-dimensional, boldly contrasting black-and-white forms because, unlike intaglio lines, relief lines are all on the same level, receiving equal amounts of ink, and thus are incapable of producing tonal gradations.

But the way the design is put on the plate is entirely different from wood-cutting in tools, technique, and materials. If illuminated printing has a graphic-art analogue, it is lithography, which was called polyauthography when first invented (1796-98) and is neither intaglio nor relief but planographic. Although the marks made in lithography have tone, they too are made autographically (with either a greasy ink [tusche] or crayon), and, more important, they print as they appear on the stone, instead of being translated into another kind of line. The lines Blake drew on the copper plate in asphaltum varnish would have retained their character in the print: fluid monochrome pen and brush lines on a metal plate. The main difference between the design on the plate and the print is due not to the slight thinning of the lines caused by acid but to the whiteness of the paper, which throws the design into much bolder contrast, revealing the purity of the forms and accenting its lack of detail.

To the untrained eye Blake’s design looks very detailed, but the nib of a pen and the tip of a brush cannot make lines as fine as etching needles or burins. Given the basic materials of brushes, pens, and a liquid stop-out varnish, firm and simple outlines are inherent in the medium, making line, not detail or tone, the medium’s natural language. That Blake should use this kind of line in relief etching is due in large measure to the tools, the medium’s inability to define tone, and the small plate size, all of which subordinated detail to outline. Given these tools and materials, Blake could freely conceive, compose, and execute in the same medium and at the same time—the essential aspects of drawing on which illuminated printing is grounded.

Because of the central role of drawing in illuminated printing, the facsimile exercise I use concentrates on executing the design, the first stage of Blake’s process. We draw and write with fine quill brushes and real quill pens, though metal nibs are permitted. Instead of Blake’s impervious liquid, copper plates, and acid, we use materials, analogous in appearance, feel, and method, that even the untrained can easily manipulate. In place of copper plates, we use four-ply copper-colored mat board; in place of asphaltum var­nish, we use a dark-brown water-soluble drawing ink, the color of the varnish. For printing and coloring, we use a relief etched plate I have already made and we color the impressions. I show slides of those stages of the process that cannot be done in class or the studio, like preparing the copper plate to accept the varnish, biting the plate in nitric acid, and making ink and watercolors. Since my slides are unique, I suggest using photographs in readily available manuals like Chamberlain’s Etching and Engraving. In this way, we experience Blake’s process in all its stages.

Blake would start with a hand-hammered piece of copper, which he would plane and polish with oil, and then degrease with whiting to remove the oil so the design would adhere to the metal and not the oily film. Since matboard is analogous to polished, degreased plates, we skip this laborious but important step. The board, however, is already cut into roughly equal-sized plates. Consequently, the size of the plate, or “support,” affects what the student can and cannot do, as I believe was true for Blake. Although eighteenth-century etchings and engravings began with copper plates that were usually bought from coppersmiths already cut to size, Blake seems to have cut his small plates out of larger sheets of copper himself (Viscomi, Art 2-3). If the Innocence plates were cut out of larger sheets, then the number of desired parts into which a larger sheet could be cut—and not the design, letter size, length of text, and shape of the illustrations—would have determined the size of the plates. Even for Innocence, then, and not just for Experience and other illuminated books executed on the versos of earlier plates, Blake would have had to design within fixed shapes and sizes rather than cut and shape plates to fit existing designs.

The next step is to draw and write on the plate. But because a print is the mirror image of its plate, letters print in reverse unless they are written backward. It has long been suggested that Blake wrote his text on specially treated paper and counterproofed it on the plate, but Robert Essick, the leading expert on Blake’s printing processes, and I have independently come to the conclusion that Blake did not use this method (Essick, Printmaker 89; Essick, “Review” 49, 49n; Viscomi, Art 4-8). Instead, Blake worked directly on the plate, writing his text backward, a skill neither difficult for, nor uncommon among, engravers, and one that we know he had mastered (Bentley, Records 212n1, 460n1). He would have drawn the illustration directly also, which explains why illustrations in the illuminated prints are the reverse of their sketches.

Working without a transfer means working without an original copy or, since we are really talking about pages in a book, without a makeup of the page design. In this method, therefore, the relation of text and illustration is not determined before the design is drawn on the plate. Unlike the copy engraver, Blake was not reproducing already existing designs, and unlike the chalk engraver or other facsimilists, he was not imitating the media of original designs, since these designs per se had not yet been invented. The few pencil sketches of illustrations that exist are studies and ideas; poems, whether written in pen or pencil, are manuscripts. Independent of each other they are only raw materials and do not constitute designs or copy to be reproduced. The image drawn on the plate, then, was the original invention, because it was the first time that these raw materials came together and were actually composed and set as designs and pages. In illuminated printing, as in drawing, execution and invention were inseparable.

Since the size and shape of the plate preceded the design, and since Blake executed the design directly on the plate without a makeup or transfer, the relation and proportion of text and illustration are variable and not predetermined, invented only during the execution of the plate image. This method of composing meant that Blake, unlike letterpress printers, could not cast off copy. In a narrative poem, he did not know what stanza would go on what particular plate, or how many plates the poem would need. Working without model or copy forced him to compose his pages seriatim rather than in forms. Such a composing process allowed each illuminated print and book to evolve organically.

To reproduce Blake’s composing process, then, and not merely the appearance of his prints, students need first to learn reverse writing. Aside from simple practice letter by letter, one especially effective technique is to place a mirror next to Blake’s design and to copy the image reflected in the mirror, text and illustration, as one integrated form. As with upside-down drawings, the left side of the brain doesn’t recognize the patterns and allows the subordinate right side, which is designed to process visual information spatially, to take over. Writing backward a text already known is drawing words: words cease to be symbols or names and become forms, marks, lines, things. Students need also to copy a few songs in different sizes, copying the design—not the coloring just yet—as closely as possible, first as seen, which forces attention to the minute events taking place in the composition, and then in the mirror, which forces them to see the design holistically as a composition. With this preparation, the student is ready to compose designs in Blake’s style for the in-class exercise.

Students bring to class a short poem or song, with, preferably, a thumb­nail sketch separate from the poem. They also bring a fine brush (.000), a quill pen, and a board on which the plates can be placed. The board is slanted at about forty-five degrees, like a scriptorium, and the pen kept horizontal to the desk. This position facilitates writing the text (especially if one were to use real asphaltum varnish). The teacher supplies the plates, which have already been cut to the size of the Songs, and the brown ink, which can be dispensed into shells, the traditional vessel for ink and watercolors.

The students begin by writing the text. The main technical difficulty they will encounter is not in writing backward but in giving the letters the proper slant. Blake wrote Roman and pseudoitalic scripts, both of which we see in Songs; probably for technical as well as aesthetic reasons, the latter came to dominate. Italic script looks more difficult to execute, but to connect letters and to give them a slant in the direction the pen is moving is actually easier than to write one letter at a time with a vertical axis while moving from right to left. Because there are fewer letter ends to coordinate, an italic script makes it easier to keep lines straight and words the same size. Besides simplifying the writing of the text, italic script also simplifies biting the plate: words are better protected against foulbiting and undercutting when fewer letter ends are exposed to acid.

Whether writing an italic or a roman script, students must keep the space between lines tight or break it up with ascenders, descenders, and interlinear decorations. As they are composing text and illustration, they need to imagine how their design will be affected by the second and third stages, biting the plate in acid and printing it in ink. A tightly composed design need not be etched as deeply as one with open areas, which further reduces the chances of the design’s lifting off of the plate in the acid bath. By filling out lines, interlinear decorations become part of the relief line system, and by decreasing the number of open areas, or shallows, they help to keep the ink dabber on the surface, thus preventing ink from touching those areas bitten below the surface that are to print white. (Blake himself did not seem to follow any set rules to determine which he executed first, text or illustration.) Note too that in the Songs, the illustration is usually placed at the bottom of the print, unless the poem is very short or very long; the long poem’s need for a second plate makes it possible to start with an illustration without crowding the text.

The objective of this exercise is to give students a clear idea of Blake’s composing process, not of how the design is put in relief. Consequently, we use no acid and produce no printable plate. Extending the exercise to include printing plates and coloring impressions requires a relief plate, a rolling press, oil-based relief inks, and printing papers. I use a facsimile plate I made according to Blake’s technique; for nonprintmakers, I recommend having an unmounted line block made of an uncolored Songs impression in The Illuminated Blake. A commercial printer can do this from a photocopy for a nominal fee.

One can print a relief plate by burnishing the paper from the back. Blake, though, used a rolling press, and you may want your students to experience the “machinery” of printmaking. Such a press may be found in the college or university’s printroom. Use commercially made relief inks, which are easier to handle than intaglio inks, the kind Blake seems to have used, and spread a thin, even film on a marble slab. Apply the ink with hard rollers rather than with the cumbersome but traditional linen ink dabbers. The paper should be pure rag (such as Arches Heavyweight or Rives BFK), cut to quarto and folio sizes, and printed damp, which produces better impressions and was standard practice in Blake’s day (Viscomi, Art 24n30). The paper should be soaked in a tub or tray of water for a few minutes before printing and the excess water blotted off.

Inking the plate, preparing and registering the paper, and pulling the plate and paper through the press are jobs that can be divided and rotated among three students. Each group of students should print impressions in either Blake’s early or late printing style. In the former, the plate, with its borders wiped of ink, is printed in a cool color (like brown) on both sides of the sheet. In the latter, the plate with borders is printed in a warm color (like orange) on one side of the sheet. These impressions can then be painted at home in imitation of Blake’s early or late coloring styles (as reproduced in the Trianon, or more accessible Dover, facsimiles of Innocence, copy B, and Songs, copy Z). The palette should consist of the following watercolors: Prussian blue, gamboge, yellow ochre, Indian red, umber, black, vermillion, rose madder, and alizarin crimson. Note that, in the early style, colors are applied thinly and sparingly and not at all to the texts and that, in the later style, the palette is fuller, the colors more layered, the texts washed, and the designs given frame lines. The final step is to gather the impressions and bind them between two sheets of laid paper by tying string through three or more stab holes, the binding Blake used, knowing his buyers would have the books bound professionally. When bound, the impressions printed and colored in the early styles will face one another and function more like pages in a conventional, text-centered book; the impressions printed and colored in the later styles will function more like individual paintings and effect a different kind of relation with the reader.

“The activities necessary for producing a facsimile can themselves lead to insights about the originals” (Essick, “Review” 49). Indeed, they help us understand Blake as a printmaker and artist by forcing us to see more in the art and see more like an artist. Seeing “behind” the surface reveals what is not apparent, the alternatives and choices Blake had and made in his own compositions. To know how and why this or that mark was made, to understand its relation to all the marks around it, to begin to grasp the orchestration of all the minute events taking place, the relation (sometimes interdependence) between text and illustration (and their equality as markings), is to see the work as opposed to merely looking at it. Such an exercise in making also provides the opportunity to move from seeing to vision, from altered perception to altered state of awareness.

[*] Approaches to Teaching William Blake’s Songs of Innocence and of Experience. Ed. R. Gleckner and M. Greenberg. New York: MLA, 1989.67-73.