For years collectors have wondered: what is the “art” in Arts & Crafts?
Is it Impressionism? Hudson River School? Pablo Picasso and Cubism? The California Plein Air movement?
Naturally, there is no right or wrong answer, as many art movements were taking place during the thirty or so years that Arts & Crafts remained in style.
But one particular technique – the block print – which originated in the Far East and emerged during the first quarter of the twentieth century, is one which we now associate with the Arts & Crafts movement.
Often referred to as woodblock prints (a reference to the blocks of hardwood hand-carved for each color in the finished print), block prints were often carved using linoleum, which proved easier and faster to carve than hard maple.
We went to our resident expert Steven Thomas, who specializes in woodblock prints of the Arts & Crafts era and who regularly leads Small Group Discussions at the annual Grove Park Inn Arts & Crafts Conference, where he exhibits each February. Steve offered these helpful tips:
1. Before you buy, familiarize yourself with woodblock prints by reading articles and books, going to shows and museums, and talking to dealers and collectors. This will give you an understanding of the medium, make it less mysterious and also serve to develop your “eye.”
2. Study catalogs published by dealers, museums and auctions to see what’s out there and, in the case of dealer and auction catalogs, see what similar or the same prints are bringing.
3. Use Google, Yahoo! and other search engines. Start with “woodblock prints – Japanese”, “woodblock prints – American”, “woodblock prints – Arts and Crafts” or other permutations and see what comes up. Here, at your fingertips, is a world of images and information.
4. Don’t be afraid to ask questions. Dealers, auctioneers, and other collectors are all sources of information. Serious dealers and other collectors will be happy to answer your questions. The more you learn, the more questions you may have – and all of this will help “flesh out” your knowledge and feel for this market.
5. Understand the importance of condition to a woodblock print (or any graphic item for that matter). Original prints that have serious condition issues (tears, holes, scrapes, etc.) are worth a fraction of one in good or better condition. Talking to dealers will help you learn about condition expectations. Buying from a respected dealer will safeguard you from getting into serious trouble.
6. Buy what you like. If you’re going to live with something, love it. If you are considering a work by an artist who just had a big museum show or exhibition, but you are not fond of their work, pass on it. Big or small name, if it moves you and you can afford it, then the item is for you.
The great thing about woodblock prints is that they are apt to pop up just about anywhere, including estate sales and garage sales. Compared to art pottery and Arts & Crafts furniture, relatively little has been published about them, making it possible for the well-informed collector to walk away with a fabulous print for very little money.
For more information, please go to Steve’s website at http://www.woodblock-prints.com.
Top: Arthur Wesley Dow, “Clam Houses,” color woodcut, c. 1900. Courtesy of www.woodblock-prints.com
Bottom: Waldo Chase, “Mirror Lake,” c. 1927
This article has been republished. Original date of publication: May 16th, 2016