Blake Dreams a New
Method of Printing
bucolic, as he wandered
through fields on the outskirts
of London, swam in farm
ponds, haunted printmakers’ In 1788, Blake claimed he’d
shops, read the classics and been visited in a dream by his
the Bible, and studied as much dead brother Robert (who’d
art as he could find. recently died of consumption)
The rest of his life found and shown a revolutionary new
him living through some of the printing technique.
most tumultuous times imagin- Unlike traditional engrav-able, including the American ing, where the image outline is
and French revolutions, great scratched into a plate prepared
scientific and naturalistic with an acid-resistant waxy
discoveries, the dawning of “ground” and then the lines
the Industrial Revolution, and are exposed to acid, Blake’s
all the intellectual ferment technique worked in reverse.
and cultural activity excited by The area to be printed was
these seismic shifts. painted over with the acid-re-
William Blake by Thomas Phillips, 1807
It’s no wonder that Blake’s sist ground and then the plate
subject matter was so epic, so apocalyptic — all was exposed to acid, eating away everything that
fire, upheaval, and psychic magma on one hand, was not the image.
and Eden-like dreamscape on the other. He saw After etching, he would touch up the image and
tremendous potential in humanity and in the power clean the copper plates with his engraver’s tools
of big ideas — and he dreamed of all of it coming to before printing the pages on a rolling press and then
flower in his beloved Albion. But he also saw the (usually) coloring the printed pages with watercolors.
horrors of war, of poverty and class division, of state For Blake, “illuminated printing” was the artistic
and religious intolerance, and of the shortcomings breakthrough of a lifetime, “a method of combining
of science and reason when divorced from imagina- the Painter and the Poet.”
tion and wonder. Anyone who’s looked closely at traditional
Blake showed artistic promise at a very young age engraving tools and techniques can appreciate
and was enrolled in drawing school at age 10. At 14, how painstaking, labor-intensive, and constraining
his father, ever the pragmatic tradesman, wanted the process is (a square inch of engraving can take
his son to know a durable trade, so he signed him up hours). Now, imagine a method of engraving that
as an engraver’s apprentice, where he labored for combines text and artwork, where creation happens
seven long years. It was as an engraver that Blake right on the plate, using pens and brushes, traditional
developed a lifelong love for Gothic art and archi- artist’s tools.
tecture and for the nobility of the engraver’s and Imagine how excited Blake must have been by
printmaker’s arts (though he resented being forever this discovery. Unlike traditional engraving, which
identified solely in that trade). was largely a copyist medium, a means of reproduc-
In 1779, at 21, Blake was accepted into the tion, illuminated printing was a means of original
recently formed Royal Academy of Arts. He quickly production where you could compose your ideas,
found himself at odds with the teachings of the and paint them, right on the printing plate.
school and its first president, Sir Joshua Reynolds.
Reynolds would become a lifelong artistic foil for
Blake, a two-dimensional symbol of everything he
found wrong about establishment art and art that
generalizes, abstracts, and handily categorizes; art
that no longer “rouses the faculties to act.”
Photograph courtesy of The National Portrait Gallery, London
2. Albion is the ancient name for Britain. In Blake’s mythology, it also represented the “cosmic man,” the being who
splinters through space-time, falls from grace, and yearns
for unity in a new Jerusalem.
58 Make: Volume 17