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UnderCurrents of Modern Engraving

by Barry Lee Hands

There are some strong undercurrents in modern engraving that may bring striking changes to the art of American engraving in the next few years. As engravers, we all have our style, our personal way of interpreting the layout and techniques that we choose to work in. This style comes primarily from the “school” in which we learned. A knife engraver we may work in his own style, but can perhaps be recognized as being from the Lindsay school, that is he may often use gold scroll lines with interweaving layout and fine shading. Or he may work in the McKenzie school, with strong bold Victorian scroll. A firearm engraver may also follow the McKenzie school, or perhaps he tends toward the school of American scroll, influenced by Nimschke and Helfricht. Some engravers work in more than one school.

Your own style comes from your school, its written or unwritten rules of form, and your own vision of how to “do it my way". These schools, or the many others not mentioned, exist inside what traditional art historians sometimes call ”Structure”. Structure has been defined as the broad view of the arts that is in the mind of the Artists, the public at large, and by the critics. In addition it is our conception of what art is, and what is acceptable as art. The Structure of the art of engraving, which is recognized by engravers and the collectors of engraving, exists within the larger structure of the fine arts.  If one works within the structure of his art, and with exposure to the audience he is seeking, he will often gain some recognition by his peers, and if successful, renown from the public and collectors. Some may like the work, some may dislike it, but it will be accepted and recognized as Art, good or bad, according to taste. If one works outside the Structure, they are usually dismissed, derided, or, in the rare case, hailed as a genius for having the vision the go beyond the established norms, and actually expanding the world of art, adding to the Structure in a new and original manner

Today there are many young engravers entering the field, whose idea of structure, a concept perhaps unknown to them, includes a far broader view of the arts, than many of the older more established engravers and their schools, within which the young Artists work. Many incorporate ideas of art which they have seen in computer graphics, the Web, Anime, Celtic, Tribal, Gangsta chic, and Tattoo art that are very new to the world of engraving. Some of them are working in existing schools, and rein themselves in, not wanting to step outside the bounds of acceptable work. As they draw and plan and create they may be inexorably drawn to, and heavily influenced by the Structure of the wider world and youth culture, which is forming their own personal styles.

Example engraving by Rick Simmons

Recently in the many currents of these individual styles one may see the beginnings of a commonality. When a grassroots shift in style adjusting to a new world view of structure achieves commonality, and when the participating artists understand this and move forward together, they inevitably create a new school. An example of this in painting was the impressionist movement.

We may be seeing this type of undercurrent take place now. It can be observed in new ways to approach layout, scrollwork, banners, lettering, and figures. It remains to be seen if in the next decade, or perhaps even the next couple of years, this change in style consolidates and becomes a new school, and perhaps even expands the “Structure” of the fine Arts.

It is truly an exciting time to be an engraver.

Barry Lee Hands
Bigfork, Montana February 12, 2007



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