Understanding William Blake: Part 1

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The following chapter is excerpted from my book, Borg Like Me. It is the only pieced I’ve ever published about William Blake. Since he takes up so much of my interest and attention, and is so profoundly important to me, I decided I wanted to use my blog to delve deeper into WHY he remains so important to me and to share some of what I’ve teased out of his work. So, I decided to make this piece from BLM (which originally appeared in MAKE) serve as the intro to this series.

Next up: Gareth’s Essential Reader’s Guide to Blake.

 

WILLIAM BLAKE: PATRON SAINT OF MAKERS

William Blake. William Blake. William Blah, Blah, Blah. My family and friends (and social media friends and followers) are painfully aware of my seemingly inexhaustible prattling on about William Blake. You don’t have to hang around me for long before you’ll hear a dropped Blake quote here, a snippet of poetry there, or me quickly drawing some Blakean analogy for something we’re discussing, whatever we’re discussing.

The sad thing (for me) is that a lot of this falls on tin ears. Anything by or about Blake seems to have the uncanny ability to tax the attention spans of all but a stalwart few. I can almost count the seconds before I see eyes glaze over and begin to dart side-to-side, hands creeping toward smartphones itching to be checked for the latest Facebook Likes and Twitter alerts.

Over the years, I’ve come to think of understanding Blake and his art as analogous to learning a new language. You can’t just “speak” Blake overnight (or understand him being spoken). This is, of course, the case with any artist, thinker, or crazy person who’s created his or her own complex cosmology, as Blake did. So when people hear me frequently referencing Blake, I imagine what they hear is, say, Latin or German, or the adults in Charlie Brown cartoons. They think “Oh God, he’s speaking that weird language again that I don’t understand or really care about. HELP!” And away go their attention spans – “Hey, look, new kitty-cat memes on Facebook! HE-larious!”

A relatively new friend recently asked me how I got interested in Blake. As I recount in this piece, it was actually through the work of anthropologist and co-founder of the science of cybernetics, Gregory Bateson. In reading Bateson, and listening to his lectures, he frequently mentioned and quoted Blake and seemed to imply that there was some resonance between his work and Blake’s. I couldn’t imagine how this could be the case. How could there be significant common ground between an atheist scientist, naturalist, and pioneer of cybernetics, and a strange, maladjusted, mystical Christian artist from the turn of the 19th century who hallucinated angels and whose poetry we were forced to memorize in high school?

So, I went to Blake looking for what connected him to Gregory Bateson and the things that were significant to me about Bateson’s work. Since one of Bateson’s memorable maxims was to look for the “patterns that connect” (“…the orchid to the primrose and the dolphin to the whale and all four of them to me”) this seemed like a worthy quest. That quest has now consumed the better part of my adult life and my interest in Blake has long ago overtaken my interest in Bateson. And yes, now I completely understand what connects the two of them and their seemingly disparate ideas together. But I’ll let you go on that quest yourself—connecting them to each other, and them to me, and me to you.

This piece originally appeared in MAKE Volume 17, the Lost Knowledge issue (aka the steampunk issue), which I guest edited. I thought it entirely appropriate to put the work of William Blake within the context of the crazed, creative re-imaginings of Victorian science, technology, and culture represented by the steampunk maker scene of 2009.

 

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For the past 25 years, nearly every day, I’ve interacted, in some fashion, with William Blake, “the mad English poet” (as some contemporary detractors dubbed him). I poke my nose into one of the dozens of books I’ve collected, or I whisper (or shout to the rafters) a poem, or I chew on some gristly hunk of his ridiculously complex mytho-poetic cosmology.

For someone with the attention span of a four-year-old, having anything captivate me to such an extent is downright alarming. Equally strange is the fact that, I’m a writer. I live to communicate my ideas and experiences to others, yet I’ve never published a word about Blake. Until now. Why am I so fascinated by this apocalyptic, outsider artist (in his day, anyway) whose work still defies comfortable comprehension? What keeps me coming back?

In this article, I’ll explain a little of Blake’s invented printing method and make a case for why I think he’s a perfect candidate for Patron Saint of Makers.

WILLIAM BLAKE, 18TH-CENTURY ZINE PUBLISHER

I was introduced to William Blake in British Lit class in high school, but ironically, it was during the desktop publishing revolution of the mid-1980s that I started to understand what he was really all about.

I came to the real Blake by way of cybernetics pioneer Gregory Bateson. Bateson was fascinated by how Blake famously “mixed up” modes of perception in his work; Blake claimed he possessed something called “fourfold vision” and that he could simultaneously see things on different levels of awareness.

Bateson had studied schizophrenia for the Veterans Administration and discovered that, similarly, schizophrenics confuse and conflate, for instance, the literal and the metaphorical; they don’t organize thoughts, communication, and perceptions into logical categories the same way that non-schizophrenics do. Blake also seemed to leak at the margins separating these logical types of communication and awareness. Of course, one can argue that all artists do this, but it’s the extremes of the leakage in Blake’s work, the sheer quantity, and the complexity of it (and its surprising coherence, if you stick around long enough to sort it out) that makes Blake so compelling. Bateson was also intrigued by how functional Blake was while living in his world of perceptual and categorical mashups.

As I began to delve deeper into Blake, one day I had something of an epiphany. I’d gotten a lovely two-volume set of his most popular works: Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience, two of his masterpieces of “illuminated printing,” a technique of free-form engraving, painting, and printing he’d invented. Up until his discovery, illustration engraving and book printing were two separate disciplines, with the engravings etched, printed, and later, tipped into the books as plates. By combining these two arts on the page, Blake’s technique freed him to write text, compose pages, design typography, and paint illustrations, right on the copper printing plates.

I was reading about all of this while working on an art and technology zine I was publishing, called Going Gaga, using an Apple Mac SE running PageMaker layout software. I was doing a lot of the writing, designing, even some of the illustrations, right in PageMaker, and printing out my zine on the Canon copier sitting next to my Mac. I realized that Blake had experienced the power of a different, but surprisingly analogous, set of media tools and had felt a similar sense of explosive creative freedom, more than 200 years earlier. William Blake had been a proto zine publisher! William Blake was a multimedia artist!1

“ON ENGLAND’S PLEASANT PASTURES SEEN”

William Blake was born on Nov. 28, 1757, in Soho, London, in a modest apartment above his father’s hosiery shop. His parents were devoutly religious, but they were Dissenters (and at least his mother was probably a Moravian), nonconformists who opposed the established Church of England and its hierarchy. From an early age, Blake proclaimed religious visions, announcing that he could see angels and other nonphysical entities. His father tried to beat such nonsense out of him.

Aside from punishment for seeing apparitions, Blake’s early childhood was rather peaceful, even bucolic, as he wandered through fields on the outskirts of London, swam in farm ponds, haunted printmakers’ shops, read the classics and the Bible, and studied as much art as he could get his hands on. The rest of his life found him living through some of the most tumultuous times imaginable, including the American and French revolutions, great scientific and naturalistic discoveries, the dawning of the Industrial Revolution, and all of the intellectual ferment and cultural activity excited by these seismic shifts.

It’s no wonder that Blake’s subject matter was so epic, so apocalyptic — all fire, upheaval, and psychic magma on the one hand, and Edenic dreamscapes on the other. He saw tremendous potential in humanity and in the power of big ideas — and he dreamed of all of it coming to flower in his beloved Albion.2 But he also saw the horrors of war, poverty, and class division, of state and religious intolerance, and the shortcomings of science and reason when divorced from imagination and wonder.

Blake showed artistic promise at a very young age and was enrolled in drawing school at age 10. At 14, his father, ever the pragmatic tradesman, wanted his son to know a durable trade, so he signed him up as an engraver’s apprentice, where he labored for seven long years. It was as an engraver that Blake developed a lifelong love for Gothic art and architecture and for the nobility of the engraver’s and printmaker’s arts (though he resented being forever identified solely by those trades).

In 1779, at 21, Blake was accepted into the recently formed Royal Academy of Arts. He quickly found himself at odds with the teachings of the 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.”

BLAKE DREAMS A NEW METHOD OF PRINTING

In 1788, Blake claimed he’d been visited in a dream by his dead beloved brother Robert (who’d recently died of consumption) and shown a revolutionary new printing technique.

Unlike traditional engraving, where the image outline is scratched into a plate prepared with an acid-resistant waxy “ground” and then the lines are exposed to acid, Blake’s technique worked in reverse. The area to be printed was painted over with the acid-resist ground and then the plate was exposed to acid, eating away everything that was not the image.

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After etching, he would touch up the image and clean the copper plates with his engraver’s tools before printing the pages on a rolling press and then (usually) coloring the printed pages with watercolors. For Blake, “illuminated printing” was the artistic breakthrough of a lifetime, “a method of combining the Painter and the Poet.”

Anyone who’s looked closely at traditional engraving tools and techniques can appreciate how painstaking, labor-intensive, and constraining the process is (a square inch of engraving can take hours). Now, imagine a method of engraving that combines text and artwork, where creation happens right on the plate, where it is literally brushed and drawn on, using traditional artist’s tools.

Imagine how excited Blake must have been by such a discovery. Unlike traditional engraving, which was largely a copyist medium, a means of reproduction, Blake’s new illuminated printing was a means of original production where you could compose your ideas, paint them, right onto the printing plate.

To get a better idea of how illuminated printing worked, in 1979, Blake scholar Joseph Viscomi had a series of photos taken by Todd Weinstein in his New York studio. They were part of Viscomi’s attempt at preparing, executing, and printing a relief-etched facsimile of plate 10 of The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (1790). Blake wrote little about his technique, so his process is not exactly known. Few of his plates survive. Tragically, they were mainly sold for scrap metal after his death. Scholars such as Viscomi have managed to reverse-engineer the process and they think it went something like the sequence that Viscomi and Weinstein captured.

[Author’s Note: MAKE was given special permission to reprint the images from this etching experiment for my piece in the magazine. You can see these lovely and vivid color images on the magazine’s companion website.]

FROM THE FIRE OF LOS’ FORGE: PREPARING THE METAL

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In Blake’s poetic mythology, our inner poet/creative genius is named Los (likely “Sol,” or sun, spelled backwards). Los is a blacksmith, and given the preparations required to create the plates that Blake regularly worked on, it’s not hard to see how he would have made the connection between this preparation and the roots of his creations, both literally and figuratively. Copper sheets had to be hammered out and cut into smaller plates—planed, washed, and polished.

RAISING UP HIS VOICE: PAINTING THE TEXT AND ART

Once the plate was prepared, Blake painted the text and artwork onto the copper surface with quills and brushes, using an “impervious fluid” that would resist the acid to which the plate would be subjected. For this, he used “stop-out,” an asphalt-based varnish found in traditional engraving, used to cover already-etched lines to prevent them from being further “bitten” into during successive etchant baths.

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Because the designs would be transferred onto paper in an engraver’s press, the art and text all had to be painted in reverse. While Blake was already used to reverse composition in engraving, he raised free-form mirror writing and mirror painting to an art form in itself. (For a man who believed it was our life mission to do everything in our power to keep our minds active and awake, our imaginations expansive, and to look at things from multiple points of view, conceiving and visualizing everything backward must have been a great “mind hack” in support of this worldview!)

“MELTING THE METALS INTO LIVING FLUIDS:” ETCHING

With the image painted onto the copper with impervious liquid, Blake would then create a dike around the outside edges of the plate with walls of soft wax. This allowed him to pour a bath of “aqua fortis” (nitric acid) onto its surface. As the corrosive acid bit into the exposed metal, Blake would hover over the plates like some Shakespearean witch, using a bird feather to keep the acid agitated and to stir away bubbles as they formed.

The process, with its noxious fumes, was not pleasant. Some have even suggested that the liver failure that finally took Blake’s life was the result of “copper intoxication.” It’s no wonder that he called this an “infernal process,” and that in his satirical masterpiece, The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, he located his printshop in hell.

With his penchant for leaking margins between modes of perception, Blake proclaimed that what he was really doing in his artistic process was “melting apparent surfaces away, and displaying the infinite which was hid.” After the etching was complete, he would remove the acid and the wax dike, rinse off the ink with turpentine, and polish the plate before inking.

“WITHOUT CONTRARIES IS NO PROGRESSION:” INKING

Ink was applied to the etched copper plate with a flat-bottomed linen dabber wetted with engraver’s ink. The ink was made of a powdered pigment mixed with burnt linseed or walnut oil. For multicolored prints, Blake would use smaller dabbers or brushes to apply spot colors to desired areas of the plates.

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“IN WHICH KNOW LEDGE IS TRANSMITTED FROM GENERATION TO GENERATION:” PRINTING THE PLATES

Blake’s wife, Catherine, was his assistant in hell’s printing house and she was especially adept at printing and hand-coloring the printed pages. They used an engraver’s press (with the plate and paper on a bed that passes between two heavy rollers when the press is cranked). Blake would ink and deliver the plates to the bed and Catherine would place the paper, blankets, and backing sheets. Given the metalwork, caustic chemicals, oily inks, and other “infernal” aspects of the process handled by William, and the pristine and expensive white paper delivered by the lovely Catherine, it’s no wonder that he saw their extreme roles as a symbolic expression of the dynamic, two-toned, yin/yang life process, his “marriage of heaven and hell.”

“EXUBERANCE IS BEAUTY:” HAND-COLORING THE PRINTS

For his illuminated books, Blake and Catherine would hand-color the printed pages with watercolors to complete an edition. Some editions, and individual copies, were painted very simply, others more elaborately.

Over the years, Blake also changed, sometimes dramatically, the ways he colored the manuscripts. This could depend on his mood, or whether he desired to bring out some aspect of the work in a specific copy he was creating. This has allowed connoisseurs of Blake’s work to enjoy, interpret, and heatedly debate multiple versions of the same work from countless perspectives, something that surely would have thrilled William.

CREATE! THE END IS NEAR!

During his lifetime, Blake was uncompromising in his work and what he wanted to say with it. His art is so dramatic, so muscular and apocalyptic, because he felt an overwhelming sense of urgency. One can almost picture him as a crazy person on a street corner, wearing a sandwich board, waving around dirty fistfuls of doomsday pamphlets.

But instead of proclaiming “Repent, sinners! The end is near!” Blake’s message was more like: “Wake up! There’s an artist, a genius, asleep inside of you! Don’t let the world lull you to sleep. Create! Wake up! Be the artist you were born to be!”

And that message, steadfastly encoded like a fractal, endlessly reiterating itself at every level of his work, is what makes William Blake a worthy saint of makers, of all active creators.

Blake called his illuminated prints “windows into Eden.” They were designed to function something like stained glass windows, so you can see through them to something on the other side. What he hoped you’d catch a glimpse of there was your own creativity, your own “poetic genius,” the “Los” within you. Blake didn’t want to create work for you to passively consume; he wanted to create work that would inspire you to make something yourself!

Blake’s early biographer, Alexander Gilchrist, said: “Never before surely was a man so literally the author of his own book.” Blake was self-taught in every discipline but engraving; during his lifetime, he was a painter, poet, essayist, author, inventor, philosopher, engraver, printer, calligrapher, graphic designer, bookbinder, singer, songwriter, and metalsmith (to name but a few).

One of Blake’s best-known quotations is, “I must create my own system or be enslaved by another man’s.” And there is no more of an ultimate “maker” statement than that.

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Special Thanks:

Information about Blake’s printing technique used in this article comes from the article “Illuminated Printing” by Joseph Viscomi, available at the William Blake Archive. Many thanks to Professor Viscomi for providing the images used in the MAKE piece (which can be seen here)

Endnotes:

1. Some scholars have even argued that Blake was a hypermedia artist. Songs of Innocence and Songs of Experience are not only two poetic cycles connected to one another, with poems relating to youth and innocence, and complementary ones to age and experience, but they also contain additional images and textual passages that thread together in ways similar to linked content in a modern hypermedia document.

2. Albion is the ancient name for Britain. In Blake’s mythology, it also represented the “cosmic man,” the being who splinters through spacetime, falls from grace, and yearns for unity in a new Jerusalem. Oh, and BTW, Jerusalem is also the female consort of Albion. Blake, you naughty boy!


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This essays is included in my book Borg Like Me. You can learn more about the book and order it here.

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