Although the craft of wood engraving has now almost become extinct, it ha had a venerable history going back to the origins of printing. At the time that Franklin Booth was a farm boy growing up in Indiana, the only illustrations he saw in books and magazines were still reproduced by that method of cutting away the wood block into finely space lines which would be inked and printed to simulate the tonal variations in the artist’s original drawing or painting. Believing that the engraved lines were produced by pen and ink, he practiced endlessly to duplicate those delicate lines with a pen point, striving to become an artist himself. He also developed an unorthodox method of making detailed penciling of only a small area and completing the rendering in pen and ink on a page otherwise containing only a generalized concept of the completed picture. As he later described his procedure, “My drawings are usually somewhat involved and a completed pencil drawing to begin with would become smudged in places in the process of inking other parts. I finish a section at a time and often this will appear in the midst of white paper with penciled suggestions. This area also establishes values for the whole drawing. The starting point is usually a section showing the darkest darks, highest whites and grays…”*
The laboriously produced pictures look effortless; however, their skillfulness is entirely subordinated to he subject. It is in his picture concepts that Booth was unique. He was more concerned with ideas and ideals than in specifics. He took a long view that is an uplifting one, with a sensitive understanding and appreciation of nature as well as of man’s architecture in his work. Much of his work was commissioned to illustrate poetry and editorials, but he also brought dignity and stature to a number of advertising clients.
His work shows us much about the man who by his classical beliefs in art as truth and beauty. As one of his students, I knew him to be guided by the same idealism in his personality. Never dogmatic, he was gentle in criticism, always encouraging and he taught most effectively by expecting much of us.
While our concepts of art and truth may have changed in these more pragmatic times, his kind of idealistic vision is still needed and can still inspire us as much as ever by its example.
*Pen Technique by Franklin Booth, Frances Publishing Company, 1947