I have been fortunate to have had several of my books illustrated by the New York-based French artist, Raymond Verdaguer. I have always been inspired by his work and the beauty of his art. This blog post seeks to present this artist's unique technique and approach, and encourage readers to pay closer attention to his work.
Born of Catalan parents in a small village in the eastern Pyrenees on the border of France and Spain, Raymond Verdaguer arrived in the United States in 1969, first in San Francisco and then New York, where he pursued his artistic career. Since 1976, he has specialized with wood engravings and linocuts with exhibitions in the United States, France, Canada, and in Italy, which he has visited regularly in recent years.
Recurring Themes and Publications
Verdaguer traveled extensively in Europe first and then throughout the Americas. While in quest of new sceneries and experiences that ultimately fed into his creative process, Verdaguer discovered recurring themes that have permeated in his art:
"The work that we see and that looks banal has in fact always a very very long journey. This course is sometimes very painful and sometimes very happy but always very long. Themes that I believe to be new in my creative process, I found in Vancouver and Paris when I was on the banks of the Seine drawing the Pont des Arts or painting the city. I find the same themes appearing over the years / over the water of the Hudson and the Seine. Everything is a continuation. I find the themes of the boat over my work in Menton through Collioure and Paris and of course in New York."
Verdaguer's illustrations depict disillusioned and suffering people in a devastated environment, beset by monstrous technology and dubious interests. He takes an anthropological perspective: the person suffering now and the suffering person of all times and spaces. His work has appeared in newspapers and magazines such as The New York Times, Harper’s Magazine, The Wall Street Journal, San Francisco Magazine, Liberation, International Herald Tribune, Le Point, Le Monde diplomatique, and Courrier International. As a book illustrator, Raymond Verdaguer works for a number of major publishers in the US and Europe (Random House, Viking Penguin, TBR Books, and Editions de la Maison de l’Homme). Verdaguer prefers simple outlines and strong dynamic contrasts. He mostly deals with political-ethical topics.
Linocutting: Revelation of a technique as old as the world.
Linocut is a relatively recent etching technique. Linoleum appeared in England in 1863. Originally used to cover the soil, it was only around 1900 that it was used by artists as a method of engraving. It is derived from xylography (wood engraving), so we find the same technical principles: white savings size, stamp obtained by pressure and transfer of the ink arranged on the not excavated areas on the support. In his own words, Verdaguer deems "the technique ... childish and at the same time it has a long tradition."
Yet, for a novice, there is nothing simple to this art form. There are three main stages in the production of a print: creating the recesses that will ultimately form the white areas in the final piece and the work on the plate (the engraving itself), the application of the ink (the inking), and finally the transfer of the image engraved on the paper (printing, or printing). The tools used in wood engraving are perfect for linocuts - gouges are the basic tools. They are often sold in batches with a handle and interchangeable heads of different sizes and shapes (V or U). As part of a higher degree of mastery, it is possible to use finer instruments such as knives or scissors. After having degreased the lino with gasoline or talc, the inking of the linoleum plate is done with a roller. The entire surface is inked (professionals use an ink based on oil called typographic ink), then the process is complete and at this point the linoleum plate, now inked, can be used as a stamp.
"An engraving can be conducted in many ways and goes through several steps to be completed. The 2 main steps are as follows: The engraving must be legible. The reader must immediately understand the image, and the sketch must be printed on the plate using ink that looks like paint."
The technique that Raymond Verdaguer uses is similar to Chinese calligraphy. The paper is more like blotting paper fabric and, just like Chinese calligraphy, the gesture of the engraver must be precise and fast because the absorption is instantaneous. The colors used are basic colors: yellow, red, blue, black, white and transparent base. The transparent base makes it possible, from the same blue, to make the pigmentation which is diluted clearer. The inks are mixed on a thick glass plate. The dough material that best evokes this 'ink' is honey or any substance made from sticky sugar. Secateurs are then used to accelerate the drying process (with varnish for example, which gives transparency and gives a lively appearance to the image).
Video by Mike Kobal
When using linoleum, the print is lighter because the material is much thinner than wood. When the printing is finished, the plate is cleaned and recycled using a solvent. When we talk about engraving, especially in English, there is a confusion between the engraving that is a work in itself independently, and the actual printing and stamping. The first step is meticulous and precise while the second evokes this idea that the image is realized thanks to the force of pressing it onto the page.
"When it comes to responding to a request for illustration for a newspaper such as the New York Times, is a race against the clock as it often takes 24 hours to make a sketch. The sketch in ink can then be modeled on the computer."
For Verdaguer, the way the image is created is as much a part of the aesthetic as the image itself. Raymond Verdaguer has always claimed that it is better to make an engraving rather than a drawing with a pen. The engraving is indeed based on metal or engraved wood that can be anchored on the upper part of the plate. Pressure is then exerted for the portion on the plate to be printed–otherwise known as "relief printing". By exerting strong pressure, this color is transferred to the paper and a "mirrored effect" appears to see it in the right place. It is engraved as a trace-mirror and then printed on paper.
"The drawing / sketch is an interpretation of what the text represents. By tradition or courtesy, for a book cover drawing a drawing is proposed. This explains that drawing gives a false idea of the final product because some drawings that appeared in the drawing no longer appear in the engraving. The engraving corresponds to a translation into a drawing of what the book or article evokes."
With my book, The Bilingual Revolution, Raymond and I took this aspect even further as each version of the book has been illustrated with some variation, as is the case with the English, Spanish, German, French, and upcoming translations. With the cover of my book on American philanthropy in Africa, Partenaires inégaux, the artist's creation reinforced the theme of the book in a striking way, both book cover and book title working in synergy towards meaningful impact.
About the author:
Fabrice Jaumont, PhD is a French educator, researcher, and author based in New York. He currently serves as Education Attaché for the Embassy of France to the United States, a Program Officer for FACE Foundation in New York, and a Research Fellow at Fondation Maison des Sciences de l’Homme in Paris. Fabrice Jaumont is the author of several books, including Unequal Partners: American Foundations and Higher Education Development in Africa (Palgrave-MacMillan, 2016), Partenaires inégaux : fondations américaines et universités en Afrique, The Bilingual Revolution: The Future of Education is in Two Languages (TBR Books, 2017), Stanley Kubrick: The Odysseys (Books We Live by), and The Gift of Languages: Paradigm Shift in U.S. Foreign Language Education (TBR Books, 2019) with Kathleen Stein-Smith.
Interviews with Raymond Verdaguer took place between 2017 and 2018
Illustrations credit: Raymond Verdaguer