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Tom Gurney BSc (Hons) is an art history expert with over 20 years experience
Published on June 19, 2020 / Updated on October 14, 2023
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This was a truly extraordinary human being, described by many as a true genius. He is seen as one of the most influential Britons in history and his oeuvre is just as diverse as it is high in quality.

William Blake was born into a society undergoing upheaval at that time and he himself would not receive formal education. This perhaps helped to keep his thoughts as pure as possible, and allowed his uniqueness of mind to persist. This deep thinking individual would create his own personal form of mythology and combine this with skills across a number of artistic disciplines as well as literature too.

Most of his artworks combine several of these together, such as his pen and ink illustrations that were finished with touches of watercolour, or the publications on which he worked which placed his drawings and poetry together. There seems no limit to his creativity and innovation, but it was only years after his death that his achievements started to be truly understood and appreciated for the first time.

Creative Mind

Many revolutionary thinkers have struggled for acceptance during their own lives, when the rest of the population is simply not ready for these outlandish views. Without a formal education, perhaps some would have dismissed him as a madman, where as today's public and academics are a little fairer and more open minded.

Within the 20th century there have been a number of individuals who have helped to build on his reputation, taking some of his art or literature and extending it into their own careers. There has been an interesting variety of figures, many particularly contemporary, who have gained inspiration from his work and perhaps that helps to underline just how relevant his career is even today.

Blake's own family did not entirely confirm with the expected religious beliefs of the time, which immediately placed them slightly on the outskirts of high society. It also encouraged the young William to question the society around him and not to just accept everything as was. The present day appears to consider Blake as more famous for his poetry than his paintings, but the two were closely linked throughout.

The Bible would be the inspiration to many of his painted illustrations and he also rejected the notion from an early age that humans could hold powers equal to God. The Bible would also provide much of his early education, read by his mother during his period of home-schooling. He would later speak positively about this experience as well as the avoidance of being forced along the same path as other children.

"Both read the Bible day and night, but thou read black where I read white"

William Blake would learn most from artists of the past and he frequently examined their work in London in order to uncover their various techniques and ideas. He came across a number of works by the likes of Michelangelo, Raphael and Durer, some originals and some were high quality reproductions.

Access to art was much harder then than it is now, but London did retain an impressive collection even back in the 18th century. Aside from that, many would make use of the detailed publications which examined some of the more famous artists from the Renaissance and these were much more freely available. An examination of some of the artist's best known artworks do display elements of influence from these Renaissance masters, merged with many elements of his own unique ideas and artistic techniques.

Early Apprenticeship

The seven-year apprenticeship completed by Blake in his early years would teach him the fundamentals of engraving and he would immediately set up as a professional artist once it was complete. The style of his master, James Basire, is considered to have been fairly traditional at that time and whilst he learned a lot from this experience, he is likely to have wanted to go in a very different direction stylistically.

As he grew older, the artist would start to gain confidence in his own judgement but the early years as a professional artist were far from comfortable, dotted with lowly attended exhibitions and many negative reviews. His strength of character and stubborn inner belief ensured that he carried on regardless. The artist worked in London for almost his entire life and found sufficient connections and avenues of expression and study to remain in this vibrant city happily.

Role in Printmaking

William Blake liked to persuade others that he worked entirely spontaneously but, in truth, this is unlikely to have been the case. His work in printmaking would inevitably become somehat monotonous over time, though the reproductions were essential in supporting himself financially. He would also have a fairly clear schedule of working whilst training as a student, with most in the Royal Academy sectioning off different parts of the day in which they would tackle certain mediums, with drawing often being completed in early morning.

That said, in later years he was known to leap from his bed during the night when a particular thought would enter his mind. He would even prepare his house in a way that he could work from very early in the morning, when the desire arose, but without waking his wife.

"The true method of knowledge is experiment"

The engraver was fortunate to enter this market when it was at it's most healthy. The price of paper was low, meaning he could maximise profits from each engraving that he produced. This was a tiring and long artistic process which led to some dirty tricks within the business, sometimes leaving other engravers unpaid. Over time the European wars would cause many to tighten their belts and this would damage the printmaking industry, but Blake was already well established by that point.

Trading engravers had a number of tasks to complete in order to bring their prints to sale, going far beyond just the techniques that you would initially consider. For example, they would need to prepare the necessary inks and plates as well as amending the paper so that it would be ready to accept the design. Post-print, there may then be more work required in order to complete each artwork. The value would therefore be in the designed engravings, which could then be purchased after the artist's death and more reproductions produced.

Printmaking had the additional benefit of circulating an artist's work to a much wider audience, with these reproductions being fairly affordable to a large number of the public. That said, this does not include where individual work has been added afterwards, such as touches of watercolour washes over the darker lines. Over a span of several centuries there was a number of famous artists who made use of this medium to promote their best work across the country, and sometimes into lands abroad.

Rembrandt, Goya and Durer are these examples of printmakers who were able to quickly build a reputation from which their work in other mediums could then take advantage. The etching and printmaking techniques used by the likes of Blake are too complex for many artists to consider in the present day, but there will always remain a following for retaining these traditional methods, as shown by the likes of William Morris in the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Switch to Etching

It was in his early thirties that William Blake first started to experiment with a technique called relief etching. This method would become his main way of producing books, paintings, pamphlets and poems which were able to combine both his written word and visual magic together. He would essentially draw and paint the words of his poems into plates before applying acid which would leave behind the completed design. This went against the traditional methods of etching and was a technique that the artist created himself.

He found that this route of production could create his books much faster, with individual prints having additional touches of watercolour applied before the sleeves were then stitched together in order to produce the final books. Whilst this feels extraordinarily time-consuming and labour intensive today, this was accepted as the norm in the 18th century and also helped to add a particular charm and uniqueness to his publications which is particularly appreciated today in our homogenous society.