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William Blake

“What is now proved was once only imagined.”

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About William Blake

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William Blake was always a little bit different, and that’s just how he liked it! Born in London in 1757, William started having visions when he was just a little boy. When he was nine, for example, he reported that he saw a tree full of angels while taking a walk in the country.

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By the time William was ten, he knew he wanted to be an artist. His parents sent him to drawing school and four years later, he became an apprentice to a printmaker. An apprentice is a kind of student, who learns to do something by working with and helping out a master. A master is someone who already knows how to do a thing very, very well!
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In 1784, when he was in his late twenties, William opened up a printshop with his friend James Parker, who had been an apprentice with him. Unfortunately, the shop didn’t do very well and they had to close it after a few years. After that, William earned a living by making prints and illustrations for books and magazines, but he was always working on his own projects, which combined his loves of art and poetry.
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Inspired by illuminated manuscripts, or illustrated books, from the Middle Ages, William experimented and came up with a technique called “illuminated printing.” This involved printing his words and pictures together and finishing them with watercolors. When you make a print it comes out almost the same every time. By hand-painting his, William (often with help from his wife, Catherine) made each print one-of-a-kind.
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Never one to do what everyone else was doing, William was friends with radical thinkers of his time like Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft. In his work, he protested against unfair rulers and slavery and encouraged women’s education. Not everyone agreed with William’s ideas about how the world should be. And not everyone liked the unique worlds that he imagined in his art. In fact, some people described his work as “hideous” and said he was crazy!
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During the “Age of Reason,” William celebrated creativity. Rather than basing images on nature, he drew from his inner visions. As he got older, William created a personal mythology, making up many of his own characters and symbols. In his pictures, he shows us dreamlike scenes full of figures that seem to float and glow. Looking at a picture by William Blake is like taking a journey into his imagination.

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Licensed Images Information

The Book of Job: When the Morning Stars Sang Together, 1820 | Watercolour | 11 x 7 inches | The Morgan Library and Museum
Songs of Innocence, printed 1825 | Relief etching, handpainted with watercolour and gold | 6 x 5 ½ inches | Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York
The Tyger (from Songs of Experience), printed around 1826 | Relief etching with hand coloring on wove paper | 4 ¼ x 2 1/3 inches | Library of Congress
Jacob’s Ladder, around 1799-1806 | Pen and watercolor on paper | The British Museum | 39.8×30.6 cms
The Book of Urizen, page 11, printed around 1818 | Relief etching with hand coloring on wove paper | 6 1/6 x 4 inches | Library of Congress

Keyword:
Illuminated Printing

There are different kinds of prints—woodcuts, engravings, and etchings, to name a few. Prints are made either by cutting lines into a block or plate or by removing the space around the lines. The block or plate is then covered in ink and pressed onto a piece of paper. In illuminated printing, words and images are painted on a copperplate with a special material. Then the plate is soaked in acid. The acid eats away everything but the parts of the plate that were painted, which are now raised above everything else! As with other kinds of printmaking, the plate is inked and pressed onto paper. Once the ink is dry, the picture is completed with watercolors.

Activities and Questions

  • Write your own poem and illustrate it.
  • Write a book about something you would like to change in the world. Use words and pictures.
  • Draw something that only exists in your imagination.
  • When you make a print, you have to draw your picture backwards so that it will print onto paper facing in the right direction. Try drawing a picture backwards!
  • Cut a potato in half, carve a picture in one half, then cover it with paint and press it onto paper.
  • Why would an artist like William Blake put words in his art? Why would a writer add pictures to his poems?
  • William Blake was a big fan of imagination. What is imagination? When do you use it? Do you like using your imagination? Why?