History, Types, Woodblock Relief Printing.

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Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
(1497-8) Woodcut by Albrecht Durer,
the greatest printmaker in Germany
and undoubtedly one of the finest
Northern Renaissance artists.

For an explanation of basic terms
involved in engraving, etching,
lithography, woodcuts etc.,
see: Printmaking Glossary.

Woodcuts: Type of Printmaking

Woodcut, the oldest technique used in fine art printmaking, is a form of relief printing. The artist's design or drawing is made on a piece of wood (usually beechwood), and the untouched areas are then cut away with gouges, leaving the raised image which is then inked. Woodcut prints are produced by pressing the selected medium (usually paper) onto the inked image. If colour is used, separate wood blocks are required. Woodcut printing is sometimes referred to as xylography or a xylographic process (from the Greek words 'xulon' for wood and 'graphikos for writing/drawing), although these terms are commonly reserved for text prints.

Until the advent of machine-based technology, the entire process was relatively labour intensive. Typically, the artist only designed the woodcut - either by drawing directly on the wood, or by first drawing it on paper then tracing or gluing it onto the wood. Specialist craftsmen known as 'formschneider' then performed the actual wood carving of the design, after which the block was given to specialist printers.

Note: For modern forms of fine art printing, see: Silkscreen Printing (popularized by Warhol), and Giclee Prints (Inkjet printer).

Mount Fuji in Clear Weather (c.1829)
British Museum.
By Katsushika Hokusai, one of the
pioneers of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints
in Japanese art.

For definitions, meanings and
explanations of different arts,
see Types of Art.

Angst (1896) Woodcut by the
Norwegian Expressionist artist
Edvard Munch.

Simple Process

Woodcut or woodblock printing is a much simpler fine art process than either intaglio or surface printing like lithography, and in comparison with etching and engraving, only low pressure is needed to make a print. Moreover, it can be used together with movable type text-printing as both use the relief method - one reason why it remained the primary printing technique for book illustration until the late-sixteenth century. The final woodcut print was obtained in three different ways.

(1) Stamping. This method was employed for most of the early Renaissance woodcuts (1400-50). The ground medium (paper or fabric) was placed on a flat surface; the wood block was placed over it with the inked surface in contact with the medium; the back of the woodblock was then pressed down onto the medium to form the impression and produce the printed image.

(2) Rubbing. This method was used widely in China and Japan, but became popular in Europe only after 1450. It involved placing the block on a table, with the inked surface uppermost. Paper or fabric is then placed onto the surface, and the back of it is rubbed with a hard pad, a piece of wood, or a piece of leather known as a frotton (from the French word 'frotter' to rub). Modern printmakers use a tool called a baren.

(3) Presses. Initially simple weighted presses were used, before more complex versions were introduced towards the end of the 15th century, following the development of the Johann Gutenberg printing press.

Early History of Woodcuts

Appearing in Chinese art during the 5th century, woodcuts first appeared in Europe during the early Renaissance period. The earliest dated example is Madonna with Four Virgin Saints in a Garden (1418). However, some point to St Christopher Bearing the Infant Jesus, which was found in a monastery in Buxheim, dated 1423 as the oldest work.

Woodcut art developed extensively in the 14th century with the advent of paper being produced in larger quantities, which meant that religious prints and illuminated manuscripts could be produced more easily. Given the difficulties in scraping out wood between lines, and the dangers that if the lines were too thin (the wood would crumble), early woodcuts consisted of thick outlines with little shading. Like modern day children's colouring books, the woodcut was only designed to print the outline of an image, and the details were meant to be coloured in by hand. However, as the demands for books increased, so did the woodcut process and the subject matter. It was artists like Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) of the Northern Renaissance who transformed the media with woodcuts like Samson Rending the Lion (c.1497, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York). The detail he achieved was stunning, considering that each line was created by carving the wood to either side. His subtle tones and textures made Erasmus of Rotterdam (1466-1536) claim that to add colour would 'injure the work'.

Chiaroscuro woodcuts

In Italy, woodcut was taken in a new direction by the Venetian painter Titian (1485-1576). He chose the medium as a way to publicise his drawn inventions. In his Saint Jerome in the Wilderness (1523, Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York), his daring bold line-work suggests he may have drawn directly onto the block, then used a cutter to follow his marks as closely as possible. It was by woodcut that colour was first introduced into printmaking, via prints known as chiaroscuro woodcuts. The earliest coloured woodcuts were meant to imitate the appearance of a type of drawing which was created on colour paper, these drawings were known as chiaroscuro. In these drawings, the coloured paper served as the mid tone, and artists worked towards light (chiaro) by adding white gouache and towards dark (scuro) by adding cross-hatching in dark wash or ink. The chiaroscuro woodcut was developed in 1509 by Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531), and also Hans Baldung Grien (1484-1545) and Parmigianino (1503-40). It involved using line blocks to create a cross-hatching effect and tone blocks to create flat areas of colour. The Italian artist Ugo da Carpi (1455-1523) brought the technique to Italy, working in collaboration with Titian. However, by the end of the 16th century, Titian appears to have lost interest in woodcuts, preferring the effects of the intaglio technique of engraving.

Developments in European Woodcut Printing (1600s-1800s)

Fifteenth century Germany was an early centre of both fine art and text printing. The book illustrators Michael Wolgemut (1434-1519) and Erhard Reuwich (c.1450-1505), as well as Martin Schongauer (1448-91), were early pioneers (the latter introduced cross-hatching, more problematical in woodcuts than etching or engraving). They were followed by the master artist and printmaker of the German Renaissance, Albrecht Durer (1471-1528), whose skills remain unsurpassed. Later in the sixteenth century, the Swiss painter and printmaker Urs Graf (1485-1529) reputedly developed white-line woodcut, in which the image is carved in thin lines, similar to engraving. However, due to the advent of engraving, woodcut became a much ignored art medium for two centuries. In the 17th and 18th century books were primarily illustrated with fine copper engravings. Woodcuts prints were reserved for cheap books called 'chap books'. These images were created from crudely chopped wood blocks. Woodcuts were popular with the press because they printed easily with letterpress type. Artists revolted against the mass production effects of woodcut, and took their inspiration instead from the etching prints of Rembrandt (1606-69) and Goya (1746-1828). The virtues of fine drawing and delicate lines created by printed etchings were promoted by the Barbizon School (c.1830-70). The Impressionists Edouard Manet (1832-83), Edgar Degas (1834-1917) and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) extended the possibilities of etching with lithography and aquatint.

Woodcut Printing (1900s onwards)

Towards the end of the 18th century, a metal engraver, Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) recognised the potential of wood-engraving and advanced the medium to a new level. He developed the use of the white line technique. Unlike his predecessors, Bewick carved into harder woods, particularly box wood. He worked against the grain, using fine tools normally favoured by metal engravers. This style proved to be far superior, and has been the most popular method used ever since. The Swiss printmaker and artist Felix Vallotton (1865-1925), who was associated with Les Nabis, revived white-line woodcuts, a process which coincided with the Japonism fashion for prints which hit Europe in the 1860s. Influences of Post-Impressionism, Symbolism and the Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints (see, in particular, works by Hokusai [1760-1849] and Hiroshige [1797-1858]) can be clearly seen in Vallotton's works. In fact, his woodcut prints take on a more graphic art feel, which influenced the artists Edvard Munch (1863-1944), Franz Masereel (1889-1972), Aubrey Beardsley (1872-98) and Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938). Exponents of German Expressionism revelled in woodcut, producing powerful works, for example The Prophet (1912, private collection) by Emil Nolde (1867-1956). Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976) was another German expressionist who produced exceptionally powerful woodcuts. Other artists influenced included American Mary Cassatt (1844-1926) and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903).

A recent development in this art-form is the blasting method - used to distinguish printed areas on the maxtrix from non-printing areas. The former are covered with a metallic or rubber cement shield, and then the whole surface is blasted with ink.

Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style

Woodblock prints were first used in Japan in the 8th century for printing text, in particular Buddhist scriptures. Although the designer Tawaraya Sotatsu (died c.1640) used wood stamps in the early 17th century to print designs on paper and silk, woodblock printing remained primarily a tool for text printing until the 18th century. In 1765 a new technology made it possible to create single-sheet printed in a range of colours. Soon colourful artwork of courtesans and kabuki actors were appearing, accompanied by stories which became hugely popular among the middle classes. The term Ukiyo-e means 'floating world', and referred generally to the degenerate themes that artists chose to portray, including bars and brothels. Ukiyo-e wood-block prints first appeared early in the Edo Period (1600-1868) and great print masters included Ando Hiroshige (1797–1858) and Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770).

To create a woodblock print, first the artist drew the design on paper, and then transferred it to a thinner, more transparent paper. The paper was pasted to the woodblock, and then the carver followed the drawing, chiselling the edges to create a design in relief. Ink was applied to the surface of the woodblock. A new sheet of paper ws applied to the block, then rubbed with a round pad to transfer the image. Reproductions, sometimes in the thousands could be produced until the woodblocks became too worn. Today Ukiyo-e remains an important part of Japanese culture, and elements of its design have been incorporated into modern graphic art and cartoons. Reproduction posters are highly popular.

• For more about etching, engraving, lithography, silkscreen or giclee prints, see: Visual Arts Encyclopedia.

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