Woodcut Printing

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON DEMAND > Materials and Techniques

Woodcut, or wood-block, printing is one of the oldest printmaking techniques. The first prints were probably made by the Chinese in the A.D. 700's. From China the craft spread to Korea and Japan, where it was considered an art of great importance. Most Asian woodcuts with which the Western world is familiar are Japanese.

No wood-block prints before the early 1400's survive. But there is reason to believe that the technique was used for royal stamps and textile printing before then.

After the modern printing press with movable type was invented in the 1400's, woodcut printing became the method used to reproduce drawings for printed books. At this time, woodcutting was considered just a technique for reproducing drawings, not a creative art. Therefore, skillful artists like Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) only designed the woodcut print; the actual cutting was assigned to an artisan.

In the 1500's, metal engraving and etching became the most important printmaking techniques in Europe. For the next several hundred years, woodcut printing was not very popular. The art was not revived until the middle of the 1800's, when manufacturers of beautiful books began to return to the woodcut print for illustrations.

How Woodcut Prints Are Made

Wood-block printing is a relief method. This means that the uncut surface of the block will print and the cut-away areas will not.

To make a print, the artist cuts a piece of softwood, such as pine or fir, to a desired size. In order to see the area that will be printed, the artist may first paint the block of wood with india ink. The contrast between the color of the ink and the color of the bare wood shows the artist which areas will print and which will not.

Some artists trace a drawing or draw directly on the wood with chalk, while others cut directly, without following a sketch. In either case, the artist cuts the design with a knife and a tool called a gouge. Then tacky ink is applied to the surface of the block with a roller. Next the artist carefully places a piece of very absorbent paper—such as Japanese rice or mulberry paper—on the inked block. When the paper is rubbed with a hard, smooth instrument, the inked image on the block is transferred to the paper. The artist then inks the block again and makes any number of prints. To make a print of many colors, the artist follows the same steps; but a different block is needed for each color.

Traditionally, woodcut prints have been divided into two types: black-line cuts and white-line cuts. In a black-line cut, the surface areas that print form the main shapes of the design. In a white-line cut—the more popular form—the shapes of the design are cut away. Therefore, the areas that print are actually the background of the design.

Wood Engraving

A wood engraving differs slightly from a woodcut print. Harder wood is used for wood engraving--usually box or cherry--and the wood is cut on the edge (cross grain) instead of in plank form, as in woodcut printing. A tool called a burin is used. It cuts very fine lines. Wood engravings are usually printed on a letterpress, but hand-printing methods may be used.

Reviewed by John Sparks
Maryland Institute, College of Art

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