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Woodblock print or woodcut What is it? Characteristics and history

Wood printing is a technique for printing text, images or drawings on textiles and paper.

The woodblock is carefully prepared as a relief matrix, which means that the areas shown in white are cut out with a knife, chisel or sandpaper leaving the characters or image to be shown in “black” at the level of the original surface.

The block is cut following the grain of the wood. It is only necessary to ink the block and place it in firm, even contact with the paper or fabric to achieve an acceptable print. Of course, the content would be printed “upside down” or mirror printed.

For color printing, several blocks are used, each for one color, though. Overprinting two colors can result in four-color printing.

History of woodblock printing

The big wave, example of woodblock printing.
The big wave of Kanagawa is one of the most famous examples of woodblock printing

Woodcuts are one of the oldest printing techniques, used to make book pages and after-images.

The earliest traces of woodblock printing were found in China. Later, the Japanese adopted the technique and carried it through the centuries to the pinnacle of craftsmanship and artistic expression.

Wood plates are among the oldest printing techniques, as they were originally used to carve and form seals and stamps. However, printing would not have been possible without the invention of paper. Scientists date the origins of papermaking to around 105 AD in China.

Stone carving probably developed as the first printing technology: stones were rubbed with wet paper and ink, creating engraved calligraphy. Later, or in parallel, woodcutting was developed. The first Chinese book printed on wood, the Diamant-Sutra of Dunhuang, dates from 868 and is so technically advanced that it is assumed that woodblocks must have been developed much earlier.

There is a Japanese engraving, “Dharanis”, dating from 770 which is strongly influenced by Chinese engravings. The Dharanis consisted of Buddhist prayers and had a print run of one million copies. However, it is not clear whether they were made from woodblock printing plates. In general, woodcuts were used in the early centuries in China exclusively for the dissemination of Buddhist texts and amulets.

Woodblock printing in Europe

Wood printing came much later to Europe. Printing fabrics with a wooden matrix was common for several centuries. However, woodblock printing had to wait until the introduction of paper production in paper mills in the 1390s.

Early woodcuts were single-page prints: images of sacred figures that were used in bad times and whose images offered protection. They were pasted on book covers or nailed to walls. Sometimes entire doors and ceilings were also covered with these engravings.

These early prints were made by hand with a muller. Sometimes they were also hand-coloured by so-called “letter painters” with the help of stencils. But these painters were careful to leave the lines visible.

Woodcuts in Europe began to develop their own style in the late High Gothic period. At that time, line cuts were the most common type of engraving. The black lead drawing of coloured Gothic stained-glass windows is similar in style to these early woodcuts. It was not until much later, in the 19th century, that highly detailed master prints were developed. They were often used as illustrations in books.

Block books followed single-page prints, which were also pressed or rubbed into the pages. As only one side could be printed on, the blank sides of two sheets were glued together to create a single page. Text was also carved into the woodblocks, accompanying the printed illustrations. The most popular themes of the block books were the poor man’s Bible, the dance of death or the books of the planets.

The block book survived the invention of movable type around 1440. Words and images were separated and the proportion of image to text was reversed. Block books were dominated by images rather than text. They were now made with the help of printing presses: wooden blocks were cut to the height of the lead letters and fitted to the printing press.

Hartmann Schedel and Albrecht Dürer and woodblock prints

Woodcut of the work apocalypsis.
Woodcut by Albretch Dürer

Around 1500, woodblock prints flourished in central Germany (Augsburg, Ulm, Nuremberg) and in the Netherlands as book illustrations. One of the most important works of this period is Schedel’s Weltchronik, illustrated with 2,000 woodblocks, made by about 100 men at 24 printing presses in Nuremberg.

At that time, it was customary to distinguish between the different people involved in the process of making woodcuts: the one who draws (artist), the one who cuts (carver) and the one who presses it onto the paper (printer).

The creator of the design used to remain anonymous, and only a few artists excelled in this art. The first was Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528), from Nuremberg, who took woodcut to a new level and transformed art. His large woodblock prints, especially the “Apocalypse“, with its monumental and dramatic composition, brought fame and a new meaning to woodblock printing.

Death and resurrection of woodblock prints

In the 16th century engraving became the most necessary printing technique throughout Europe. Thus woodblock prints were displaced, losing importance with the invention of lithography and later photography. As a result, it remained primarily an artistic printing medium rather than something more practical and economical.

However, this changed with the opening of Japan in 1867, which brought Japanese woodblocks to the West, impressing artists such as Gauguin, Munch and van Gogh. The woodblock had a special significance in the early 20th century for the German Expressionists of the Brücke.

Wood printing process and techniques

Technique used in woodblock printing.
Woodblock printing technique

Wood printing is a form of relief printing and is based on the principle that the parts that are not to be printed are cut out. Instead, the colours are pressed onto the embossed parts, applied as if they were a relief, and the relief is rubbed onto a piece of paper or pushed through the press, in which case the reliefs are reversed.

The classic woods used for woodblock printing are mainly fruit trees, such as pear or cherry, which produce rich, detailed sketches. On the other hand, lime and poplar are easier to cut, but they also splinter more easily. Today, plywood is also used in woodblocks.

In the Western tradition of woodblocks, colours are pressed and applied to the block with a roller. In Asian woodblocks, the watercolours are applied with a brush and the inked motifs are rubbed onto dry or damp paper.

The following is a brief description of the woodblock printing process:

  1. The block carver starts with a flat piece of wood – usually cherry – and takes the prescribed drawing and places it face down on the block
  2. The piece of paper thus applied would be made transparent by rubbing it with oil and then removing the paper so that the reverse image of the ink would be transferred to the block
  3. The carver would outline the areas to be inked/printed in black and, once this was done, he would carve out the areas to be left white
  4. This part of the process creates the block that will be used to print the black lines and is known as the “key block”
  5. This process would be repeated for each colour used in the image, resulting in different blocks for each colour.
  6. To maintain accuracy in printing the different colours in a single image/page, a registration key is used, usually a kagi (a raised “L” shape that fits into a corner of the block and on which a corner of the page is placed) and a hikitsuke (a raised bar that is usually placed along the block and in the corner of the hagi).
  7. The process of printing a single sheet continues using the various blocks and colours and re-registering the sheet until the entire image has been completed to the artist’s satisfaction

If you want to discover other printing methods besides wood printing, take a look at our printing types section, where we detail different types of printing and their main characteristics, as well as their uses.

You can also find inspiration for your print jobs in our paper types and finishes categories.

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