What is a woodcut? Woodcut printing is a process in which a woodcuts artist carves an impression onto the face of a woodblock using gouges, keeping the printing areas flush with the top while eradicating the non-printing portions. Sections where the woodcut artist trims away contain no ink, but symbols or pictures on the surfaces have been covered in ink to form the woodcut prints. Woodcutting art is thus created when the surfaces are coated with ink by running over the top with an ink-covered roller, producing ink on the level surface but not in the non-printing portions.

What Is Woodcutting Art?

Since its inception in China, woodcut printing has moved around the globe, from European regions to regions of Asia, and even to Latin America. Relief printmaking on fabrics was recognized in Europe as early as the beginning of the 14th century, but it saw little progress until paper was created in Germany and France around the close of the 14th century. Although the woodcutting art medium was frequently utilized for common illustrations in the 17th century, no famous woodcuts artists used it.

How Woodcut Printing Labor Was Divided

Traditionally, in both East Asia and Europe, the designer just created the woodcut design, leaving the block-carving to expert artisans known as block-cutters or Formschneiders, some of whom were well-known in their own right. The best-known of them are the 16th-century Hans Lützelburger, Hieronymus Andreae, and Jost de Negker, all of whom owned studios and also worked as publishers and printers. The Formschneider then forwarded the block to specialized printers. The blank blocks were manufactured by other professionals.

That’s why, in exhibitions or publications, woodcut prints are occasionally characterized as “designed by” instead of being “made by” a creator; nevertheless, most sources do not make this difference.

The division of labor has the benefit of allowing a skilled artist to quickly adjust to the medium without having to learn how to use carpentry equipment. There were several ways to transmit the artist’s sketched image onto the wood for the carver to adhere. Either the design was done straight on the block (typically after it had been whitened) or a sketch on paper was pasted to the blocks. In any case, the artist’s design was obliterated during the slicing procedure.

Tracing was one of the other ways employed. In the early 20th century, several artists in both East Asia and Europe began to execute the entire process themselves.

Methods of Relief Printmaking

Printing requires less pressure than intaglio processes such as engraving and etching techniques. To make an acceptable print using the relief approach, just ink the blocks, bringing it into consistent and uniform contact with the cloth or paper. In Europe, a number of woods were often utilized, notably boxwood and many fruit and nut woods such as cherry or pear; whereas the timber of the cherry species was preferred in Japan. There are three printing processes to take into account:

  • Stamping: Many textiles and most early European woodcuts manufactured between 1400 and 1440 were made with this technique. The fabric was placed on an even surface, with the block then positioned on top of the paper or fabric, and the rear side of the block was pressed or hammered.
  • Rubbing: Reportedly the most popular way of printing on paper in the Far East at any and all periods. Later in the 15th century, it was commonly used for European woodcutting art as well as for textiles. From approximately 1910 until the present, it was also utilized for numerous Western woodcuts. The fabric is placed on top of the block, which is placed face-up on a table. A hard mat, a straight piece of wood, or a leather fronton is used to rub the back of the block.
  • Later, elaborate wooden gears were utilized in Japan to assist in keeping the woodblock absolutely still and to provide the correct pressure throughout the printing procedure. This was particularly useful when various colors were incorporated and had to be precisely put atop prior ink layers.

    Printing at a press: Presses appear to have been utilized in Asia only recently. Printing presses were employed for European block-books and prints beginning from 1480, and earlier for woodcut manuscript images. Basic weighted pressing machines may have been used in Europe prior to the printing press, but there is no clear proof.

    The art of woodcut prints

    Woodcut printing began in antiquity in China as a means of printing on fabrics, and subsequently on paper. The earliest woodblock printing remnants that have survived are from China, dating from the Han period, and are made of silk imprinted with three different colors of flowers. The Chinese technology of block printing was brought to Europe in the 13th century.

    Paper came to Europe a bit later and was being created in Italy by the end of the 13th century, as well as in Germany and Burgundy by the end of the 14th century.

    In Europe, woodcut printing is the earliest method utilized for old master prints, having developed around 1400 by employing existing printing processes on paper. Madonna of the Fire, at the Cathedral of Forl, Italy, is one of the most antique woodcuts on paper that may still be seen today. The boom in sales of inexpensive woodcuts in the mid-century resulted in a drop in quality, and many famous woodcuts from this period were rough.



    The invention of hatching came much later than that of engraving. From around 1475, Michael Wolgemut was influential in making German woodcuts more complicated, and Erhard Reuwich was the first to utilize cross-hatching, which is significantly more difficult to produce than etching or engraving. Both of these painters mostly made book graphics, as did a number of Italian creators who were elevating quality in the country at the same time.

    Albrecht Dürer’s woodcuts towards the end of the century elevated the woodcuts of the west to a degree that, perhaps, has never been exceeded, and substantially elevated the stature of the “single-leaf” woodcut.

    The Use of Color

    Colored woodcuts were originally seen in ancient China. Three Buddhist pictures from the 10th century are the earliest known. European woodcut prints with colored blocks, known as chiaroscuro woodcuts, were developed in Germany around 1508. Color, on the other hand, would not turn out to become the standard, as it had done in Japan with ukiyo-e and the other genres.

    Color woodcuts were mostly employed for printing rather than book covers in Japan and Europe.

    In China, where the single print did not emerge until the 19th century, the opposite is true, and early color woodcuts are usually seen in luxury art publications about painting, the more renowned medium. The first known instance is a book on ink-cakes produced in 1606, and color technique was at its peak in painting books published in the 17th century. A noteworthy example is the Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual which was issued in 1679.


    In Japan, the color method known as nishiki-e in its fully evolved form expanded more extensively and was utilized for prints beginning in the 1760s. The text was almost always monochromatic, as were illustrations in books, but as ukiyo-e became more popular, there was a desire for ever-increasing amounts of colors and intricacy of methods.

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