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.
DIFFERENT FORMS OF ARTS
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.
Early History of Woodcuts
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'.
Developments in European Woodcut Printing
Woodcut Printing (1900s onwards)
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 (17971858) and Suzuki Harunobu (17251770).
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.
ENCYCLOPEDIA OF PRINTMAKING ART