What is a woodcut?

Woodblock printing is a relief printing process in which the artist carves an image into a block of wood. This image is either drawn directly onto the wood or is transferred with carbon paper. Different types of wood are suitable for this technique. Hard woods, such as fruit trees, are particularly suitable because they have a very fine grain allowing for a smooth print. Limewood on the other hand is softer, and therefore easier to cut into. The wood can be cut into using various tools such as burins, gouges, honing steels or contour knives, though today machines are also used in this process. In western countries, oil-based paints are most commonly used in this method of printing, whereas in Japanese and Chinese woodcut prints, watercolor is typically used. The paint is evenly applied on the woodcut with a roller, and the painted plate is then placed onto the printing surface and weighted down either by hand or with the help of a printing press. The image created in this process is the reverse (or mirror image) of the printing plate.

Woodblock printing is one of the oldest printing techniques in the world. Though its origins lie in China, the oldest clearly datable and preserved woodcut comes from Korea, dating to 751 AD. The technique only emerged later in Europe however. It was around 1400, when paper production began, that the first woodcuts were made in the West, consisting at the time of pictures of saints and playing cards. 100 years later, in 1500 the woodblock printing would reach its prime when Albrecht Dürer championed the technique, earning it much artistic importance. During the subsequent Baroque period, the woodcut lost its importance and was replaced temporarily by the courtly Absolutist art which infiltrated society.

Following the Paris World Exhibition of 1867—Japan’s first year of participation—the Far Eastern tradition of woodblock printing was revived in Europe.  As color woodblock prints were published avidly, the technique became much better known in the west. Since this time, important artists, such as those of the Die Brücke movement in Germany, have worked with the woodcut technique.  

Woodblock printing is a technique rich in tradition, that enables defined prints with clear lines. Many contemporary artists still choose this printing technique today. Since the printing plates are not prone to major abrasion, they are reusable, making the technique suitable for editions with long print runs (see What is an edition?). For examples of woodblock prints, see Sanford Brigger’s Afropick, 2005, Tal R’s Banana Beach, 2012 or Roy Lichtenstein’s Reclining Nude from the “Expressionist Woodcuts” Series, 1980.

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