Woodcut is a relief printing artistic technique in printmaking in which an image is carved into the surface of a block of wood, with the printing parts remaining level with the surface while the non-printing parts are removed, typically with gouges. The areas to show 'white' are cut away with a knife or chisel, leaving the characters or image to show in 'black' at the original surface level. The block is cut along the grain of the wood (unlike wood engraving where the block is cut in the end-grain). In Europe beechwood was most commonly used; in Japan, a special type of cherry wood was used.
The surface is covered with ink by rolling over the surface with an ink-covered roller (brayer), leaving ink upon the flat surface but not in the non-printing areas.
Multiple colors can be printed by keying the paper to a frame around the woodblocks (where a different block is used for each color). The art of carving the woodcut can be called "xylography", but this is rarely used in English for images alone, although that and "xylographic" are used in connection with blockbooks, which contain text.
There were various methods of transferring the artist's drawn design onto the block for the cutter to follow. Either the drawing would be made directly onto the block (often whitened first), or a drawing on paper was glued to the block. Either way, the artist's drawing was destroyed during the cutting process. Other methods were used, including tracing.
This is why woodcuts are sometimes described by museums or books as "designed by" rather than "by" an artist; but most authorities do not use this distinction. The division of labour had the advantage that a trained artist could adapt to the medium relatively easily, without needing to learn the use of woodworking tools.
In both Europe and Japan, in the early twentieth century some artists began to do the whole process themselves. In Japan, this movement was called Sōsaku hanga, as opposed to the Shin hanga movement, which retained the traditional methods. In the West, many artists used the easier technique of linocut instead.
Compared to intaglio techniques like etching and engraving, only low pressure is required to print. As a relief method, it is only necessary to ink the block and bring it into firm and even contact with the paper or cloth to achieve an acceptable print.
There are three methods of printing to consider:
Woodcut first appeared in ancient China, where it is called Banhua, but has been most widely practised in Japan and Europe. In China, from the 6th century onwards, woodcut icons became popular in Buddhist texts. Since the 10th century, woodcut pictures illustrated some Chinese literature, and some banknotes, such as Jiaozi.
In China and Tibet printed images mostly remained tied as illustrations to accompanying text until the modern period. The earliest woodblock printed book, the Diamond Sutra contains a large image as frontispiece, and many Buddhist texts contain some images. Later some notable Chinese artists designed woodcuts for books, but the individual print did not develop in China as an art-form in the way it did in Europe and Japan. Woodcuts in the form of New Year pictures, given to friends like Christmas cards, were popular, but not significant artistically.
In Europe, Woodcut is the oldest technique used for old master prints, developing about 1400, by using on paper existing techniques for printing on cloth. The explosion of sales of cheap woodcuts in the middle of the century led to a fall in standards, and many popular prints were very crude. The development of hatching followed on rather later than in engraving. Michael Wolgemut was significant in making German woodcut more sophisticated from about 1475, and Erhard Reuwich was the first to use cross-hatching (far harder to do than in engraving or etching). Both of these produced mainly book-illustrations, as did various Italian artists who were also raising standards there at the same period. At the end of the century Albrecht Dürer brought the Western woodcut to a level that has never been surpassed, and greatly increased the status of the single-leaf (ie an image sold separately) woodcut.
As woodcut can be easily printed together with movable type, because both are relief-printed, it was the main medium for book illustrations until the late-sixteenth century. The first woodcut book illustration dates to about 1461, only a few years after the beginning of printing with movable type, printed by Albrecht Pfister in Bamberg. Woodcut was used less often for individual ("single-leaf") fine-art prints from about 1550 until the late nineteenth-century, when interest revived. It continued to be important for popular prints until the nineteenth century in most of Europe, and later in some places.
The art reached a high level of technical and artistic development in East Asia and Iran. In Japan woodblock printing is called "moku hanga", and was introduced in the seventeenth century for both books and art. The popular "floating world" genre of ukiyo-e originated in the second half of the seventeenth century, with prints in monocrome or two colours. Sometimes these were hand-coloured after printing. Later prints with many colours were developed. Japanese woodcut became a major artistic form, although at the time it was accorded a much lower status than painting. It continued to develop through to the twentieth century.
This technique just carves the image in mostly thin lines, not unlike a rather crude engraving. The block is printed in the normal way, so that most of the print is black with the image created by white lines. This process was invented by the sixteenth-century Swiss artist Urs Graf, but became most popular in the nineteenth and twentieth century, often in a modified form where images used large areas of white-line contasted with areas in the normal black-line style. This was pioneered by Félix Vallotton.
Though the Japanese influence was reflected in many artistic media, including painting, it did lead to a revival of the woodcut in Europe, which had been in danger of extinction as a serious art medium. Most of the artists above, except for Félix Vallotton and Paul Gauguin, in fact used lithography, especially for coloured prints.
Artists, notably Edvard Munch and Franz Masereel, continued to use the medium, which in Modernism came to appeal because it was relatively easy to complete the whole process, including printing, in a studio with little special equipment. The German Expressionists used woodcut a good deal.
Coloured woodcut first appeared in ancient China. The oldest known colored woodcuts are three Buddhist images dating back to the 10th century.
European woodcut prints with coloured blocks were invented in Germany in 1508 and are known as chiaroscuro woodcuts (see below). However colour did not become the norm, as it did in Japan. In Europe and Japan, colour woodcuts were normally only used for prints rather than book illustrations.
In China, where the individual print did not develop until the nineteenth century, the reverse is true, and early colour woodcuts mostly occur in luxury books about art, especially the more prestigious medium of painting. The first known example is a book on ink-cakes printed in 1606, and colour technique reached its height in books on painting published in the seventeenth century. Notable examples are the Treatise on the Paintings and Writings of the Ten Bamboo Studio of 1633, and the Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual published in 1679 and 1701.
In Japan colour technique, called nishiki-e in its fully developed form, spread more widely, and was used for prints, from the 1760s on. Text was nearly always monochrome, as were images in books, but the growth of the popularity of ukiyo-e brought with it demand for ever increasing numbers of colors and complexity of techniques. By the nineteenth century most artists worked in colour. The stages of this development were:
Chiaroscuro woodcuts do not necessarily feature strong contrasts of light and dark, but are old master prints in woodcut using two or more blocks printed in different colours. They were first invented by Hans Burgkmair in Germany in 1508, and first made in Italy by Ugo da Carpi a few years later. Other printmakers to use the technique include Cranach, Hans Baldung Grien and Parmigianino. In Germany the technique was only in use for a few years, but Italians continued to use it throughout the sixteenth century, and later artists like Goltzius sometimes made use of it. In the German style, one block usually had only lines and is called the "line block", whilst the other block or blocks had flat areas of colour and are called "tone blocks". The Italians usually used only tone blocks, for a very different effect, much closer to the drawings the term was originally used for, or watercolours.