1. Home
  2. Photography & Printm...
  3. Woodcut Prints

Woodcut Prints

A woodcut print is a type of printmaking technique that involves carving an image or design into a block of wood, applying ink or paint to the carved surface, and then transferring the image onto paper or another surface. It is one of the oldest and most well-known methods of printmaking.

The process of creating a woodcut print begins with selecting a suitable piece of wood, traditionally a hardwood like cherry, pear, or boxwood. The wood block is then carefully prepared by smoothing the surface and removing any imperfections. Once the block is ready, the artist sketches the design directly onto the wood or transfers a previously drawn design onto it.

The next step is to carve out the negative space of the design using various carving tools such as knives, gouges, or chisels. The areas that are carved away will not hold any ink and will remain white or empty on the final print. The remaining raised surfaces of the wood block will create the image when inked and pressed onto paper.

After the carving is complete, ink or paint is applied to the raised surface of the block using a roller or brush. The ink adheres only to the raised areas and not to the carved recesses. Then a sheet of paper is carefully placed on top of the inked block, and pressure is applied, either by hand or with a press, to transfer the ink onto the paper. This process can be repeated multiple times to create editions of prints.

Woodcut prints are known for their bold and distinctive appearance characterized by strong lines and textures. The nature of the wood grain and the carving tools used can contribute to the unique aesthetic of each print. Artists often choose woodcut printing for its ability to create expressive and graphic imagery, and it has been widely used throughout history for both artistic and practical purposes, such as book illustration, religious prints, and decorative art.

Woodblock printing originated in China, the earliest surviving examples dating back to 220 AD. Like its Western counterpart, it was also used for printing, images, patterns, and most often, text. It was the most common method of printing books and other texts and images until the 19th century. Rubbing was the most popular method of printing in the East throughout history, but was not common in Europe until the 15th century where it was used mainly for block-books. The actual printing process isn’t terribly different compared to the earlier description, however, after inking, instead of applying pressure to the block, the paper or fabric is rubbed into the ink covered block with a burnisher or other hard, flat object. In some contemporary settings, this process is used to make proofs of prints, before inking and printing the final pieces in a press.

Of particular interest to artists and collectors alike is Japanese woodblock prints (木版画, mokuhanga), most iconically the ukiyo-e genre. Ukiyo-e (浮世絵), translated as, “pictures of the floating world,” was incredibly popular from the 17th to 19th century. Some famous pieces include: The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai, Otani Oniji III by Sharaku, Princess Takiyasha Summons a Skeleton Spectre to Frighten Mitsukuni by Kuniyoshi, etc. These prints covered numerous subjects from beautiful women, kabuki (classical Japanese dance-drama theater), historical scenes, folk tales, and even erotica. Hishikawa Moronobu is noted to have had the earliest success with ukiyo-e paintings and monochromatic prints in the 1670s. Color prints came gradually, first added by hand, but by the 1760s Suzuki Harunobu’s nishiki-e prints (also known as brocade pictures) popularized full color.

Western woodcut prints tend to have a more graphic aesthetic, embracing bolder lines, large areas of inked space, and wood grain in their images (See: Emil Nolde). Even much earlier examples of these prints in the West, with their grander scale and even color display this tendency (See: block books, often religious texts, encyclopedias, etc. such as Ars Moriendi, mid 1400s and Hortus Sanitatis, 1490s).

Eastern prints tend to be considered as having much more nuance in their use of color, pattern, and linework. They can be much less graphic when compared side by side with Western prints. Even as artists began to be influenced by Western techniques and traditions it remained uniquely rooted in traditional painting. The Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden (芥子園畫傳, Jieziyuan Huazhuan), an early Qing Dynasty painter’s manual (and example of early color printing in China), for example, was an incredibly popular reference for artists in Edo for their artistic training. The iconic painterly aesthetic of Eastern woodblock prints, as compared to Western prints, can be accredited to their unique process, in addition to a number of specific technical choices in ink and material types. Japanese prints, in particular, use water based inks (rather than oil based ones), which are brushed onto the block rather than rolled, along with glazes and varnish to achieve transparency and gradient in their color (See: Bokashi, ぼかし), as well as the use of traditional handmade paper (See: Washi, 和紙; literally meaning Japanese paper, this can be made from a number of fibers and in a number of thicknesses and types).

How can we help?