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). 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 are small books containing text and images in the same block. Single-leaf woodcut is a term for a woodcut presented as a single image or print, as opposed to a book illustration.
In both Europe and the Far East, traditionally the artist only designed the woodcut, and the block-carving was left to specialist craftsmen, called block-cutters, or Formschneider in Germany, some of whom became well known in their own right - among the best known are the 16th century Hieronymus Andreae (who also used "Formschneider" as his surname), Hans Lützelburger and Jost de Negker, all of whom ran workshops and also operated as printers and publishers. The formschneider in turn handed the block on to specialist printers. There were further specialists who made the blank blocks.
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.
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.
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. In Europe fruitwood like pear or cherry was commonly used; in Japan, the wood of the cherry species Prunus serrulata was preferred.
There are three methods of printing to consider:
Stamping: Used for many fabrics and most early European woodcuts (1400–40). These were printed by putting the paper/fabric on a table or other flat surface with the block on top, and pressing or hammering the back of the block
Rubbing: Apparently the most common method for Far Eastern printing on paper at all times. Used for European woodcuts and block-books later in the fifteenth century, and very widely for cloth. Also used for many Western woodcuts from about 1910 to the present. The block goes face up on a table, with the paper or fabric on top. The back is rubbed with a "hard pad, a flat piece of wood, a burnisher, or a leather frotton". A traditional Japanese tool used for this is called a baren. Later in Japan, complex wooden mechanisms were used to help hold the woodblock perfectly still and to apply proper pressure in the printing process. This was especially helpful once multiple colors began to be introduced, and needed to be applied with precision atop previous ink layers.
Printing in a press: presses only seem to have been used in Asia in relatively recent times. Printing-presses were used from about 1480 for European prints and block-books, and before that for woodcut book illustrations. Simple weighted presses may have been used in Europe before the print-press, but firm evidence is lacking. A deceased Abbess of Mechelen in 1465 had "unum instrumentum ad imprintendum scripturas et ymagines ... cum 14 aliis lapideis printis" - "an instrument for printing texts and pictures ... with 14 stones for printing" which is probably too early to be a Gutenberg-type printing press in that location.
In both Europe and the Far East, such as Japan and China, 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.
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. One of the more ancient woodcuts on paper that can be seen today is The Fire Madonna (Madonna del Fuoco, in Italy language), in the Cathedral of Forlì, in Italy.
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 engraving. Michael Wolgemut was significant in making German woodcuts more sophisticated from about 1475, and Erhard Reuwich was the first to use cross-hatching (far harder to do than 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, arguably, has never been surpassed, and greatly increased the status of the single-leaf 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 monochrome 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 contrasted with areas in the normal black-line style. This was pioneered by Félix Vallotton.
In the 1860s, just as the Japanese themselves were becoming aware of Western art in general, Japanese prints began to reach Europe in considerable numbers, and became very fashionable, especially in France. They had a great influence on many artists, notably Édouard Manet, Pierre Bonnard, Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec, Edgar Degas, Paul Gauguin, Félix Vallotton and Mary Cassatt. In 1872 Jules Claretie dubbed the trend "Le Japonisme".
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. See below for Japanese influence in illustrations for children's books.
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.
Odawara-juku in the 1830s by Hiroshige in his series The Fifty-Three Stations of the Tōkaidō.
Coloured woodcuts first appeared in ancient China. The oldest known are three Buddhist images dating 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 the ukiyo-e and other forms.
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 Hu Zhengyan's 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:
Sumizuri-e (墨摺り絵, "ink printed pictures") - monochrome printing using only black ink
Benizuri-e (紅摺り絵, "crimson printed pictures") - red ink details or highlights added by hand after the printing process；green was sometimes used as well
Tan-e (丹絵) - orange highlights using a red pigment called tan
Aizuri-e (藍摺り絵, "indigo printed pictures"), Murasaki-e (紫絵, "purple pictures"), and other styles in which a single color would be used in addition to, or instead of, black ink
Urushi-e (漆絵) - a method in which glue was used to thicken the ink, emboldening the image; gold, mica and other substances were often used to enhance the image further. Urushi-e can also refer to paintings using lacquer instead of paint; lacquer was very rarely if ever used on prints.
Nishiki-e (錦絵, "brocade pictures") - a method in which multiple blocks were used for separate portions of the image, allowing a number of colors to be utilized to achieve incredibly complex and detailed images; a separate block would be carved to apply only to the portion of the image designated for a single color. Registration marks called kentō (見当) were used to ensure correspondence between the application of each block.
In the 19th century a number of different methods of colour printing using woodcut (technically Chromoxylography) were developed in Europe. George Baxter patented in 1835 a method using an intaglio line plate (or occasionally a lithograph), printed in black or a dark colour, and then overprinted with up to twenty different colours from woodblocks. Edmund Evans used relief and wood throughout, with up to eleven different colours, and latterly specialized in illustrations for children's books, using fewer blocks but overprinting non-solid areas of colour to achieve blended colours. Artists such as Randolph Caldecott, Walter Crane and Kate Greenaway were able to draw influence from the Japanese prints now available and fashionable in Europe to create a suitable style, with flat areas of colour.
In the 20th century, Ernst Ludwig Kirchner of the Die Brücke group developed a process of producing colored woodcut prints using a single block applying different colors to the block with a brush à la poupée and then printing (halfway between a woodcut and a monotype). A remarkable example of this technique is the 1915 Portrait of Otto Müller woodcut print from the collection of the British Museum.