Woodcut is a relief printing process in which the areas around the image to be printed are cut away from a wooden block, leaving the image in relief.
The block is taken from the plank of a tree, cut lengthways, usually a soft wood such as pear or beech. The artist draws the design, either directly onto the block or onto a sheet of paper attached to it, and then cuts it themselves or hands over to a professional cutter to prepare the block for printing. Today this can also be done by a laser-cutting machine. The block is inked and placed on a flat surface with a sheet of paper on top. It is then worked over by hand with a tool called a Baren or the back of a wooden spoon or put through a printing press, so that the ink from the blocks transfers the image onto the paper.
A Brief History of Woodcut in Europe
In Europe, woodcut was first used in the Middle Ages for printing simple designs onto fabric, but with the introduction of paper manufacture in the early 15th century it also became a popular method for the printing of religious images and playing cards which were distributed at fairs.
The first book with woodcut illustrations recorded in Europe was The Nuremberg Chronicle, printed in Germany in 1493. At around the same time, goldsmiths began to keep records of their engraved designs by printing them onto paper, paving the way for the artists of the late 15th century who began to use printmaking as an artistic medium, the best known of whom was Albrecht Dürer.
Dürer, son of a goldsmith and an apprentice in the studio that produced the illustrations for the Chronicle, became a master of both the techniques of engraving and woodcut. He recognized the commercial potential of printmaking as a means of marketing and distributing his images to a much wider public and had the skill to do this for himself.
Other Renaissance artists, not drawn to printmaking themselves, also recognized the value of the print in terms of broadcasting their images. Raphael formed a lifelong collaboration with both the highly-skilled Italian engraver Marcantonio Raimondi (1480–1534), and the Italian master of woodcut Ugo da Carpi (c.1480-c.1532). Marcantonio’s engravings played a vital role in circulating images of Raphael’s compositions throughout Europe, while da Carpi disseminated Raphael’s wash drawings successfully as colour woodcuts, known as chiaroscuro woodcuts, in which white highlights are cut out of one or more colour tone blocks, creating an impression of a watercolour wash.
Text © Helen Rosslyn, A Buyer's Guide to Prints. Courtesy Royal Academy of Arts Publications.
Film by Wayne Derrick, Inspire Films.