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In woodblock printmaking, the parts of the wooden block which should not appear in the final print are removed by cutting them out with knifes. For printing, the remaining raised parts of the block are inked and a paper is rubbed on it by hand with a tool or the paper is printed with a press, thus creating a side-inverted impression. This method, which also includes the techniques of wood engraving and lino cut, is called relief printmaking.




Woodblock printing, the oldest printmaking technique, was born in China. Preliminary stages were the techniques of cutting or shaping stamps and seals. The most important precondition for the development of woodblock printmaking was the creation of paper which dates to 105 AD in China.

A first early "printmaking" technique was stone rubbing. Stones, engraved with calligraphies, were closely covered with humid paper. When the paper was dry, ink was spread onto it, leaving the engraved parts white.

Stone rubbing lead to the development of woodblock printmaking, or both techniques emerged at the same time. The oldest remaining woodblock printmaking book in China, the Diamond sutra from Dunhuang, a scroll with a beautiful drawing as frontispiece, dates to 868 AD. It is done in such a perfect way that a much earlier development is very likely. The oldest remaining woodblock print was found in a Korean temple which dates to 751 AD. Strongly influenced by China were the prints of the Buddhist texts "dharani" in Japan in 770, though it is not known from which material the plates were made. In the first centuries in China woodblock printmaking was used mainly for the reproduction of Buddhist texts and images, but also secular purposes.
More about Chinese woodblock printmaking

Fig.: woodblock print, printed the Western way with oil-based inks, 2002


In Europe, woodblock printmaking emerged much later. Printing on fabric with wooden stencils was common for centuries, however, also in Europe woodblock printmaking started with the beginning paper production in 1390. Thus the first woodblock prints were created around 1400. They were mostly done in collaboration work of skilled craftsmen. A draftsman created a design on paper or drew the design directly onto the block, which was cut by a cutter and later printed, and often also hand-coloured, by a printer.

Mainly pear wood was used, for very detailed designs also the hard boxwood, for large areas the soft basswood. The pointed knife for line cutting was held like a pencil, the rest of the wood was removed with gouges and chisels. In the beginning, printing was probably done by stamping the block onto the paper. More practical was placing the paper onto the block and rubbing it with a tool. Later, especially after the invention of printing type, presses were used for printing. In the beginning both water-based ink and oil-based ink was used, later the use of oil-based ink prevailed.

The first woodblock prints were playing cards and single sheet prints, often images of saints. Stylistically, woodblock printing starts in Europe in the end of the high Gothic, and is showing its clear spiritual drawn line.

The single sheet prints were followed by block books around 1430: several printed single sheets, bound to books and with hand-written text, which later was cut into the block. Favourite themes of the block books were the "Biblia Pauperum" (bible of the poor), the "Totentanz" (dance of death) or the "Planetenbücher" (books of planets).

With Gutenbergs invention of typography in 1440, the creation of the block books ended, as text and image were now separated and the relation between text and image changed completely. While in the block book the focus was on the image, it was now on the text. Printing was now done with the help of a press, while the height of the block was adjusted to the height of the lead letters.

Around 1500, woodblock printmaking had its prime as a way of book illustration. Its centres were Germany (Augsburg, Ulm, Nürnberg) and the Netherlands. One of the most important works of this time was the "Schedelsche Weltchronik", which was illustrated with 2000 woodblock prints. It was printed by around 100 printers with the help of 24 presses in Nürnberg.

In the second half of the 15th century, woodblock printmaking underwent a strong change: with a lively way of drawing with hatching more realistic impressions of space and light could be achieved. Woodblock printmaking became an art form and prints of highest artistic stage were created by artists like Hans Burgkmair, Lucas Cranach, Hans Baldung Grien and Lucas van Leyden. The cutters, which cut these challenging designs got more appreciation and sometimes cut their seal into the block.

With Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) from Nürnberg the woodblock print came to a new level of sophistication. His big woodblock sequences, especially the "Apokalypse" with its monumental, dramatic compositions, made him famous with their forcefulness and brought the woodblock print to new prominence.

With the baroque era and its rather courtly art, woodblock printmaking became less important. Engraving and intaglio became the mainly used printmaking techniques in Europe.

In the mid 18th century, the first wood engravings emerged in England. Finest lines were engraved into hard woods like boxwood, often prepared as end-grain blocks. Wood engraving was mainly used for book illustration, but also drawings of artists were reproduced this way, for example Adolf Menzels portfolio "History of Friedrich the Great". With the development of photographic techniques for printing, the elaborate engraving became uneconomic.

The new artist movement to create "original artist prints", emerging in the mid 19th century, first didn't include the use of the woodblock print. But the opening of Japan in 1867 and the resulting import of Japanese woodblock prints to the Western world hat a strong impulse on it. Artists who were working with the woodblock in a new way were Gauguin, Munch und the German expressionists amongst many others.


Fig.: woodblock printed the Western way with oil-based inks, 2000



Recommended woods for detailed designs are hard woods from fruit trees like cherry or pear. Easier to cut is alder wood, or the soft basswood. Also some plywood can be used, but tends to sliver.

Transferring the design

The design can either be drawn directly onto the block or transferred with the help of carbon paper.
In the Asian tradition, the design is done on a special thin paper, which is glued facedown onto the block. Before cutting, the paper fibres are carefully rubbed off, leaving only the drawing on the block.


Several knifes can be used for cutting like pointed knifes for line cutting (in Japan with thehangi-to, in China with the quan dao), u- and v-gouges and chisels. Today also some machines make can be used to make the cutting easier. Knifes have to kept sharp by repeated sharpening.


In the Western tradition, oil-based ink is used for printing woodblocks. This is applied evenly in a thin layer with a roller. The paper is place onto the inked block and hand-printed with a rubbing tool or printed with a press. The ink sits as a layer on top of the paper.

In Japanese woodblock printing, water-based ink and a printing paste from rice starch is applied to the block and mixed on it to an even film. A humid paper is placed on the inked block and hand-printed with the printing tool baren. This way, the ink is pressed deeply into the paper.

In Chinese woodblock printing, the block is inked with water-based ink without any printing paste and the used paper is dry.

Fig.: woodblock print with water-based inks and embossing on hand-made paper, 2003



Brown, Kathan: "ink, paper, metal, wood (painters and sculptors at Crown Point Press)", Chronicle Books, San Francisco, 1996

Mayer, Rudolf: "Gedruckte Kunst", VEB Verlag der Kunst, Dresden, 1984

Laitinen, Kari; Moilanen, Tuula; Tanttu, Antti: "The Art and Craft of Woodblock Printmaking", University of Art and Design Helsinki, 1999

Sotriffer, Kristian: "Die Druckgraphik – Entwicklung, Technik, Eigenart", Schroll & Co, Wien, 1966

Saff, Donald and Sacilotto, Deli: "Printmaking: History and Process", Wadsworth Inc Fulfillment, New York, 1978

Walker, George A.: "The Woodcut Artist's Handbook – Techniques and Tools for Relief Printmaking", Firefly Books, 2005

Westley, Ann: "Relief Printmaking", A & C Black, London, 2001

Wye, Deborah: "Artists & Prints – Masterworks from the Museum of Modern Art", The Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2004



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