Woodcut

The term Woodcut generally refers to an illustration or text produced via relief printing with wooden and metal blocks. As Arthur Hind explains “The printing of a woodcut (see fig.1) is similar in method to printing from type, the ink being transferred from the surface of the parts in relief. The pressure applied is vertical, on the same principal as the ordinary printing press, and the power required is considerably less than in the double-roller copper-plate” (Hind, 2).

Fig.1 – The Printer  Woodcut depicting a printing press.

Fig.1 – The Printer
Woodcut depicting a printing press.

Design in woodcut may be approached from two opposite points of view: one in which the relief is intended for the design itself, i.e. as black lines (see fig.2) showing against a white ground; one which the furrow is regarded as the design, as white lines (see fig.3) showing against black ground (ibid. 18) The black line method is a negative one in so far as the cutter is concerned, for his business is merely to remove the whites, i.e. the negative parts of the design. It is for the most part a facsimile method. Most of the famous early designers of woodcut, e.g. Dürer and Holbein, left the cutting to others. The white line method is positive, and requires the original artist’s own hand on the block if the full vitality of his design is to be preserved (ibid. 18).

Fig.2 – The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse One of the most famous woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer. Example of a woodcut where the black line technique of cutting and printing is employed.

Fig.2 – The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse
One of the most famous woodcuts by Albrecht Dürer. Example of a woodcut where the black line technique of cutting and printing is employed.

Fig.3 – The Standard Bearer of Unterwalden .Woodcut depicting a foot soldier from the Canton of Unterwalden Example of a woodcut where the white-line technique is employed.

Fig.3 – The Standard Bearer of Unterwalden .Woodcut depicting a foot soldier from the Canton of Unterwalden
Example of a woodcut where the white-line technique is employed.

Woodcuts were the most economical means of illustrating texts, both because they were usually cheaper to make than engravings and because one could pull thousands of impressions from a single, well-cared for block. Woodcuts were also technically the most logical medium to combine with printed texts because they could be set, inked, and printed together with the movable type in a single operation under the supervision of the printer of the text (Bowen, 2). The inclusion of woodcut illustrations within a body of text was not subject to any additional, separate, fees; the rates for printing text and illustration alike were merely calculated and based upon the costs of type and paper (Ibid. 156).

The development and origin of the woodcut illustration and technique comes associated with that of Woodblock Printing, where text, images and patterns of any kind would be printed by stamping or rubbing inked wood blocks (and, in the first instances, stone blocks) onto cloth or fabric. The first use to which wood blocks appear to have been applied was in Egypt in the printing of textiles (…) it was about the same period (VI or VII centuries A.D.) that block printing, whether on textiles or paper, appear to have been introduced in China, and it is here that the earliest impressions on paper are known (Hind, 64).

It was in the 15th century that the woodcut as an artistic medium reached its peak. The work and Single-leaves (woodcuts and illustrations produced and sold separate from any kind of text, much like a painting) of Albrecht Dürer (see fig.2) greatly contributed to the evolution and reputation of the medium.

Not merely Single-leaf woodcuts were produced during the 15th century but also small books (consisting of about 50 pages of almost exclusively religious material) were printed as woodcuts from woodblocks which contained text and illustration alike or only text. These are referred to as Block-books (see fig.4)

Fig.4 – Example from Apocalypse of Saint John  Example of an extract of a block book.

Fig.4 – Example from Apocalypse of Saint John
Example of an extract of a block book.

and the material would be carved entirely on one single block, instead of combining movable type and the separate woodcut. In comparison with developments in Europe, it is of interest to note that in China block-books preceded books printed from movable type by several centuries (Hind, 65).

After the first half of the 16th century, development of the woodcut began to decline. Copper engraving became the most common and popular medium of book printing. Woodcuts remained important in printing material of specific, emerging, areas, such as botany (Woudhuysen, 1265). The work of Thomas Bewick as an engraver and his elegant illustrations led to a sizeable late-18th, mid-19th century interest and industry in illustrating both books and magazines (Ibid. 1265). Woodcut and use of wood engraving became important features of private houses and presses in fine printing during the 20th century (ibid. 1265).

Bibliography:
Bowen & Imhof. Christopher Plantin and Engraved Book Illustrations in Sixteenth-Century Europe. United Kingdom: Cambridge University Press, 2008;
Hind, Arthur. An Introduction to a History of Woodcut with a detailed survey of work done in the 15th century. Dover Publications: London, 1963. Vol.1.
Suarez, Michael F., and H. W. Woudhuysen. The Oxford Companion to the Book. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010. vol.2.

Illustrations bibliography:
Amman, Jost. The Printer. 1568. Frankfurt am Main. 14 October 2013
Anonymous. Apocalypse of Saint John. ca 1470. Germany. 14 October 2013
Dürer, Albrecht. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse. 1497-8. Nuremberg. 14 October 2013
Graf, Urs. The Standard Bearer of Unterwalden. 1521. Switzerland. 14 October 2013

Contributed by Tiago Vieira.

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