Woodcut is a relief-printing technique, in which the printing surface is raised above other portions of the block, which are cut away so that they remain blank. The blocks are made from well-seasoned planks c. 25 mm thick, cut from the length of the tree and usually of fairly soft wood, such as pear; alder, beech, cherry, sycamore and walnut are also used. Because the image is reversed by printing, the design on the block must be in reverse of the intended direction. It can be drawn with pen, pencil or brush directly on the block, which may be prepared with a white ground. Alternatively, pigments brushed on to the back of a design may be transferred using a stylus. Drawings are sometimes pasted on to the surface of the block either face upwards or face down in order to reverse the design (having been oiled to make them transparent). Photographic methods of transfer became available in the 1860s, but these have been used more commonly for commercial wood-engraving than for woodcut.
Using a sharp knife, the design is cut by making two incisions along each side of the drawn lines to remove a fine shaving of wood. One incision is inclined away from the line and the other towards it, to leave a line with a conical section between two v-shaped grooves. Once the design is established, the surplus wood is removed with scoops, gouges and chisels, leaving a network of ‘lines’ or ‘hatching’ at surface level. In fact the cutter often creates graphic signs that give the impression of a cross-hatched pen drawing. During printing the summits of the lines are gradually worn down, and the blocks also often develop splits, breaks and wormholes, so that later impressions are coarser. A worn block may be copied by pasting an impression from it on to a new one and cutting a second version.
In order to withstand pressure during printing, the lines cannot be cut too thin, so woodcuts can never be as precise as engravings. Broader effects can be achieved by using gouges and chisels on their own and by exploiting the textures produced by the grain of the wood. Mistakes may be corrected by removing part of the block and inserting a plug, but the joins often open up during printing. State changes therefore usually involve removal of part of the work, not additions to the design. White-line woodcuts are created by cutting the design directly into the block, leaving large areas untouched to print as solid colour. Until the late 19th century the cutting was normally done by separate craftsmen, usually members of the carpenters’ guild. Black-line woodcutting required expert training and was too laborious and time-consuming to appeal to the creative artist.
The ink used must be stiff enough to remain on the raised parts of the block and not run down into the hollows. It is applied with a dabber or, since the 19th century, with a roller. The support for the image is normally paper, preferably an absorbent type, which has been dampened before printing. Sometimes vellum or fabric is used. The first European woodcuts seem to have been stamped by hand or mallet, without a press, like early textiles. Alternatively, the back of the paper was rubbed using a burnisher, pebble or smooth wooden rubber to transfer the ink. Following the invention of movable type, known in China as early as the mid-11th century and in the West from the mid-15th century, simple screw presses came into use; these are still used. The pressure is applied vertically and uniformly and does not need to be heavy. In the 19th century burnishing was revived as a method of taking proofs of woodcuts.
Most early woodcuts were printed in black or brownish ink, a practice that has continued; they were often coloured, either free-hand or using a stencil. Blocks may also be printed blind (without ink) to create ‘seal prints’ or embossed paper reliefs. A single block can be printed in colours, either by selective inking of different areas of the image, or by sawing the block into sections, inking these separately and slotting them together again for printing. Colour woodcuts may also be printed from several blocks with the colours either separate or superimposed to create new shades. In Japan and, to a lesser extent, China, where woodcut has been the dominant graphic medium, complex methods of colour printing have been developed to achieve very subtle effects. A number of European artists have adopted these techniques.
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