Woodcuts became one “of the great forces which were to transform mediaeval into modern life,” as George E. Woodberry wrote in his 1883 book History of the Wood Engraving. As the author noted, woodcuts not only revolutionized printmaking processes, but also people’s ability to access literature and art.
By the 15th century, people had started using the technique to print multiples of texts and images. The process of carving out every letter of a book from a block of wood, however, was a grueling task, so only popular works, such as the Bible and Buddhist sutras, were chosen for this type of reproduction. Prior to these woodcuts, books were almost exclusively available to wealthy and royal individuals––so once texts and images hit the printing press, they became more common goods.
While the woodcut technique first became popular for its practical uses, such as printing books and decorating textiles, it eventually became an art form of its own. Woodcuts are a subset of relief printmaking—where you carve out negative space from a surface, leaving only the lines and shapes that you want to appear in the print. For example, an artist making a woodcut will carve into the surface of a piece of wood, then coat the remaining surface with ink. Next, they’ll typically place the inked surface on a piece of paper, and finally, they’ll create their print by placing pressure on the back of their block––with a roller, printing press, or other tool––to transfer the ink onto the page.
To alter the surface of a block of wood, many artists use special knives and other tools, such as gauges, to carve in the direction of the wood’s grain. One feature that sets woodcuts apart from other printmaking techniques is the residual wood grain texture the block leaves behind.
Woodblock printing utilizes a similar process; the main difference between woodblock prints and woodcuts is that the former uses water-based inks, which allow for more sensitive washes of color, and the latter uses oil-based inks. Japanese artists were using woodblocks to create
prints in the mid-17th century. Ukiyo
translates to “floating world” in Japanese, and in these prints, flowers, wrestlers, women, mountains, and other subjects were rendered with flattened planes of color, hovering in the composition.