Notebook, 1993-

MATERIALS & METHODS - Drawing - Printing - Gallery Notes

Impression - State - Edition - Bon à Tirer

From: Works on Paper Series. Print, Drawing, and Photography Galleries. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

Works on Paper - Woodcut

I N D E X - Woodcut Techniques - The block for a woodcut - Distinguished from other types of print

Brief History - The Beginning of Woodcut - Woodcuts and Movable Type - Johannes Gutenberg - Dürer and the Artist's Woodcut - Chiaroscuro ["light and dark"] Woodcut Printing - Ugo da Carpi - The Woodcut and the Mass Media - Thomas Bewick - Wood engravings - Revival of the Artist's Woodcut - Paul Gauguin - Edvard Munch - German Expressionists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, and Emil Nolde - Fauve artists: Maurice de Vlaminck, Raoul Dufy, and Andre Derain - Pablo Picasso - Contemporary Woodcuts - Helen Frankenthaler - Roy Lichtenstein - Jim Dine - Georg Baselitz - Anselm Kiefer - [Suggested Reading]

The collections in the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs are shown in exhibitions that change regularly. For reasons of preservation, works of art on paper cannot be exposed to light for long periods of time. In addition, the size of the collections makes it possible to exhibit only a small portion at any one time. These selected exhibitions may focus on a particular period or artist, examine a certain technique, or follow a chosen theme.

Due to the nature of the changing exhibitions, this series of Gallery Notes does not discuss specific works of art on view. Instead, each one explains a certain technique and gives a brief history of its development, illustrated with major works form the Museum of Fine Arts collections. The Introductory Notes give an overview of basic printmaking techniques. We hope this information will help you understand and enjoy the current exhibition.

Woodcut Techniques
The woodcut is the earliest and simplest of the printmaking techniques. It is also the most enduring, having been in constant use for centuries, both as an artistic and a commercial means of disseminating ideas to a wide audience.

Woodcuts are relief prints. The design is drawn on the surface of a wooden block or plank. The areas that are to be blank are cut away, leaving raised the design that is to be printed. Ink is then rolled or daubed over the raised area. A sheet of paper is placed on top of the block and pressed against it, either in a press or by hand. This pressure transfers the ink to the paper. Since the print is the mirror image of the design on the block, the image must be conceived in reverse. A rubber stamp is a common example of a relief printing process.

The block for a woodcut can be cut from the log either lengthwise, along the grain, or crosswise, across the grain, each method producing a slightly different look in the final print. Virtually any kind of wood that can be cut is suitable. In his bird's eye view of Venice, printed in 1500, Jacopo da Barbari used six walnut blocks. Albrecht Dürer used pearwood, and Gauguin used boxwood. Early woodcut artists preferred a close grain which made it possible to cut very fines lines. In the past hundred years, artists have often used wood with a coarser grain, incorporating its natural pattern into their prints. Some modern artists use plywood. In this century, linoleum has been a frequent alternative to wood. The blocks are cut with straight knives or scooped ones called gouges. In recent years some artists have begun to use power tools.

An important feature of the woodcut is its technical simplicity. Wood is readily available and inexpensive. Cutting a block does not necessarily require special tools or training, and though a press is generally used, it is not required. This simplicity has made the woodcut popular throughout the ages both with folk artists and with more sophisticated practitioners who value the direct involvement with the printing process that it makes possible.

With a little comparative looking, woodcuts can easily be distinguished from other types of prints. The lines in a woodcut indent the paper; they tend to be bolder and heavier and vary more in width than lines produced by the etching or engraving processes. The dark areas in an engraving or etching are really a fine network of many incised lines, whereas the dark areas in a woodcut may be a continuous, dark shape, printed from a solid area of wood. Sometimes the actual grain of the wood is visible in the print.

Brief History
The Beginning of Woodcut
The oldest woodcuts in Western art are religious images from the early decades of the fifteenth century. The relief process probably came to Europe from Asia, which had an established woodcut tradition by that time. These early European woodcuts generally depicted a single religious figure and were often sold to devout pilgrims as souvenirs. The simple images soon became more elaborate, with the addition of more figures [fig. 1] and, later, a few lines of religious text. Bound collections of these single sheets are called block books. With their bold outlines, often enhanced with hand coloring, and their brief texts, they were the popular literature of the Middle Ages.^

Woodcuts and Movable Type
In the 1450s Johannes Gutenberg perfected a standardized system for printing with movable type; the result was a revolution in the production of books. This development gave the woodcut a significant role as an accompaniment to text, because it became possible for the first time to print identical copies of illustrated books on anatomy, botany, geometry, and architecture. Previously, works on these subjects were often not illustrated or were incorrectly illustrated as a result of differing interpretations by successive hand copyists. Geography and travel books that pictured exotic lands were also popular. The woodblocks withstood the wear of many printings, and since both the woodcut illustrations and the type were in relief, they could be printed simultaneously. Printed books became cheaper and more numerous. To meet the demand, large print shops appeared in Italy and Germany, in which artists such as Albrecht Dürer received their early training. As a rule, the artist would draw directly on the block as a guide. The block would then be cut by a professional craftsman.

Dürer and the Artist's Woodcut
Dürer infused the woodcut medium with a new and powerful individual style and was among the first to sign and date his prints consistently. In The Four Horsemen from the Apocalypse, the strong black lines model form and distinguish textures without losing their expressive calligraphic quality. His hundreds of woodcut images, especially those in his series of the Apocalypse and the Life of the Virgin, are some of the most famous in Western art. Dürer was both a technical and a stylistic innovator, and his influence upon other sixteenth-century printmakers such as Hans Baldung and Albrecht Altdorfer was profound. In addition to being a prolific in woodcut, Dürer was also a master engraver and an early etcher.

Although no woodcut artist of Dürer's stature emerged in the following centuries, there was no decrease in the flow of matter printed or illustrated with woodcuts. The basic woodcut process was not greatly changed, though some innovations in the printing of flat areas of tone or color were explored. In 1516, an Italian artist named Ugo da Carpi had applied to the Senate of Venice for a patent for a woodcut process, chiaroscuro ["light and dark"] woodcut printing, already in use in Germany. To produce these prints, which looked very much like wash drawing s, separate blocks were cut to print large areas of tone. The blocks were then printed in succession, one on top of the other, using different colors of ink, and the result was a print with far more tonal variations than the usual woodcut.

The Woodcut and the Mass Media
In 1780 Thomas Bewick, a Scotsman, found that by using an engraver's burin on the end grain of the wood, he could produce a print with the virtues of both woodcut and engraving. Wood engravings, as his prints were called, had the fine lines and precise detail of more expensive engravings on metal. However, since they were relief prints, wood engravings could be printed simultaneously with type, whereas engravings on metal had to be printed separately. Bewick's own output was limited in scale, confined primarily to charming miniature book illustrations [notably those for A History of English Birds ] and bookplates. However, his discovery was of great importance, for it provided an efficient and economical way to satisfy the demands of an increasingly literate public for inexpensive illustrated reading matter.

Following Bewick's invention, thousands of illustrated periodicals appeared. To meet the need for wood engravings, large shops arose, with craftsmen whose job was to transfer drawings to blocks and cut them accordingly. Often artists would draw on a large block composed of several small ones; these were then separated, each section going to a different cutter. In the final step, all the sections were given to a specialist who cut the edges to match so that the block produced one unified illustration. The public's curiosity about current events like the Crimean and Civil wars could be satisfied by wood engravings in journals such as The Illustrated London News and Harper's Weekly. Winslow Homer was one of the artists who designed wood engravings for Harper's Weekly.

Illustrated books were popular throughout the nineteenth century, and deluxe gift editions were often embellished with wood engravings designed by well-known artists. The public's visual conception of characters from Dante's Inferno, Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland, and the novels of Anthony Trollope were based on wood engravings by Gustave Doré, John Tenniel, and John Everett Millais respectively.

Revival of the Artist's Woodcut
Two printing methods perfected in the early and mid -nineteenth century, lithography and photography, soon began to compete with the wood engraving and eventually supplanted it as a mass medium. However, there was a revival of interest in the woodcut technique among artists.

When Paul Gauguin returned from Tahiti in 1893, one of his first projects was the illustration with woodcuts of his manuscript, "Noa Noa." While Gauguin used the tools of the traditional wood engraver, he worked in an idiosyncratic and novel way. He worked his blocks with a combination of knives, gouges and abrasives to produce prints with an initially primitive impact which belies their complexity. In woodcuts such as Manao Tupapau [Watched by the Spirit of the Dead] Gauguin also experimented with color, using multiple blocks, stencils, and other processes that remain mysterious. Gauguin prepared the way for many other artists, who also appreciated th special graphic qualities of the woodcut and valued the freedom for variation and expression made possible by hand printing.

The Norwegian artist Edvard Munch also cut his own blocks and experimented with color combinations to produce varying interpretations of one image. Munch, like Gauguin, used the wood itself as an element in the design, allowing the grain of the plank to show. Munch also led the way for subsequent artists by using woodcut and lithography in the same print; in the twentieth century, many artists have experimented with new combinations and variations of traditional techniques.

The woodcut's technical simplicity and the rapidity and vigor with which it could be produced attracted German Expressionists such as Ernst Ludwig Kirchner, Erich Heckel, and Emil Nolde. These artists produced images that have a forceful graphic power and roughhewn look that was quite new and startling at the time of their first publication in the early twentieth century. In France during the same period, the woodcut appealed to the Fauve artists: Maurice de Vlaminck, Raoul Dufy, and Andre Derain. Pablo Picasso produced a few rare early woodcuts; his later linoleum cuts represent his greatest contribution to the relief media.

Contemporary Woodcuts
In this country, there was a resurgence of interest in the woodcut in the 1970s. Painter Helen Frankenthaler saw its potential as a medium of expression for the ideas about color and surface saturation which she had explored in her painting. For works such as Savage Breeze, 1977, Frankenthaler cut sheets of veneered plywood into rhythmic shapes with a jigsaw. After inking the surface of these close-grained pieces in different colors, she fitted them back together and printed them over an underlying layer of fine wood grain printed in white. Thus the final image is made up of interlocking fields of color, textured by the grain of the plywood and broken by a few thin white lines.

Frankenthaler's lead was followed by other artists who are key figures in the development of contemporary art, such as Roy Lichtenstein and Jim Dine. While bringing new ideas to the woodcut, these artists have adhered to certain venerable traditions. Like Dürer, they all work closely with professional craftsmen. In Two Hearts in a Forest, Jim Dine combines woodcut and lithography as Munch did earlier in the century. The heart shapes are roughly gouged from the wooden plank, which is then printed in black to create an overall texture while the cut-away areas reveal the colored lithograph below.

The most recent generation of artists also finds the woodcut or linocut appropriate to their manner of working. Artists such as Georg Baselitz and Anselm Kiefer, working out of the tradition of the German Expressionists, emphasize the rough tactile qualities of the materials. These and other characteristics of the woodcut will no doubt continue to inspire artistic experimentation and expression in the future.

Suggested Reading
Ivins, William M., Jr. How Prints Look . Boston: Beacon Press, 1958.

Peterdi, Gabor. Printmaking . Rev. ed. New York: Macmillan, 1980.

Saff, Donald and Deli Sacilotto. Printmaking: History and Process . New York: Holt, Rinehart, and Winston, 1978.

Hind, Arthur M. A History of Engraving and Etching from the Fifteenth Century to the Year 1914 . New York: Dover, 1923.

Ivins, William M ., Jr. Prints and Visual Communication . Cambridge: MIT Press, 1969.

Mayor, A. Hyatt. Prints and People . Princeton University Press, 1980.

Exhibition catalogues of the Department of Prints, Drawings, and Photographs, Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.

This is one in a series of gallery notes on the Prints, Drawings, and Photographs collections of the Museum of Fine Arts, made possible by a grant from the National Endowment for the Arts. The entire series, including an introduction, four gallery notes for adults, and one for young people, is for sale in the Museum Shop. This gallery note was prepared by Madeleine Johnson.

1984, Museum of Fine Arts, 465 Huntington Avenue, Boston, MA 02115. Telephone 617-267-9300.

[From: Drawing Techniques, Gallery Notes P5 - Works on Paper Series. Print, Drawing, and Photography Galleries. The Museum of Fine Arts, Boston.]



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