One of the oldest forms of printmaking, the woodcut, is still being applied today by artists who both embrace the tradition and seek to bring the ancient medium into the future. In this article, we will discuss the definition and developments within the medium. The woodcut is a technique of relief printing in which the artist cuts away from the surface of a polished block of wood. The areas that are not cut, the relief, will then be inked with either oil-based or water-based ink so that an impression can be transferred to wood or fabric when pressure is applied, either by hand with a barren or wooden spoon, or in a printing press.
Woodcut print, woodblock print, and wood engraving print are terms that are often used interchangeably, but there can be some distinctions. The distinction between woodcut print and woodblock print is vague, and some people define the terms the same way. Sometimes, we see “woodblock” used to describe East Asian relief prints printed from wood, and “woodcut” for the West’s relief prints printed from wood, however this is a preference that is not universally followed.
Developed in Europe to illustrate books and manuscripts, European woodcut prints are most often printed with an oil-based ink applied in an even, thin layer with a roller. When defined this way, European woodcuts usually refer to images and usually contain very little text.
When interpreted as an East Asian application, woodblock prints can feature text, patterns, or images. The design would first be drawn on paper that would be transferred to another partially transparent paper. This thin, transparent paper would be pasted to the polished wooden block. The carver would cut around the design, and ink would be applied to the raised relief surface. A sheet of paper is laid across the inked wood block. Using a flat, round wooden pad called a baren, pressure is applied to the reverse of the sheet so that the ink transfer from the wood to the paper. In both Chinese and Japanese woodblock printing, water-based ink is used. However, the water-based ink and rice starch paste are mixed in and applied on the block in an even film. Damp paper is used so that the ink is deeply pressed into the paper. Chinese woodblock prints use water-based ink printed on dry paper.
No matter what term is used, woodcut or woodblock prints are traditionally cut along the grain. Wood engraving is a technique developed in the 18th century in which the design is cut into the end grain of the wood block, instead of along the grain, on a harder wood than the typical woodcut. Wood engravings tend to have more detail and are often smaller. This is because the block that is cut in order to make a wood engraving could not be longer than the diameter of the tree trunk or limb, unless another block is assembled. A larger block size can be made by joining a number of smaller blocks together; these blocks must be the same thickness and density to achieve the desired appearance. By cutting into the engrain, the carver could use a burin instead of a knife. The burin is a very thick tool that allowed the engraver to create detailed, delicate lines, such as cross-hatching.
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