Woodblock printmaking, also known as xylography, is one of the most traditional and fascinating methods of printmaking. A woodblock is made by carving an image into the surface of a piece of wood, with the printing parts remaining level with the surface while the non-printing parts are removed with chisels and carving tools. The surface is covered with ink by rolling over the surface with an ink-covered roller called brayer, or by brushing pigments onto the raised areas. Paper is then placed face-down on the woodblock and pressure is applied to the back, either by printing press or with a baren. The colours are then transferred to the paper by pressure, and a mirror image of the surface of the woodblock is printed.
The woodcut is the most ancient printmaking technique initially used in China and Egypt to make seals and stamps. This artform was later adopted by the Japanese who reached a high level of technical skill developing a new artform which influenced the western world in the late 19th century.
Woodblock printmaking had already been used in Europe in the 14th century
for the production of primitive religious figures printed for veneration and sold as "souvenirs" to pilgrims. Such woodcuts were kept inside travelling chests or sewn onto clothing to protect from evil forces but were not seen as an artform until the introduction of printing from movable type in the mid-15th century. At that time, the woodcut was employed mainly to illustrate religious books. Within a few years, thanks to the works of Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein, this technique flourished. Sadly, only a century later this artform started to decline due to the increase in popularity of line engraving and etching which offered a richer and more flexible line.
Vincent Van Gogh and other artists of the post-impressionism movement of the late 19th century were part of the European art craze inspired by the Japanese woodcut prints, a new art brought to Europe from a newly opened Japan.
Any kind of wood can be used; the softer the wood, the easier the cutting but, also, the rougher the result. So, when planning a very detailed picture with many fine lines, a wood from a fruit tree is generally chosen for its hardness. Recommended woods for detailed designs are hard woods from fruit trees like cherry or pear. Easier to cut is alder wood, or the soft basswood. Plywood can also be used, but tends to sliver.
Transferring the design
The design can be drawn directly onto the block or transferred with the help of carbon paper. Another method in the Asian tradition, is to draw onto a special thin paper, which is then glued face down onto the block. Before cutting, the paper fibres are carefully rubbed off, leaving only the drawing on the block.
For carving there are three basic cutting knives: A pointed one for the outline, another for removing wide unwanted areas (U-shaped knives) and another for trimming waste near the printing areas( v-gouges and chisels)
In the Western tradition, oil-based ink is used for printing woodblocks, applied evenly with a brayer in a thin layer. The paper is placed onto the inked block and hand-printed with a rubbing tool such as a baren or printed with a press.
In the Japanese tradition, water-based ink and a printing paste from rice starch is applied to the block and mixed on it to an even film. Damp paper is placed onto the inked block and gently hand-printed using a baren. In Chinese woodblock printing, the block is inked with water-based ink without any printing paste and the paper is used dry.
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