Block Printing: History & Techniques

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  • 0:00 The Value of Block Printing
  • 0:36 History of Block Printing
  • 0:59 Techniques: Cutting the Block
  • 1:43 Printing Techniques
  • 2:27 Multiple Colors
  • 2:50 Modern Uses
  • 3:17 Lesson Summary
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Cassie Beyer

Cassie holds a master's degree in history and has spent five years teaching history and the humanities from ancient times to the Renaissance.

Block printing has been a method of reproducing images and text on both paper and fabric for over 2,000 years. Learn the history of this technique as well as the various methods and materials used over time in this lesson.

The Value of Block Printing

Imagine for a moment that you live in the year 1,000 C.E. and you have an idea you want to write down and share with others. Maybe you have important news to spread, or just a really funny anecdote. But you have no internet, no computers, and no copy machines. You are left with two options:

  1. Write your document over and over, a tedious and time-consuming task, or
  2. Create a block print, where you produce the page once on a block of wood and print it as many times as desired.

Option two sounds much better, right?

History of Block Printing

The earliest known examples of block prints come from China over 2,000 years ago. From there, it spread to India. It didn't reach Europe until hundreds of years later. Block printing continued to be commonly used in Asia until the 19th century, when it was replaced by modern developments in print-making. At first, block printing was only used for artwork printed on fabric. Later, it was also applied to paper.

Techniques: Cutting the Block

Historical block printing used wooden blocks, sometimes known as woodcuts, as a printing plate. For this method to work, the block needs to be hand carved in the image of the picture or text one wished to produce. However, there are two complications to this process:

  1. Because the printing surface will be the raised portion of the block, one would have to carve out the negative space. Negative space is the part of the image where there will be no ink, thus showing the color of the fabric or paper it's being printed on.
  2. When one prints a woodcut, the result is a reverse image of the block. As such, the entire design will need to be cut into the block as a mirror image. This is particularly difficult with text, since both words and letters will have to be written backwards.

Printing Techniques

Once a block is finished, one must apply ink to the raised surface of the block. Then one needs to transfer the ink to fabric or paper. This is done in one of three ways.

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