Korean, Indian & German Woodblock Printing

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Some artists use wood to create images. People in many cultures have developed ways to print words and pictures on different surfaces. In this lesson, explore woodblock printing from Korea, India and Germany

What Is Woodblock Printing?

Through time, bold illustrations and bright patterns have been printed on many surfaces. In some places, artists used a technology in which images were carved into wood. This method was called woodblock printing.

In woodblock printing, as artist prepares an image by drawing or tracing it onto a block of wood. Then the artist carefully cuts away the areas that are not meant to be printed, leaving an impression of the image in relief, or raised from the surface behind it. Because the process uses sharp knives and chisels, the resulting image often has a very linear quality with prominent outlines. The woodblock is then inked or brushed with a substance like watercolor and pressed onto a surface, leaving an impression of the carved image.

Woodblock printing was invented in China around the 7th century. Over time, it spread from Asia to all parts of the globe. In India, it became prominent around the 12th century. In Europe, it caught on after the development of paper mills in the 1390s. In each place, it was used for different purposes, from creating illustrations and printing texts to decorating textiles.

Let's explore woodblock printing from three different cultures.

Korean Woodblock Printing

In addition to China, other Asian countries have used woodblocks as a printing medium.

In Korea, woodblock printing became prominent during the Koryo Dynasty in the 11th and 12th centuries. In this case, the process was used to print the Tripitaka or Three Baskets, the entire set of laws, codes, and scriptures that governed Buddhist monastic life. It was a monumental undertaking. Beginning around 1014, skilled carvers created blocks used to print over 6000 volumes that comprised the complete Tripitaka.

Example of a Korean printing block
Korean printing block

Buddhism wasn't the only religion or philosophy preserved via Korean woodblock printing. Woodblocks were also used to print a whole group of texts related to the traditions and philosophy of Confucianism. Confucianism is an Asian way of life and thinking that developed around the 5th century BC. It's similar to, but not exactly the same as, a religion.

Example of a Korean Confucian woodblock print
Korean Confucian block print

Between roughly 1460 and 1956, more than 64,000 woodblocks were used to print more than 700 books and documented related to a whole range of subjects, including philosophy, genealogy, history and geography. The blocks themselves even became important objects, being considered powerful symbols of learning.

Indian Woodblock Printing

In India, woodblocks have been used for centuries to print patterns on textiles.

The process of block-printing textiles began with intricate designs carved into wood blocks. Then the chosen textile was spread out flat, and the block dipped in dye and pressed onto the textile surface by hand. To create a whole decorated piece of fabric, the person doing the printing repeated the process until the pattern covered the surface.

Indian block-print pattern. To decorate a whole textile, this block would be printed many times across the textile surface
Indian block print pattern

Beginning about the 12th century, the Indian state of Rajasthan was a prominent center of woodblock printing. Using natural colors, artists printed on cotton fabrics. Patterns included floral and foliate (leaf-like) motifs, birds, and designs of curving flower-like forms known as boteh. We known the design by it's later name, Paisley. Colors could be bright and bold, and often included brilliant blues and reds. Indian block-printed textiles were imported throughout the world. In the 19th century, they became very popular in England where they had a great impact on fashion. And Paisley prints became all the rage.

Today, several regions in India, including Gujarat and Rajasthan, are still known for producing spectacular block-printed silks and other bright, bold textiles.

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