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Woodcut in Art: Definition, Artists & History

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.

Many materials can be used to make art. Have you ever created an image using wood? In this lesson, explore the history of the woodcut in art and learn about artists who have used this printmaking method.

What is a Woodcut?

Some ways to make art have been around for a long time. A good example is the woodcut. A woodcut, one of the oldest forms of print-making, is made when an image is cut into a wooden surface, covered in ink, and printed on another surface like paper or fabric.

Carved woodblock (left) and image pulled (right) of Saint Sebastian
woodblock St. Sebastian

1. Art with woodcuts is a three-step process. First, an artist carves an image into a wooden plank using sharp blades and small chisels called gouges. Using repeated lines, they remove material from areas that won't be printed.

The process requires skill. You have to be careful when cutting the lines, especially in sections where the image is delicate and the wood might break. Once the material is cut away, it can't be put back. Any mistakes and you'd have to start over. And, if you want to use color in the actual printing process, you have to create a woodcut for each color.

2. When the carved wood block is finished, it is inked, usually with a roller. The rollers are like small, hard versions of the ones you might use to paint the inside walls of your house. The artist carefully applies ink only on the areas that haven't been cut away.

3. The inked block is then pressed onto fabric or paper, which results in an impression of the image. Because of wood's qualities in creating the printing blocks, woodcuts have a distinct appearance. They might be blocky and chunky or delicate and refined, but all woodcuts emphasize line.

History of the Woodcut

Woodcuts developed in China around the 5th century and were later adopted in Japan. At first, they were used to print texts like Buddhist scriptures.

In Europe, woodcuts were used for images beginning in the late 14th century, when paper began to be commercially manufactured in parts of Germany and France. The printing press also came into common use around this time.

As books became available in greater numbers, woodcuts were a popular medium for making illustrations. Many artists created woodcuts of scenes from the Bible, of landscapes, and of famous works they had painted. Woodcuts allowed for multiple and more affordable works of art.

After the 16th century, woodcuts fell out of favor in Europe, because more sophisticated printing methods had been developed using metal plates instead of wood. The method didn't disappear completely though, and woodcuts continued to be used for inexpensive posters and flyers.

In Japan during the Edo Period in the 1700s, woodcuts were used to create sophisticated images in a style of art called ukiyo-e, or 'floating world', which focused on private, sometimes sensual pleasures and decorative landscapes.

Through many different artistic periods, the woodcut continued to find practitioners. In Europe, the method enjoyed a resurgence of interest in the late 19th and early 20th century, when artists like Paul Gaugin and Edvard Munch created woodcuts that used the method's linear qualities to great effect.

Famous Woodcut Artists

Albrect Düre

Because woodcuts have such a long history, many artists have used them. Among the most famous is Albrect Dürer (1471-1528). Dürer, a German artist, apprenticed as a young man to a painter and printmaker in Nuremberg, which then was a center for book printing.

Being exposed to printmaking at a young age must have rubbed off on him. Dürer took to making woodcuts and turned them into a sophisticated art form, creating dynamic images with delicate lines and subtle shading. His woodcuts are some of the most famous in art.

Albrecht Durer, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, ca. 1497
Durer woodcut

Hans Baldung

Another artist known for woodcuts was Hans Baldung (1484 - 1545), also sometimes called Hans Baldung Grien, with 'Grien' being a nickname that related to the color green. Another German artist, he spent time in Albrecht Dürer's workshop.

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