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Woodcuts: Medieval, Japanese & German Expressionist

Instructor: Amy Jackson

Amy has a BFA in Interior Design as well as 19 years teaching experience and a doctorate in education.

This lesson will focus on the history of woodcuts. We'll explore examples of medieval, Japanese and German Expressionist woodcuts as well as learn about artists who employed this style.

What Is a Woodcut?

Woodcut, is a method of relief printing, in which a raised image is inked and then pressed, stamped, or rubbed onto a medium to produce prints. Have you ever made a hand print using ink? This is similar to relief printing.

Woodcuts use raised images carved into wood blocks to create prints on fabric or paper. A drawing is created on a block of wood and the area around the drawn lines is cut away leaving the design to be inked.

Woodcuts are one of the oldest methods of making fine art. The process of creating a woodcut is labor intensive, and most woodcuts required the expertise of multiple artisans. An artist designs the print, a carver cuts the wood block, and a printer prints the woodcut image. If a work is to be distributed to a mass audience, a publisher funds and circulates the finished works.

The first woodcut on fabric is thought to have been done in China in the 5th century. The use of woodcuts for fine art really didn't take off until large quantities of paper began to be manufactured in Germany and France toward the end of the 14th century.

Medieval Woodcuts

The Medieval period, or the Middle Ages, spans almost one thousand years and is usually used to describe Europe from 500-1500 C.E. Great strides were made in printmaking during this time even though most woodcuts were not created until the late medieval era. Many medieval woodcuts have minimal shading and a thick outline. One of the earliest known woodcuts during this period is Christ Before Herod, dating to around 1400 C.E. The use of linear perspective, a method of showing depth in a two dimensional work, is not fully developed. The earliest European woodcut that we can specifically date, St. Christopher (bearing the infant Jesus), is from 1423 C.E.

The art of woodcuts for illustration reached its zenith with Albrecht Dürer and Hans Holbein in 16th century Germany. Dürer elevated the woodcut to a precise art with shading and great detail. One of his more famous works is The Four Horsemen, from the Apocalypse, completed in 1498. With its fine line detail, this piece of art looks more like an ink drawing than a print. Woodcuts continued to be popular for use as illustrations during the 17th century.

The Four Horsemen, from the Apocalyse by Albrecht Durer
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Japanese Woodcuts

Woodcuts play an important role in Japanese art. A style of art called ukiyo-e gained attention in the 17th century. Ukiyo-e means 'floating world picture.' The first ukiyo-e were done in simple black and white. Black and white prints had color applied by hand for special commissions. Hand painting was too expensive to continue using, and artists discovered a way to add color using multiple woodcuts.

When it was first introduced, ukiyo-e was used as commercial art, with many woodcuts commissioned by theaters as a form of advertising or created to illustrate literary texts of the time. In the late 19th and 20th centuries, ukiyo-e became valued as art and considered collectible, first in Europe and then in Japan.

Within the ukiyo-e period, there are five separate movements; Edo, Meiji, Shin Hanga, Sosaku Hanga, and Moku Hanga. Some of the great masters of this style were Suzuki Harunobu and Ando Hiroshige. Ukiyo-e is still a popular form of printmaking in Japan and has influenced many European and American artists.

Hara on the Tokaido by Hiroshige
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