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Wood Engraving

Updated on September 24, 2010

A woodcut is a print made from a block of wood by cutting away areas of the surface so as to leave lines that receive ink for transfer to the paper. Originally the woodcut was strictly a means of reproducing a line drawing, and at a very early stage the cutting was handed over to a specially trained group of craftsmen, the artist being responsible only for the drawing itself. Specializing in this way, the wood-block cutters soon became highly skilled and capable of reproducing complex pen drawings, as can be seen in the work of Albrecht Durer (1471-1528) and contemporary German artists.

As the painting mediums became more concerned with optic effects of light and shade, graphic mediums such as etching and engraving were invented to make similar tonal effects possible in prints. Wood engraving was developed for the same purpose. However, whereas the later graphic mediums are printed with ink deposited in lines cut into metal plates (intaglio), wood engraving prints ink deposited on lines or masses remaining at the original surface of the block (relief), exactly as woodcuts do. The difference is that in the earlier form (woodcut) the artist thinks only of the black lines of the drawing, cutting away the blank white areas, whereas in the engraving process the artist first blocks out a light and dark pattern, and in the dark areas simply reduces the darkness of the solid black tone by cutting relatively fine lines into it. Wood engraving is thus sometimes called the "white-line" method, as the artist no longer thinks exclusively in terms of the black lines in the drawing but also of the white lines that form the design and gray the dark masses.

An intermediate stage was the so-called chiaroscuro print, in which a light tint was printed under (before) the black-line woodcut, with a few highlights scooped out here and there, so that the final effect was that of introducing a halftone between the white of the paper and the black of the printed line (as in pen and wash drawing). Although this method involved cutting and printing an extra block, it simplified the cutting of the drawing immeasurably, as the tones built up with laboriously cut parallel and cross-hatched lines could be omitted. Wood engraving brought the lines and tones together again on one block and elaborated the development of the halftone.

Tools and Techniques: Woodcut

In the woodcut the design is generally cut on a plank of the desired size so that the grain runs with the surface. Any smooth-grained wood, such as cherry, American whitewood, maple, beech, sycamore, pear, or apple, may be used. The primary tool is a knife, supplemented by gouges for removing large areas. When cutting, the knife is inserted into the block on a slight slant so that the line or section to be eliminated will be smaller at the bottom, and in order that the wood which remains standing will have a wider base. The knife is drawn toward the body as it makes the cut. Another cut is made at an opposite angle to remove the wood between the lines, forming a trench. The artist may proceed as far as he wishes before taking a trial proof, or, if desired, he can cut out all the large areas with a gouge and then proceed with the finishing touches. Finally, the block is cleaned with a rag moistened with benzine or other cleaning fluid; then a dampened cloth is used to remove all traces of india ink or other drawing; and, when dry, it is carefully gone over with a soft brush.

The woodcut is now ready for printing. Printer's ink is rolled out evenly on a smooth stone or glass plate, and a hard roller charged with ink is run over the block. The ink remains on the surface of the raised lines, leaving the sections that have been cut away free from ink. For a trial proof the paper is placed on the inked block and pressure is applied with a vertical press. When no press is available, the back of the print may be rubbed with a bone paper folder, the back of a spoon, or a burnisher, taking care that the paper is not torn by applying too much pressure, particularly along the sharp edges of the lines. If the block is small or thin, a smooth card can be placed over the printing paper to afford greater protection. When the rubbing is finished, the print (which is in reverse) can be carefully lifted from the block.

Tools and Techniques: Wood Engraving

Boxwood is used for wood engraving because of its hardness and fine grain. The block is cut across the growth of the tree, so that the composition can be engraved on the end of the grain. The trunk of the boxwood tree being limited in diameter, a number of sections are assembled to make the required size block, which is then cut to 0.9186 of an inch (standard type height). In modern printing, however, electrotypes are used for printing rather than the wood block itself. The block is then evened off, rubbed down, and polished until it has a perfect and flawless surface.

In wood engraving the drawing is transferred to the block in various ways. Apart from the more recent commercial method, the one most commonly used during the period of reproductive engraving was to cover the surface with a thin coating of Chinese white and then to draw or trace the design carefully with pencil. The tracing was carried far enough to indicate relative values as a guide to the engraver. Another method, more frequently used today, is to paint the block black with india ink and to transfer the design with red carbon paper. The artist then engraves directly through the ground, exposing the lines with the graver; these appear white against the darkened surface. The exact manner chosen is determined by the amount of preparatory work the artist desires on the block before engraving.

The tool used for engraving is the burin graver, of which there are many types and sizes, including the scorper, lozenge-shaped graver, spitz-sticker, tint tool, V or parting tool, gouge, chisel, and burnisher. These are mounted in rounded handles, cut away on the underside to avoid interference with the block when held low. The curved top of the handle fits into the palm of the hand; the thumb extends along the side of the blade, and the fingers are curved in such a manner as to press the tool against the ball of the thumb. In contrast to woodcutting (in which the knife is drawn toward the body), the graver is pushed away from the body, with just enough pressure to allow the burin to penetrate the wood. The block itself rests on a round leather sandbag, and the left hand moves the block from left to right so that the curved or parallel lines are engraved with ease. The artist may see his engraved work by rubbing a small amount of whiting (calcium carbonate) into the line. It is essential that all engraving tools be' kept well sharpened; the perfect sharpening of the various kinds of tools is a precise art in itself.

Before printing, the block is cleaned with a soft brush. It is then inked and the trial proofs are taken in the same manner as the woodcut. Corrections of errors are difficult in wood engraving. An engraved block can be repaired by drilling a hole over the mistake and inserting a round, tapered piece of boxwood. The part of the peg which protrudes above the block is then cut off as near the surface as possible, sanded over, and polished ready for the corrections. Lines may be reduced by rubbing them down with fine emery paper to obtain the necessary value of the line or mass.

History of Woodcuts

The actual date of the origin of printing from wood blocks is in doubt. In India wooden stamps have been in use for printing on fabrics from an early age, and in the 10th century the Chinese had books printed from tablets of wood. The illuminators of the Middle Ages in Europe used stamps as key blocks to produce initials on manuscripts, which they later colored by hand. The earliest known woodcuts, depicting scenes from the Scriptures and the lives of the saints, date from the early part of the 15th century. Prints taken from rudely cut blocks appeared in the books of the 15th and 16th centuries. Most of these prints, which originated in Germany and the Netherlands, were produced by hand rubbing. Often a pale brown ink was used, and sometimes was added with a brush. These so-called "block books" are noteworthy for their beautiful composition and design. The illustration and the text, usually in Latin, were cut on the same block- a practice which flourished up to the invention of movable type. Among the earliest and most important examples of the block books are the Apocalypsis Sancti Johannis (Visions of St. John), am Moriendi (The Art of Dying), and Canticum Canticorum (Canticle of Canticles). These works were published in many editions and enjoyed a wide circulation. See also block book.

With the invention of printing by means of movable type in the mid-15th century, the woodcut was given a new stimulus. As books became more and more common, an increasing number of illustrations appeared. The Bible was the book on which the early printers spent most of their energies. Noteworthy among these Scriptures was the Cologne Bible, which appeared in 1478-1479 and contained 109 designs, the first illustrations of the Scriptures to appear after the block books. Along with the Bibles, numerous "chronicles" and histories became popular; these were conceived as records of legends dealing with the lives of the saints and great or imaginary happenings in local history. One of the best known of these chronicles was published at Niirnberg in 1493. The work, which has more than 2,000 cuts (views of cities, portraits of saints, and so on), is said to have been supervised by William Pleydenwurff (d. 1494) and Michel Wohlgemuth (1434-1519), the latter a teacher of Durer.

In France, woodcut was early identified with printing. Religious books contained beautiful and painstakingly wrought illustrations. Those known as the livres d'heures (books of hours) are most notable. Often the prints were hand colored and decorated with gold, and the books were further enhanced by decorative borders.

The woodcut was introduced to Italy by German printers, and Venice became an important center of the art. The most noted example of early Italian woodcut is in the Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Dream of Poliphilo), written by Francesco Colonna in 1467 and printed by the famous Aldus Manutius (1450-1515) in Venice in 1499. The work has 192 woodcuts.

Durer and Holbein

The genius of Albrecht Durer brought woodcut to its highest achievement. He was a draftsman as well as a craftsman, with a far-reaching and powerful imagination and a thorough knowledge of the new spirit of approaching reformation. He was the first to realize fully the possibilities of woodcut, and by his influence he raised it to the realm of a fine art. Among his greatest accomplishments were the 15 compositions to illustrate the Apocalypse of St. John (1498), and the Large Passion of Our Lord, with 12 cuts, of which 7 were executed in 1498, the remainder being finished in 1510 and the set being published with the Latin text in 1511. The Life of the Virgin, with 20 cuts, falls entirely within the first decade of the 16th century and was printed on Durer's printing press in 1511. The Small Passion of Our Lord (1511), which has 37 prints, is equally famous.

Durer's great talent and masterly use of the burin in woodcut gave rise to a school of artists known as the "Little Masters," whose work created a renaissance in decorative and religious subjects. They included Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550), Hans Baldung (1476P-1545), Heinrich Aldegrever (1502-P1560), and Jost Amman (1539-1591).

The great number of woodcuts known to be by Hans Holbein the Younger (1497P-1543) are too numerous to attempt mention of them individually. There is no doubt that Holbein knew the technique of woodcut; however, it has been established that Hans Liitzelburger, with his profound understanding of the art of engraving and woodcut, knew how to interpret every meaning of Holbein's drawings. Among the first books Holbein illustrated were the Utopia of Sir Thomas More and Biblical translations of Martin Luther. The Dance of Death series of 1538, containing 41 small cuts, is considered the most famous of all interpretations of this popular subject. Although measuring only 2 by 3 inches, they display extraordinary power of observation combined with great simplicity of composition and draftsmanship. People in all walks of life, from the king and queen to the fool who tries to escape death, are represented in this series. Holbein's Alphabet of Death and 86 designs for the Old Testament, along with many other book illustrations, must be considered on the same plane of creation and workmanship as the above-mentioned series.

Early in the 16th century, both the German Jost de Negker (1485-1544) and the Italian Ugo da Carpi (1455-1523) claimed to have invented the chiaroscuro print, a process by which color effects were gained through the use of several blocks to produce tones, printing one over the other. It is now recognized that the technique originated in Germany and that da Carpi, who coined the term chiaroscuro, contributed improvements in the new method. He produced several of Raphael's compositions by this technique, and in Germany impressions were made from the designs of Johann (Hans) Wechtlin (1460-1526), Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531), Lucas Cranach the Elder (1472-1553), Hans Baldung, and other artists.

During the 17th and 18th centuries the art of woodcut and wood engraving was overshadowed by the development of copper engraving as a means of reproducing original works of art. Little of technical or artistic innovation dates from this period. The mediums of woodcut and wood engraving continued to be used, but chiefly as a means of illustrating cheap, popular types of books, journals, and broadsides.

Bewick and the 19th Century Revival

A revival in wood engraving began with the work of Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) in England. To him we owe the bringing into general use of the technique of white-line engraving, which eliminated the old method of cutting the wood away from the lines. He was the first, or one of the first, to use boxwood and the burin. Bewick is best known by his engravings for the General History of British Quadrupeds (1790) and History of British Birds (2 vols., 1797, 1804). He was the founder of the modern British school which held a distinguished place in modern illustrative art, and which included Charlton Nesbit (1775-1838), Luke Clennell (1781-1840), Allen Robert Branston (1778-1827), John Thompson (1785-1866), Edward Dalziel (1817-1905), George Dalziel (1815-1902), William Harvey (1796-1866), and William James Linton (1812-1897). In 1820 the artist-poet William Blake designed 13 woodcuts for Robert John Thorton's School Virgil (Bucolics), published with Blake's designs as Illustrations of the School Virgil (1824). These small blocks, although crude in technical handling, have powerful design and much pastoral charm. A great accomplishment of the later 19th century in England was the Kelmscott Chaucer, published in Hammersmith in 1896 under the direction of William Morris. This book was one of the most impressively designed and illustrated volumes produced since the decline of printing in Venice; it contains illustrations engraved in wood by William Hooper (1834-1912), after designs by Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. Other fine engravers of this period are Charles Ricketts (1866-1931), Charles Shannon (1863-1937), and Thomas Sturge Moore (1870-1944).

In Germany, where the art of wood engraving was long in decline, a new life was developed late in the 18th century by Johann Georg Unger (1715-1788) and his son, Johann Friedrich Unger (1753-1804). Adolph F. E. von Menzel (1815-1905) trained Hans Alexander Mueller (1888-), Eduard Kretzchnar (1807-1859), and Fried-rich L. Unzelmann (1797-1854) to reproduce his work.

From rather primitive beginnings, engraving in the United States was rapidly developed into a highly commercial reproductive art of a technical excellence unrivaled by similar efforts in other countries. By the second half of the 19th century such firms as Harper & Brothers, Charles Scrib-ner's Sons, and the Century Publishing Company were among the leading publishing houses to make extensive use of wood engraving for illustrations in their books and periodicals. The drawings and paintings of many well-known artists, such as Winslow Homer, were made popular by black-and-white engravings which appeared regularly for a period of years in Harper's Weekly. These were first done by the old style of wood engraving, with the drawings carried by the black lines against the white background, but later in the 19th century a refinement of the Bewick system, using the white line to define the forms and carry the drawing, came into use. The cutting of these blocks was done according to strict conventions, carried to a degree of precision seldom attempted before. The use of a multiple graver and the use of stippling aided in evolving this manner, which sought to reproduce original works and photographs with a close fidelity to the spirit of the original. The blocks were cut on the end grain of the wood and were capable of printing thousands of identical impressions quickly and cheaply. This type of engraving became known as the "New School of Engraving," whose more notable members included Timothy Cole (1852-1931), Henry Wolf (1852-1916), Gustav KrueU (1843-1907), T. A. Brothers, William James Lin-ton (who had gone to the United States in 1866), Ernst Schladitz, and Hiram C. Merrill (1867-1958). Cole was perhaps the most accomplished of this group. The greater part of his output consisted of black-and-white translations of well-known paintings by European old masters. Within the limitations imposed by the medium, Cole's technique often suggested color values and usually gave an over-all effect of a rich and sensitive interpretation of the original.

With the introduction of modem means of photoengraving and the halftone process during the closing years of the 19th century, the veritable armies of commercial engravers who had done mass production work for the newspapers and publishing firms were no longer needed. This brought about a gradual disuse of this highly developed, commercial method of engraving.

Even before this transition was well under way in the United States, certain French artists such as Felix Vallotton (1865-1925), Louis Auguste Lepere (1849-1918), and Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) were working independently along divergent paths which were to be recognized eventually as the start of a renewed interest in original creative work in the mediums of woodcut and wood engraving. They were among the first to make use of these mediums in a more truly individual way than had been attempted previously. Of the three, Gauguin had the greatest influence on the present day approach to the woodcut. His style was characterized by an intensity of personal expression, both in his choice of subject matter and in his cutting technique. Both line work and irregular black-and-white design elements were sometimes combined with one or more colors to heighten the symbolic character of the work as a whole. Although not fully understood or appreciated during his lifetime, or for some years thereafter, his use of the woodcut as an original artistic medium proved to be a strong influence on Edvard Munch (1863-1944) of Norway. This artist carried Gauguin's concept of color as a dramatic element a step further and used the subtle variations of the natural grain of the wood to produce effects of great power and imagination. Like Gauguin, Munch cut on the plank side of the wood, often creating prints of large dimensions.

The 20th Century

Beginning in 1905, a group of artists who have been since referred to as the German expressionists began to make woodcuts which were inspired by the bold, dramatic approach initiated by Gauguin and Munch. Their work is dominated by subjects which reflect deeply felt emotions. Their technique, though spontaneous in appearance, is combined with a strong sense of design and controlled by drawing of an unadorned directness: Foremost in this group were Emil Nolde (1867-1956), Max Pechstein (1881-1955), Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884- ), Ernst Ludwig Kirchner (1880-1938), Max Beckman (1884-1950), and Erich Heckel (1883- ). Kathe Kollwitz (1867-1945), working somewhat independently, also produced woodcuts of great power and depth. Their work as a whole reveals a subjective reaction to the social upheaval and political violence which swept
over much of Europe during this period. Natural forms were purposefully exaggerated and distorted to produce shocking emotional impact. Patterns of black and white and the use of strong tonal contrasts which often incorporated stark colors are typical. Also working in Germany, although somewhat apart from the main movement of this period, was Ernst Barlach (1870-1938), who was devoutly occupied with religious subjects. He evolved a stylistic idiom of his own which recalled certain aspects of the German woodcuts of the 15th and 16th centuries.

Early 20th century woodcut and wood engraving in France took many diverse forms. The reputation of the French work stems more from its examples of high quality of individual achievement than from the formation of a definite school such as that of the German expressionists. Much of the best work in France in woodcut and wood engraving during the present century has been done as illustration for the fine published literary works which have appeared in handsomely bound limited editions. Outstanding among these are the woodcuts of Aristide Maillol (1861-1944) for Daphnis et Chloe (new ed. 1949). Eminent artists such as Pablo Picasso (1881- ) and Georges Rouault (1871-1958) produced designs which were engraved by others as plates for a number of publications of Ambroise Vollard. Other artists working in France at this time were Jean fimile Laboureur (1877-1943), Raoul Dufy (1877-1953), and Demetrios Galanis (1882- ).

Mention should be made of the woodcuts of Wassily Kandinsky (1866-1944). This artist, of Russian origin, created a number of prints which combine the mediums of woodcut and wood engraving, and his compositions are among the finest examples of abstract art yet to be seen in any medium.

Significant earlier 20th century American wood engraving and woodcut may be found in the prints of Rockwell Kent (1882-1971), Julius J. Lankes (1884-1960), Paul Landacre (1893-1963), and Lynd Ward (1905-1985). Their subjects deal primarily with the American scene in a regional sense. The blocks are executed in the traditional techniques, based on the standards of fine workmanship established by the reproductive engravers of the late 19th century. There are, however, definite personal variations in their cutting methods, along with an originality of subject and a freedom of handling not found in the earlier period. Kent is noted for the literary character of his work as well as for his mastery of design and technique. Much of his output appears as illustrative material in fine published works written by Kent himself. Ward's keen analysis and sensitive feeling for his subject may be found in God's Man (1929), Madman's Drum (1930), Wild Pilgrimage (1932), Song Without Words (1936), and Vertigo (1937), all of which are symbolic narratives related entirely through the medium of woodcuts, without the aid of written texts.

Mid-20th century American woodcut and wood engraving exhibits a still greater departure from tradition. Much of the work has been conceived with a great deal of vitality and inventiveness. The styles in use reflect a somewhat eclectic mixture of influences which may be traced back to German expressionism, abstract art, and also primitive art, in various combinations. Unusual color effects and tonal nuances have been introduced. Prints have become increasingly larger in size and more striking in character, serving more often as wall decoration than as book illustration. Although the tools of the medium have not changed greatly, the possibilities of technical variation have been explored as regards cutting and printing methods. There has been a rapid exchange and interaction of influences between artists the world over. Styles and techniques have become less limited to national boundaries, and a distinctly international character is evident in prints done since the end of World War II. American prints representative of these developments are found in the work of Antonio Frasconi (1919- ), Louis Schanker (1903-1981), Seong Moy (1916- ), Leonard Baskin (1921-2000), Adja Yunkers (1900-1983) and many others. At the same time, the more traditional methods and more conservative styles continue to be practiced by such artists as Fritz Eichenberg (1901-1990), Grace Albee (1890-1985), Nora Unwin (1907-1982) and Clare Leighton (1901-1989). Engraving in England in the 20th century has flourished, notably under such artists as Eric Gill (1882-1940), Paul Nash (1889-1946), John Nash (1893-1977), Gwendolen Raverat (1885-1925), and Charles F. Tunnicliffe (1901-1979).


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    • profile image


      8 years ago

      You apparently are very knowledgeable about wood carving and engraving, which I know very little about. Would you mind helping me with a question? I saw a checked pattern on the wood door of a Greek Orthdox Church, but it does not look like the typical Greek Key. I wonder if it is a variation of the Greek Key or something else. I won't mind emailing you the photo. Thanks.

    • Bits-n-Pieces profile imageAUTHOR


      8 years ago

      Thanks for stopping by Christopher. It's a work in progress. I am trying to find examples of each reknowned wood engraver to accompany the article. Then after that any notable books on the subject. So stay tuned for updates!

    • Christopher Price profile image

      Christopher Price 

      8 years ago from Vermont, USA

      This was certainly thorough (lengthy).

      But it is in dire need of illustrations.

      I'm an artist with experience in numerous media and found myself begging for something to see rather than read.

      "Visual Art"?


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