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Updated on May 6, 2010
A woodcut by Albrecht Durer exemplifies the strong linear quality of the medium.
A woodcut by Albrecht Durer exemplifies the strong linear quality of the medium.

Woodcut, in the graphic arts, is a design or picture printed from a wood block whose surface has been carved in relief. Woodcuts have been used commercially for book illustrations and textile designs. In addition, many painters, including Albrecht Diirer, Hans Holbein the Younger, and Edvard Munch, have designed woodcuts that rank as fine works of art.

A wood block can be reused hundreds of times to make almost identical prints. Traditionally, woodcuts are made on a slab of wood, about % inch (22 mm) thick, which has been carefully smoothed. After the design is drawn on the face of the block, the portions around the drawing are cut away with a knife, leaving the design in relief on the surface. When the wood block is inked and pressed on paper or cloth, a clear impression of the raised design is left on the material and the gouged-out sections reproduce as blank patches. Although most woodcuts are black and white, colored prints can also be made by carving a separate block for each color and superimposing these on the key-block print.

Another graphic technique is wood engraving, which is related to intaglio, or metal engraving. In this method a hardwood block is etched with a pointed tool. When the block is inked and printed, it leaves a design of fine white lines against a dark background.

Before the invention of paper, woodcuts were used extensively in China for printing designs on textiles. The first paper woodcuts appeared in Europe during the 15th century, and after the invention of the printing press, woodcuts were frequently used for book illustration. During the Renaissance the art of woodcutting reached a peak of excellence, particularly in Germany. Intricate color woodcuts were also produced in Japan, particularly from the mid-17th to the 19th century.

With the perfection of metal engraving in Europe, woodcutting gradually declined. In the early 1800's, however, wood engraving was revived by the English artist Thomas Bewick, and toward the end of the century there was a renewed interest in traditional woodcutting techniques.


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