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You are hereHarvey-LeeHomeHarvey-LeePrintmaking Techniques Harvey-LeeRelief Printing IntroHarvey-LeeChiaroscuro Woodcuts

Chiaroscuro Woodcut

Most artists, from the 16th century on, preferred the technical challenge and the results of printed colour in relief prints, rather than applying subsequent hand colouring to an impression printed in black ink.

Flat areas left in relief lend themselves to creating broad areas of colour and it is in the relief techniques that some of the most interesting and successful colour prints have been made.

Chiaroscuro woodcuts were the earliest form of colour-printed images. The term is from the Italian and means light & shade, for usually two or three different tones of similar colours were used in conjunction with a black key block and the natural white of the paper to achieve an effect somewhat in the manner of a wash drawing. The colours were generally shades of brown, ochre, olive, green, grey and other earth colours.

The Augsburg printer Erwin Radtolt, who worked in Venice in the 1490’s, was the first to use coloured inks and superimposed blocks for decorative borders in his books. Jost de Negker in Augsburg probably enlarged the technique about 1508 to produce the earliest colour-printed pictorial woodcuts, in collaboration with Hans Burgkmair. Cranach, Altdorfer, Amman, Beham, and Baldung Grien all designed some ‘chiaroscuros’ and some of Dürer’s woodcuts were printed posthumously as ‘chiaroscuro’ prints with additional tone blocks engraved specially. After that generation of artists interest in the chiaroscuro woodcut process in Northern Europe declined and was not renewed till the end of the century, when Goltzius took it up. (See illustration to right). In Italy the technique had a longer and more continuous popularity.

In Italy Ugo da Carpi claimed to have invented the process and applied in 1516 to the Venetian Signoria for the exclusive privilege to issue (i.e. to publish) chiaroscuro prints in Venice. Ugo da Carpi developed the Northern ‘Camaieu’ (cameo) process into true chiaroscuro.

Northern chiaroscuro almost invariably employed a line block, printed in black, which carried the whole linear design and could be printed as an independent image without the addition of the tone blocks. The colour or tone blocks had large areas left in relief to print as flat areas of colour. A separate block was cut for each colour, usually a maximum of two or three. Where the tone block was cut away the natural colour of the exposed paper created the effect of a ‘white’ highlight.

In Italy usually each block contributed to the total design; there was no single line block, but a key block, printed in the darkest colour and two or three supporting tone blocks necessary for building up the complete design. The key block printed on its own would be meaningless. Again unprinted areas appeared as highlights.

The difference in technique between the Northern and Italian methods is subtle and distinguishing them separately is somewhat of a simplification. Today both techniques are equally described by the single term 'chiaroscuro'.

John Baptist Jackson (1701–1780): Dives and Lazarus. Chiaroscuro woodcut, 1743. (562 x 383 mm)
John Baptist Jackson (1701–1780):
"Dives and Lazarus".  Chiaroscuro woodcut, 1743, after a now lost work by Jacopo Bassano. Printed from four blocks.
(562 x 383 mm)

Chiaroscuro virtually died out in the later 17th century but enjoyed a final flowering in the 18th century in the work of Zanetti, J B Jackson and John Skippe. It was revived in a small way at the very end of the 19th century by Charles Shannon, but most 20th century relief colour prints employ much brighter colours (of either emotive, decorative or naturalistic intent) and use no cut-away highlights; Japan, rather than 16th century Europe, suggesting a new approach.


Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1616): Hercules & Cacus. Chiaroscuro woodcut, 1588. (409 x 331 mm)

Hendrik Goltzius (1558–1616): "Hercules & Cacus".  Chiaroscuro woodcut, 1588. Printed from three blocks.  (409 x 331 mm) [Facimile repair at the right edge]


William Strang (1859–1921): Bath-time. Chiaroscuro woodcut, 1904. (256 x 224 mm)

William Strang (1859–1921): "Bath-time".
1904, printed from two blocks.  (256 x 224 mm)


See also :

RELIEF PRINTING - An Introduction

Wood Engraving

Hand-coloured Woodcut
Modern Colour Woodcut
Colour Linocut
Colour Wood Engraving










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