Elizabeth Harvey-Lee Logo Elizabeth Harvey-Lee, Print Dealer Elizabeth Harvey-Lee | Print Dealer Elizabeth Harvey-Lee | Print Dealer
Click here to return to the Home page at any time
Further information about Elizabeth harvey-Lee
The methods and history of printmaking
Order back-copies of Elizabeth's previous printed catalogues
View this month's selection of prints
View Elizabeth's current on-line exhibition, and explore the archives
Contact Elizabeth Harvey-Lee
Elizabeth Harvey-Lee
Elizabeth Harvey-Lee
You are hereHarvey-LeeHomeHarvey-LeePrintmaking Techniques Harvey-LeeRelief Printing IntroductionHarvey-LeeWoodcuts


Woodcut was the earliest artists’ printing technique devised. In Europe the first examples date from about 1400.

Designs had been cut into wood blocks earlier for printing patterns onto fabric and when European paper mills were established towards the end of the 14th century and a supply of paper became available it was a natural progression to independent woodcut images printed on paper.

Though Oriental paper was first imported about 950 AD it was over two centuries later before papermaking began in Europe. The first factory was in Spain, followed by France and Italy. Fabriano in Italy, the main supplier to 14th century Europe, is still an important place of paper manufacture today. Papermaking was not established in Germany till the end of the 14th century and in the Netherlands until the 16th century. In England there was a short-lived factory by the end of the 15th century.

Woodcut is carried out on planks of soft woods such as apple, pear, cherry, sycamore and beech, sawn along the grain.

The tool is a knife (with a flat steel blade trimmed at the end to an angle to create its cutting edge and bevelled on one side only along the cutting edge) or a variety of V-shaped chiselling gouges. In old master woodcuts the artist generally only drew his design onto the block, but left the cutting to a professional “form cutter” who cut away the unnecessary surface to leave the lines of the artist’s design standing proud. This resulted in a “black line” woodcut, that is the printed design appeared as black lines on the “white” ground of the paper.

The process could sometimes be reversed if the artists chose to cut his design himself directly into the block, thus leaving the background in relief, with the result that the printed design reads as a “white” line against a black background and is consequently known as a “white line” woodcut (see illustration of "Pelbartus studying, in a Garden", below right).

Modern artists cut their own blocks and freely mix black and white line in their designs and sometimes use the texture of the grain of the wood itself as a contributing factor.

The earliest woodcuts were produced in Germany, though the technique soon spread to Italy, Switzerland, France and the Netherlands. Even in England, where original printmaking generally got off to a slow start, Caxton issued his second edition of Chaucer’s “Canterbury Tales” in 1484 with woodcut illustrations. The convenience of being able to print woodcuts on the same press and simultaneously with the typeface, led to their extensive use as early book illustrations.

However, the ‘single leaf’ or independent woodcut belonged to an even earlier tradition, initiated by the monasteries for images of the Virgin, Christ and the Saints, to sell to pilgrims.

The earliest woodcuts were in general hand coloured. (See separate section on Hand-Coloured Woodcuts .) It was only as woodcut design became more sophisticated in the closing years of the 15th century that its inherently powerful expression was allowed to stand alone in black and white.

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528): The Visitation. Woodcut c1503. A later impression. (300x 213 mm)

Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528): "The Visitation". 
Woodcut, c1503. (300 x 213 mm)

Dürer above all raised the medium to a fine art. With ‘white’ areas contrasted against closely worked areas of fine parallel and even crossing lines he achieved tonal contrasts that revolutionised the medium. He also extended the range of theme and scale and generally brought the breadth of a Renaissance mind to bear.

The early 16th century was an exciting period in woodcut. Dürer’s German contemporaries included Cranach, working in Wittenburg, Burgkmaier in Augsburg, Baldung Grien in Strasbourg while in Venice Titian was inspired by Dürer and the grand schemes carried out for the Holy Roman Emperor Maximilian to produce monumental compositions made up from joined impressions printed from a multitude of individual blocks.

Superimposition of different blocks and the use of coloured inks or printing onto coloured paper led to the final flowering of old master woodcuts in the chiaroscuro print. (See separate section on Chiaroscuro Woodcuts.)

The woodcut tradition declined after the 16th century as artists preferred the finer detail that intaglio prints could give in their search for realism and finesse. It was only with the Modern movement, with its accent on plasticity and painterly qualities, and which looked beyond realism, that woodcut was rediscovered and revived as an original artist’s printmaking technique by such artists as William Nicholson in England (see illustration at the top of this page), Lepère, Vallotton and Gauguin in France, Munch in Norway and the German Expressionist artists of Die Brücke (see illustration right by Schmidt-Rottluff).

In the modern period it can be difficult to distinguish woodcut from wood engraving; indeed Charles Ginner initially described his own prints as woodcuts but later changed the terminology (though with no change to the actual technique) to wood engravings.


Woodcut - X Xylographer, Nicholson

William Nicholson’s woodcut image of a wood engraver at work "X for Xylographer" from his set 'An Alphabet' (in this example transferred from the woodblock and printed lithographically for the regular book edition published by Heinemann 1898-99, 247 x 197 mm.)

The artist is working at a sloping desk, typical of a wood cut practitioner (and also used on occasion by both intaglio and lithographic printmakers. A wood engraver would use a flat surface in conjunction with a leather small cushion). The cutting tools, looking rather like burins, are woodcut gouges.


White line woodcut

A rare example by the first practitioner of white-line woodcut, active in Augsburg 1502 (and also incidentally the first portrait of a living author). "Pelbartus studying, in a Garden". Used as the title page to Pelbartus’ 'Sermons' in the Augsburg edition of 1502, 290 x 200 mm.







Karl Schmidt-Rottluff (1884-1976): “Elbhaven”. Woodcut, 1910. (230 x 322 mm)
Schmidt-Rottluff was one of the ‘Die Brücke’ group.


See also :

RELIEF PRINTING - An Introduction

Wood Engraving

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

Return to top ^