The Art of the Woodcut

When I was a boy I would place a piece of paper over a penny, then run a lead pencil back and forth over the paper.  The result was Abraham Lincoln’s likeness, since the pencil would pick up only the raised surface on the coin.

At the time I would not have described my activity as “relief printing,” but when I prepared the woodcut of Lincoln for this book I did essentially the same thing. Working on an 8” by 12” piece of birch plywood ¼” thick with my gouge (gouges are hand tools with wooden handles and metal blades that are flat, V-shaped, or spoon-shaped) I cut away sections of the surface so that what remained was a portrait of the sixteenth president which I had drawn before I began cutting — this was my penny.  Then with a cylindrical roller I applied ink — my lead pencil — to the remaining surface of the wood and placed a blank sheet of paper over it.  Then I employed a mechanical press to squeeze the paper to the wood, though I could have accomplished my purpose by hand, using a wooden spoon to rub the paper on the stationary plywood.

The woodcut — or the linocut, in which linoleum is substituted for wood — is a form of relief printing.  Wood engraving (using a denser material, such as boxwood) and collage printing are others, while closely related processes — intaglio printing, collographing, screen printing, lithographing, dimensional printing, monotyping, and more —   can also be avenues to producing images.  All are described in, to cite one very helpful book, “The Complete Printmaker” by John Ross, Clare Romano, and Tim Ross.

But the woodcut is my concern.  It has a long history.  The Sumerians in present-day  Iraq (4000 BCE) and the Olmec Indians in what is now Mexico (1000 BCE) used stone and clay to yield impressions, but it was the Egyptians who used WOOD for printing images on textiles (500-600 AD), while at the same time the Chinese were printing with wood on PAPER, invented c. 100 BCE in China.  Ross, et al., tell us: “The earliest wood block print bearing an image appears in the 17-foot-long “Diamond Sutra” scroll, printed by Wang Chieh in A. D. 868.” (This Buddhist religious teaching, “a diamond of transcendent vision,” can be viewed in the British Library.)  Probably there was plenty of earlier work, and the Chinese continued to turn out these so-called “block books” (both text and image were cut from one block of wood, which was then pressed on paper to yield the print) on a variety of subjects from botany, agriculture, and medicine to poetry and literature.

So far was have been talking of the image produced by ink/no ink, usually black and white.  To produce more color, more blocks coated with different hues of ink were needed, and the Chinese met that challenge, as well.  (In this book I have used different colored inks but only one block per portrait.) The multi-block method was later imported to Japan.

The production of paper did not begin in the West until the fourteenth century, when it was used with wood blocks to produce religious images for a population that could not read.  (Woodcuts were also utilized to create playing cards.)  Movable type, long available in the East, was developed in Europe in the mid fifteenth century, making block books obsolete.  Still, woodcut illustrations were handy for press-printed books.

Painters had for ages created images, though not for books.   But paintings could be, and were, turned into woodcuts.  Artists in Germany and the Netherlands, of whom the best known is probably Albrecht Durer, began producing extraordinary woodcuts in the late fifteenth century, and soon afterwards Europeans were turning out multi-color prints, of called chiaroscuro woodcuts.

By the seventeenth century western artists had lost interest in the woodcut, though some of their work may already have been carried to the East.  In the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries it was the Japanese who created multi-colored prints of unusual beauty, not religious images but the Ukiyo-e, “pictures of the transient world of everyday life.”  (See, for example, Gabriele Fahr-Becker’s “Japanese Prints.”)  Utamaro, Hokusai, and Hiroshigo  may be the most famous artists of this movement, and their work in turn had an influence on European painting; note the woodcuts of Gauguin and Munch.

But the revival of the woodcut in Europe took place among the early twentieth-century German expressionists, such as Nolde, Beckman, Kirchner, and Kollwitz.  At the same time in Mexico, the woodcut was employed by Guadalupe Posada to display political and social issues, later influencing such artists as Diego Rivera.  The multi-color woodcut has remained a mode of artistic expression in Japan, Europe, and North America.

The one-color woodcut, which is the work in this book, has a less celebrated recent past.  As an adolescent I paged through my parents’ copy of “The New Yorker Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Album,” studying the melodramatic black-and-white images created by John Held Jr.  Although Held’s depictions were less interesting to me than the more humorous cartoons which were drawn rather than carved and printed, now his work strongly attracts me.

While I was scanning the “Album” I began my apprenticeship as a carpenter, and I always enjoyed working with wood.  My employed was my father, a building contractor and a never-shy writer of clever verse.  Soon afterward I went off to college, where I began my preparation for the academic life of a historian.  While I was teaching history I simultaneously studied sculpture, ceramics, drawing, painting — and, finally, relief printing.  I was captivated by the woodcut, and I began carving blocks (including one of my parents celebrating their sixtieth wedding anniversary).  But if I was becoming an artist as I retired from my history position, I never left go of my hold on the past.  To depict the Presidents of the United States and produce rhymes about them seemed perfectly natural.

  1. Robert

    When did you do an (artist proof )of Benjamin Franklin and an other president on black paper (wood cut)? 1970s ? Any other info would be appreciated , I acquired it from an Estate in Bay Area God bless

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