The Art Of Woodcut Prints

The Art Of Woodcut Prints

History of Woodcuts

No one knows the origin of woodcut prints, only that the cutting of an image into a wood plank, inking and printing that image onto another material, is the earliest known means used by artists to make multiple copies of works of art. Prior to that each creation stood as a unique and singular piece.

The oldest known dated print is a Buddhist scripture from A.D. 868. This is a fully realized reproduction. The intricacy of detail and skill of execution indicate a mastery of the technique and a long tradition. The Chinese, having invented paper around A.D. 105, used their early woodcuts to stamp and seal official writings. The wood cut was pressed into softened wax to create a seal or was then inked and pressed onto the paper. As the woodcuts became more detailed and expressive, the placing of the paper over an inked block was used to produce fine art prints. Woodcuts flourished in the East, but would have to wait until the first paper mills were built in Europe toward the end of the 14th century before becoming popular in the West. Artists like Albrecht DÜRER (1471-1528) started the western woodcut tradition and took the art of cutting and printing to new heights. The coming of paper to the West and the invention in Germany of moveable type by Johann GÜTENBERG (1395-1468) meant books. Books were perfect for woodcuts. The woodcuts could be made “type-high” and combined with moveable type to produce beautiful, illustrated books.

The Wood

The best wood for printing is medium soft planks. Such wood is both easy to cut and can still yield enough prints to justify drawing and cutting the block. The block itself is sawn lengthwise to the tree, planed and sanded smooth. Wood engravings require wood that has been cut across the tree. Engraving wood is scored and incised with tools called burins; woodcuts require chisels and knives. The “endgrain” blocks of the engraver are much harder than the planks used in woodcuts. Endgrain blocks are better suited to the fine lines and cross-hatching graphic techniques of engraving. They are also able to withstand many printings before going “blind”.

Artists traditionally prefer an even grain wood for woodcuts. Pear, cherry and basswood are ideal. The chisels are used both with and against the grain and wood planks with uniform grain yield predictable results.

Recently, supply is becoming a problem. Well seasoned suitable planks are becoming more difficult to find. Many artists have turned to buying drafting boards and cutting them up for the basswood. Others have altered their styles to accommodate the ragged edge left when wood with a more pronounced grain is cut against the grain. The wood plank also must be perfectly flat or it cannot be printed.

I have found a good supply of very flat planks with an extremely fine grain pattern that cuts well in either direction. By planing the planks, top and bottom to assure the printing and back sides are parallel, applying gesso to the cut surface and lightly sanding it smooth before cutting the wood, I can achieve the rich dense blacks that are the hallmark of my prints.

The Paper

The right paper captures the feelings and nuances of the block and adds a texture of its own. At one time, “rice papers” from Japan were thought to be the best; their absorbency, their ability to stand up well over time and their slight translucency, yielding outstanding results. The translucency also allowed the printer to see the ink through the back of the paper and make corrections where the image is light or missing. It is interesting to note that rice paper is not made from rice, but handmade from the inner bark of the mulberry tree.

I have used both Goya and Hosho rice papers, but now print exclusively on Arches heavyweight papers from France. The textures complement my blocks and archival quality is assured.

Printing The Block

Once the block is cut, proofed and corrected, it is secured, face up, onto the bed of the press. The press is then made ready. “Make-ready” is the process where the printer ensures that the entire surface of the block is in contact with the paper. The impression cylinder of the press is then wrapped with tympan paper. During make ready, this covering around the cylinder is opened and the actual surface of the cylinder is built up with thin papers and “Sphinx” paste to ensure that low spots on the block will print evenly. As added insurance and to help create a deeper impression, I place a sheet of acid-free tissue between the back of the paper to be printed and the paper on that wraps around the cylinder. Each print gets its own tissue which I later use to separate the prints.

Make ready completed, the ink is rolled up with a brayer and applied to the raised surface of the block. A single sheet of paper is placed, face down, on the inked block and the impression cylinder is rolled over the back of the paper. The image is then examined from the back to ensure it is complete and that the raised “embossing” is uniform. The print is then lifted from the block and laid on a rack to dry. Air drying is best, taking 2 to 3 days.

The Print

My favorite woodcut prints have the graphic power of strong drawings and capture the essential nature of the subject matter. Unlike wood engravings with their subtlety of tone and shade, the best woodcuts gain additional impact from their lack of middle values. Although artist have successfully used multiple blocks of the same image and/or colored paper to create color prints, I prefer the elemental and elegant look of a single block, rolled up with black ink and printed on a sheet of high-quality, heavyweight, unbleached watercolor paper.

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