Art Term Tuesday: Woodblock v. Woodcut

Katy Thompson, Associate Director of Education

Printmaking is a multifaceted process that encompasses several techniques, some of which we’ve covered: lithography, engraving, cyanotype, vitreography, chine collé, and risograph. The transfer of an image from one surface to another, printmaking allows artists to make multiples easily and cheaply. Which technique they choose is a direct result of the desired effect; the traditional and oldest form of printmaking, woodcuts produce a grainy-textured, detailed image. Brett de Palma’s Four Corners of the Universe showcases four printmaking processes: lithograph, etching, linocut, and woodcut. Can you determine which “corner” is a woodcut?

A composite work of four printmaking processes that shows the earth with the moon in the top left, the sun in the top right, and a darkened sky in the bottom of both corners, the left featuring the cardinal points and the right a moon.
Brett De Palma, American, b. 1949. Four Corners of the World. Lithograph, etching, linocut, and woodcut, 1988. Gift of Echo Press and the Artist through the support of Dr. Linda McMurray and Dr. Stephen McMurray, 1989.16. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

A form of relief printing, woodcut is subtractive, meaning the image is carved out using chisels or gouges along the grain, usually on a softwood like pear or cherry. The easiest way to spot a woodcut print is by the texture of the grain (see Brett De Palma’s piece, above, bottom right corner). The raised areas are rolled with ink and printed while the recessed, or cut away, sections remain blank. It is important to remember that the image will be reversed: what is on the left of the drawing will appear on the right of the printed image and vice versa, an especially important note when text is involved. To attain multiple colors, like in Joseph Domjan’s print shown below, the paper is “keyed” or registered to the frame around the multiple woodblocks, one for each color, to ensure the images remain aligned. The most cost efficient form of printmaking, the artist can choose any size of woodblock to carve away and, even if too large to run through a press, can apply the low pressure required using a tool, like a brayer, or an ordinary wooden spoon to transfer the ink to paper. This process remains the same whether the outcome is a book illustration, in which case the woodblock and letters are run through the press simultaneously thanks to the low pressure necessary to print, or a single-sheet artwork image.

A color woodcut of two flowering poppies and three not yet blooming.
Joseph Domjan, American b. Hungary, 1907-1992. Budding Poppy. Woodcut on paper, 1963. Gift of the Artist, 1965.53. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Despite its connection to Japan and the ukiyo-e woodblock prints, which featured landscapes and travel scenes; history and folk tales; kabuki actors and sumo wrestlers; and everyday designs, collected by European Impressionists, the first pieces actually date from the Tang Dynasty (618-907) in China. Below is a color woodcut by Kunisada from the Edo period, the height of their popularity. What are the women doing? Pairing bold linework and color with a flattened, overlapping composition this ukiyo-e print depicts a scene from a work of classic literature, The Tale of Genji, written to amuse the Japanese court in the 11th century.

Three Japanese women in kimono's sit outside near a flowering plant holding boxes.
Utagawa Kunisada, Japanese, 1786-1865. Chapter 38, Suzumushi from The Color Print Contest of a Modern Genji (Ima Genji nishiki-e awase). Woodcut on paper, 1852. Gift of Mrs. Ora Brant, 1965.74. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Woodcuts entered Europe much later, in the 13th century, as illustrations in books until Albrecht Dürer elevated them to single-sheet works of fine art. Whether in East Asia or Europe, the division of labor remains the same: the artist draws the image, either onto a sheet of paper to transfer to the block or onto the block itself, which the carver, or formschneider, cuts away. You can see the marks of the designer (artist), engraver, printer, and publisher in Kunisada’s print. This specialization of a trained block cutter or carver allowed the differently trained artist to easily adapt to the medium, just like contemporary artists working with master printmakers at studios today like Landfall Press and Tyler Graphics. How does this contemporary Japanese print by Hashimoto, below, compare to the historic Kunisada? How does Hashimoto incorporate the woodgrain into the background of the print?

A woman with black hair and red lips, wearing a black and white striped t-shirt, sits among a field of irises.
Okiie Hashimoto, Japanese, 1899-1993. Gin and Irises. Woodcut on paper, 1952. Gift of Mr. and Mrs. William McNaghy through the Fort Wayne Fine Arts Foundation Renaissance Campaign, 1986.23. Image courtesy of FWMoA.

Often used interchangeably, woodcuts and wood engravings are separate processes distinguished by the direction of the grain and the tools employed. A wood engraving, essentially a variety of woodcut, uses gravers and scraping tools on a cut of hardwood against across the grain, or endgrained, perpendicular to the growth of the tree. Developed by Thomas Berwick at the end of the 18th century, wood engravings use a burin to create thin, delicate lines for darker areas in the composition and, thanks to the use of the end grain, provide a hardness and durability that facilitates more detailed images. Compare Clare Leighton’s wood engraving with the Japanese woodcuts, both historic and contemporary. How does the linework, shading, and texture differ? Do you prefer one style over the other?

A landscape showing a farm set against the rays of the setting sun. In the foreground are sheep penned in front of corrals that black access to a small, thatched building with acres of land extending into the background.
Clare Leighton, American b. England, 1898-1989. Lambing. Wood engraving on paper, 1933. Museum purchase, 2014.337. Image courtesy of FMWoA.

Want to take a closer look? Landfall Press: Five Decades of Printmaking opens this Saturday, August 19th, at FMWoA. Examine prints from the permanent collection in the Print & Drawing Study Center year-round, 10am-3pm Tuesday-Friday or by appointment, with FWMoA Curator of Prints & Drawings Sachi Yanari-Rizzo.

Leave a Reply

error: Right click disabled for copyright protection.
%d bloggers like this: