The Middle Ages saw the widespread use of woodblock printing in West and East Asia. Book pages and later images were created using woodblock prints, one of the earliest forms of printing. China is where the earliest indications of woodblock printing were discovered. The Japanese then embraced the method and developed it over many centuries to the height of craftsmanship and creative expression.
In the centuries that have passed, woodblock printing has been replaced by other technologies, but it continues to be a popular DIY activity for both amateur and experienced artists in print shops looking for alternatives to linocut or screen printing. Study up on woodblock printing.
What is woodblock printing?
Woodcut printmaking entails carving an image from a block of wood's surface, smearing ink on it, and then capturing an impression or print. It is the earliest type of "relief printmaking"—printing from a block's surface. Woodcut printmaking can be done in two distinct ways, one of which is considered to be in the western tradition and the other to be in the eastern tradition. Western woodcut printing was developed when the printing machine was invented in Germany in the 14th century, while Eastern woodcut printmaking techniques date back to 9th century China.
Artists use carved wooden blocks to press designs onto fabrics or paper in the relief printing technique known as woodblock printing. Woodblock printing soon became less necessary as other technologies, such as the printing press, emerged. However, many individuals still choose to print with wood today rather than lino blocks (or other more contemporary materials).
An Overview of Woodblock Printing
For Chinese and Japanese art throughout the Middle Ages and the subsequent few centuries, woodblock printing was a particularly significant printing technique. Before the printing machine arrived and supplanted it, this printing style had a long history of spreading from Asia into Europe.
1. Chinese painters first used woodblock printing in earnest during the Tang dynasty, which lasted from the seventh through the eleventh century. They printed and illustrated lengthy scrolls, including Buddhist scriptures like the Diamond Stra, using mulberry paper and cutting blocks. China's craftsmen started including more Confucian texts in their creations as the Tang era ended and the Song dynasty took its place.
2. Arrival in Japan: By the Ming dynasty, which ruled from the fourteenth through the seventeenth century, the printing technique had spread to Japan, a neighboring country. Japanese woodblock printing, also known as mokuhanga, grew to include more forms of social and personal expression than just religion.
3. The development of Japanese woodblocks: The "floating world" (or ukiyo), a phrase for the urban setting of Japan that previously included kabuki players, samurai, and merchants, was painted by artists like Harunobu, Hiroshige, and Utamaro throughout the Edo period (1603–1837). They began to designate their pieces with kento as they diversified into employing more than one block for their artwork (marks to group and register blocks together). Possibly the most well-known Japanese print of this era is The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai.
4. Propagation to Europe: Woodblock printing techniques soon reached Europe as well. Even after the printing press started to spread over Europe and the rest of the world in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, many printed books on the continent still used woodcut print illustrations as their illustrations.
5. Woodblock printing was displaced by other printing techniques as screen printing, linocuts, and lithographs gained popularity in the centuries that followed and replaced it as the preferred method for mass-produced books and artwork.
Five Woodblock Printing Carving Tools
You just need a few supplies to create your own block printing kit. With the help of these five instruments, you may begin practicing this wooden block printing technique:
1. Baren: This tool is optional for woodblock printing, but it has advantages. Once you've cut a design into your carving block and covered it with ink, you may use this tool to apply consistent pressure to the rear of the block. You can always do it with your hand if you need to.
2. Brayer: By smearing ink or dye all over your wooden block before you attach it to paper, this roller speeds up the printing process. Rubber brayers are widely used.
3. Chisels: To carve your block with all the intricate details, you'll need chisels or other carving knives. You can transfer your design to any paper or textile surface by engraving it into the wood.
4. Inks and dyes: To make sure you can quickly clean up your wood, look for water-soluble block printing ink. Examine several colours and dyes to determine which you prefer.
5. Wood: To use this printing technique, you'll need wooden blocks. As their name implies, these serve as the foundational elements on which the other materials are built. The strengths and drawbacks of various wood varieties vary. For example, harder woods (which are the contrary in that they are harder to carve but better at conveying details) are easier to carve over granular details than softer woods.
4 Steps for Printing on Woodblocks
Woodblock printing requires patience, perseverance, and trial and error, but the results may be spectacular. If you want to explore this antiquated printing process, follow these four steps:
1. Select a drawing. You must choose a drawing to engrave on your woodblock and trace it over. When starting off, pick something straightforward. Although it may seem paradoxical, keep in mind that the carvings will fill white space rather than dark space. Use picture editing software to produce a negative image of your work. This will make it easier to transfer your artwork to the block.
2. Etch the woodblock. Use chisels and carving knives to begin cutting your chosen drawing into your block once you've made your decision. In case you make a mistake, keep extra blocks on hand. To stop the wood from warping, add some acrylic casing to the block.
Spread the ink on the block. Use your brayer to cover the entire bottom of your carved block with ink or dye. Before transferring it, let it have a moment or two to dry, because too much wet ink can result in a blurred art print.
4. Apply pressure to the paper. Start with a single sheet of paper, but keep several available in case one is used incorrectly. Printing paper should be placed with the woodblock facing down. If you would rather, you can use a textile. If a fault is found, clean the block and focus on carefully carving the problematic region to enhance the final print.
Inspired by the Japanese woodblock print masters like Hokusai and others? Or are you merely itching to get your hands dirty and engage in some creative endeavours, or looking to start a print shop? Printmaking beginners would be well advised to start with the traditional craft of woodblock printing. There are countless applications too. Woodblock prints can be used for a variety of things, including wall art and ornamental wrapping paper. Naturally, block printing can also be done with linoleum or rubber, but you can also do it just as easily with scraps of wood that you can find around the house or buy at a hardware store.
The carving process, the rolling of the ink, the surprise when your image becomes a print, and working with an organic, sustainable material all contribute to the very fulfilling nature of the woodcut printmaking process. A few basic tools will allow you to experiment, play, and print your own versions.