woodcut and wood engraving

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woodcut and wood engraving, prints made from designs cut in relief on wood, in contrast to copper or steel engraving and etching (which are intaglio). The term woodcutting is loosely included within the wood-engraving process, from which, however, it can be distinguished. Woodcutting, the oldest method of printmaking, is accomplished using soft wood with a knife employed along the grain. Wood engraving, which developed in the 18th cent., is a technique using hard, end-grained wood worked with a graver or burin.


Woodcuts were used in ancient Egypt and Babylonia for impressing intaglio designs into unpressed bricks and by the Romans for stamping letters and symbols. The Chinese used wood blocks for stamping patterns on textiles and for illustrating books. Woodcuts appeared in Europe at the beginning of the 15th cent., when they were used to make religious pictures for distribution to pilgrims, on playing cards and simple prints, and for the block book which preceded printing. At that time the artist and the artisan were one, the same person designing the cut and carving the block. One of the first dated European woodcuts is a St. Christopher of 1423.

After the invention of the printing press, woodcuts, being inked in the same way as type, lent themselves admirably to book illustration. Albrecht Pfister first put them to this use c.1460. Other early woodcut illustrations are in the Bibles of the late 15th cent. and in the French Lyons edition (1493) of the works of Terence. The first Roman book with woodcuts appeared in 1467, but Venice became the center of Italian wood engraving. In the 16th cent. in France woodcuts frequently served to illustrate books of hours. The actual cutting was often performed by a specialist rather than by the designer.

In Germany, where the form was particularly well developed, Dürer and Hans Holbein the younger were the most eminent woodcut designers of the Renaissance. Dürer's Life of the Virgin (1509–10) and Great Passion (1510–11) and Holbein's Dance of Death (1523–26) are among the best-known works of these masters. Lucas Cranach the elder, Albrecht Altdorfer, and Hans Baldung also worked in wood engraving, employing a chiaroscuro technique originated by Jobst de Negker of Augsburg.

Decline and Revival

There was a decline in woodcutting with the increasing versatility and popularity of line engraving on metal. Even in the Netherlands, where woodcuts lasted longest, they were almost obsolete by the 18th cent. In England, however, Thomas Bewick popularized wood engraving. He brought to perfection the technique of white-line engraving, in which lines print white on a black background. Gustave Doré was the best-known French master in this medium in the 19th cent.

William Blake also made wood engravings for some of his best book illustrations (e.g., for Thornton's Vergil; 1821). The Victorian weeklies used numerous wood-engraved drawings as illustrations. Most famous of English wood engravers were John Swain and the Dalziel brothers. In the United States wood engraving was practiced from the 19th cent. by such masters as Alexander Anderson, William James Linton, and Timothy Cole.

As photographic technology advanced, photography and photographic processes slowly replaced woodcut as a means of book illustration and wood engraving for reproduction of oil paintings. In the 1890s in France a revival of woodcutting to produce original prints was initiated by Paul Gauguin, Edvard Munch, and Felix Vallotton, who cut their blocks themselves. Their influence on 20th-century expression in this medium was enormous. Derain, Dufy, and Maillol also made notable woodcuts. After World War II many artists in the United States, such as Leonard Baskin, Sue Fuller, and Seong Moy, explored new formal and technical possibilities in the medium of woodcutting.


See A. M. Hind, An Introduction to a History of Woodcut (1935, repr. 1963); D. P. Bliss, A History of Wood-Engraving (rev. ed. 1964); A. H. Mayor, Prints and People (1971).

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wood·cut·ter / ˈwoŏdˌkətər/ • n. 1. a person who cuts down trees or branches, esp. for fuel. 2. a person who makes woodcuts. DERIVATIVES: wood·cut·ting n.

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wood·cut / ˈwoŏdˌkət/ • n. a print of a type made from a design cut in a block of wood, formerly widely used for illustrations in books. Compare with wood engraving. ∎  the technique of making such prints.

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woodcut Oldest method of printing, using designs carved into wood. The carving produces a negative image: the carved areas representing blank spaces while the flat areas retain the ink. Woodcuts were invented in China in the 5th century ad, and became popular in Europe in the Middle Ages.

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