woodcut and wood engraving

woodcut and wood engraving

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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The following article is from The Great Soviet Encyclopedia (1979). It might be outdated or ideologically biased.

Woodcut and Wood Engraving


engraving on wood, one of the most widespread forms of cutting a design on wood. In printing, these techniques are done by hand. A design is drawn on a wooden plank, or block; the areas of wood not to be printed are cut away. Ink is applied to the flat surface of the block, but the areas that have been cut away are left uncovered. The blocks can produce up to 15,000 prints. When a large quantity of prints is desired, galvanography is used. The oldest techniques of cutting a design on wood, woodcut and wood engraving have been used for a long time to illustrate books and to make display prints. In the 19th century these techniques were widely used for printing illustrations and reproducing paintings and drawings in books and magazines. In the 20th century, woodcut and wood engraving have retained their importance almost exclusively as techniques for creating artistic works, including book illustrations.


Pavlov, I. N., and M. V. Matorin. Tekhnika graviury na dereve i lino-leume, 2nd ed. Moscow, 1952.
The Great Soviet Encyclopedia, 3rd Edition (1970-1979). © 2010 The Gale Group, Inc. All rights reserved.
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Among those currently exhibiting is Alan Figg whose favoured medium is lino-print but he has also experimented with intaglio, woodcut and wood engraving. Details 01978 860828.
Walker (book arts and printmaking, Ontario College of Art and Design) presents this handbook for woodcut and wood engraving printmaking.