Also known as xylography, woodcut is a printmaking technique that uses relief printing to print an image. Printers carve images into a block of wood. Any areas that would show white are cut away along the grain of the wood. The remaining image is rolled with black (or another color) and then essentially stamped onto a medium to reproduce the image. Japanese woodcut artists typically favored a type of cherry wood for their carvings. In Europe beech wood was a popular choice for woodcuts.
The first woodcuts appeared in China during the third century where the practice was referred to as banhua. Later the woodcut printing technique was used widely in both Europe and Japan. In China woodcuts were used most frequently with accompanying text. In this way, the technique functioned less as an art form than it did in Europe and China. Instead, the Chinese used woodcuts to reproduce Buddhist texts and other significant writings. Woodcut also served to make banknotes in China. China was also the first place to employ colored prints made from woodblocks.
By the year 1400, the woodcut technique was employed to make master prints. Many of these early woodcuts were crude and sold cheaply. However, the German printmaker Michael Wolgemut successfully enhanced the woodcut process by 1475 and with advances by other printers, the woodcut form achieved a higher degree of image-making. Used for book illustrating, the western woodcut print achieved its most respected level of artistry through the work of Albrecht Durer who was born in 1471; many critics believe his skill has never been surpassed in the west.
Nevertheless, the artistry of the woodcut reached its popular zenith in Japan where the woodblock technique was used to reproduce the floating world of the Japanese geisha. This form of woodblock printing was known as ukiyo-e which developed out of the earlier moku hanga form. The woodblock cuts of Japan and Iran reached sophisticated and technically superior levels. While a respected art form during this period in history, it was seen as inferior to painting. However, these old woodcuts became highly collectible during the twentieth century and are still prized today.
In both Europe and Japan the design of the woodcut was made by the artist and the actual carving was performed by a skilled craftsman known as block-cutter. During the early twentieth century many artists engaged in the entire process themselves. Other famous artists who worked with woodcuts include Hokusai (1760-1849), M.C. Escher (1898-1972), Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694), Werner Drewes (1899-1985), Urs Grad (1485-c.1529), and Utamaro (c.1753-1806).