Woodblock printing is an art form of East Asia where it has been used since at least 220 AD to print text and images. There are many beautiful woodblock prints from Japan – most notably from the great Japanese artist Hokusai whose famous “Great Wave off Kanagawa” is one of the best-known works of art in the world:
You can see from this picture that the artists and craftsmen stretched this medium to the max in order to produce great detail and wonderful flowing curves in their designs.
The process uses a block of suitably fine-grained wood on which the parts that are to remain unprinted are cut back to give a relief matrix the flat face of which is then inked and brought into firm contact with the paper.
No press is required. Inking is done using a rubber roller called a “brayer”.
For multicolor prints a block is needed for each color, and these blocks have to be kept in register so there are no sloppy overlaps or gaps in the print. This is done by keying the paper to a frame built around the blocks. All design work and the creation of the blocks has to be carried out in reverse.
*Woodcut* is the name given to a similar form of printing developed in Europe and used extensively for illustrating books and manuscripts before the advent of photographic techniques. Albrecht Durer for example designed many famous woodcuts for use as book illustrations. Here is his extremely detailed “Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse”.
In both East Asia and Europe, it was common for the artist to design a work and then hand it over to specialist carvers to create the blocks. While skilful carvers produced some wonderful detail in these prints, the technique also lent itself to a certain stylish simplification which can be seen at its best in many Japanese woodblock works.