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The History of Printing Part 1 - Woodblock Printing

Printing has been around for many years and has formed an integral part of the way in which people communicate with each other, spread news and tell stories. In our 5 part series on the history of printing, we’ll explore how we got from woodcuts and woodblock printing to modern laser and inkjet printers. In part 1 we take a look at woodblock printing in Asia and Europe.

Woodblock printing involves carving the image or text to be printed in relief on a piece of semi-soft wood. This means that the parts of the print that need to show up as ‘white’ are carved away using a knife or chisel or smoothed away with sandpaper, while the stuff to be printed remains at the surface level. Ink is then spread on the block and paper or material is pressed firmly and evenly onto the block to transfer the image.  Prepared woodcut being inked for printing Page from the Diamond Sutra This was an extremely labour intensive way of printing, as each page would have to be carved individually and each woodblock ‘plate’ could only be used for a short amount of time before the wood deteriorated. Woodblock printing is the earliest form of printing that we know.

It originated in China as a way to print on textiles, most notably silk, and later on paper. The earliest known example from 220 AD and is flowers printed on silk. Later on, woodblock printing became popular for printing Buddhist texts and spreading the religion through the region. The most famous of these texts is the Diamond Sutra which was printed during the Tang Dynasty and dates back to 868 AD. Woodblock printing would become popular for reproducing classic literature during the Song Dynasty (960-1279 AD). It was also during this time that colour printing for paper was developed, with printers using a red ink along with the black. Woodblock printing was also widely used in Japan and Korea where it was used to reproduce religious texts. Ukiyo-e printing is a well-known woodblock printing art form that originated in Japan.

European Woodcut- Jack of Diamonds It was during the Crusades in the 13th Century that woodblock printing came to be known in Europe. New technology and innovations from the Far East arrived with returning Crusaders, including paper, ink and printing. Woodblock printing, called woodcuts, was initially used only to make playing cards and religious image prints. Early European woodblock prints were very simple in design, featuring thick bold lines as opposed to the thin, finely detailed lines of prints from the Far East. Early woodblock prints were probably used as an inexpensive alternative to paintings. A small amount of lettering would usually would also be added to the block as well, which led to the development of block books, which were woodcut books usually with religious subject matter. They were mainly used for the religious education of illiterate believers.

The woodcut illustration became more sophisticated with the invention of movable type printing. Fine woodcuts were used to illustrate printed text and became more refined and detailed as movable type printing advanced. German artist Albrecht Dürer used the technique to create detailed and intricate woodcut prints, the first of which was his famous Samson Rending the Lion, which uses subtle shading to create the illusion of depth and texture. Samson Rending the Lion Woodcut printing for illustration would eventually be replaced with engraved metal plates which were more durable and could be reused more often.

Woodcut printing would see a revival 19th Century as a personal art form with German and Norwegian Expressionists like Edvard Munch using woodcut printing extensively. Luckily, printing a picture and some text is as easy as pushing a button. Don’t forget that you can get all your compatible and original printer cartridges from Inksaver to make your printing even easier. Next week we’ll take a look metal engraving and moveable type and how the invention of the printing press changed the way we communicate forever.