The actual technique of stamping from woodblocks was used to print textiles before it was applied to paper. It was known in Japan since the VIII century. Woodcuts are made by inking the raised surface of a carved block of wood against which a piece of paper is pressed. The pressure can be exerted either manually or by running the block and the paper through a press. The design of a woodcut is produced by elimination. That is, cutting away everything except the lines or shapes to be printed on the paper.
The first woodcuts that appeared in Europe around 1400 consisted mainly of thick outlines with minimal shading. It is quite difficult to carve the block and lines that were too thin would break under pressure. The resulting images looked a lot like coloring books and they were, in fact, meant to be colored by hand or with stencils. Because most of the early woodcuts served as illustrations for books and there was an ever growing demand for well illustrated books, the medium quickly became more and more sophisticated.
Albrecht Dürer was responsible for transforming the medium. He created woodcuts like Samson Rending the Lion which were amazingly detailed and complete with subtle gradations of tone and suggestions of texture. Such was the beauty of his work that a contemporary of Dürer, Erasmus of Rotterdam, claimed that adding color would be to "injure the work."
Titian, the great Venetian painter, created striking examples of woodcuts such as Saint Jerome in the Wilderness.The lines are so delicate and fluent, the composition so animated that there is strong evidence that Titian drew directly on the block, and the master cutter followed his marks as closely as possible.
Incidentally, woodcuts were the first prints in which color was first introduced. These prints were known as chiaroscuro woodcuts.
The intention of the printmaker was to imitate the look of a kind of drawing on colored paper known as chiaroscuro. These drawings were much sought after by collectors at the time. The term chiaroscuro was derived from the appearance of the image. The colored paper served as the middle tone. The artist then worked toward the light (chiaro) by adding highlights with white gouache and toward the dark (oscuro) by adding crosshatching in pen or a dark wash with a brush.
The chiaroscuro woodcut was invented in Germany by Hans Burgkmair in 1509. It was created by first printing a line block in which the contours and crosshatching had been carved. The print was later combined with one or more tone blocks. By using more than one tone block, it was possible to suggest different degrees of shading, as in a wash drawing. Where the blocks had been cut away, the paper would remain unprinted, and these white areas would serve as the highlights.
A fabulous example of a chiaroscuro print is that by Hans Baldung Grien's titled Scene of Witchcraft in which flickering highlights and deep darks can be easily discerned and help create an oppressive and daunting scene. In Italy, the first artist to use chiaroscuro was Ugo da Carpi. His work titled Diogenes is remarkable because he makes no use of the line block and creates the image entirely through areas of tones. The image in Diogenes is based on a wash drawing by Parmigianino. Other artists such as Titian, later lost interest in having their drawings duplicated through woodcut. Titian himself preferred instead to have his paintings translated into the intaglio technique of engraving.
The woodcut is a relief process. With the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century, woodcuts became the medium of choice for illustrating early printed books. Various woodblocks could be placed alongside the type in the flatbed press and printed simultaneously. Very efficiently, the same image could be used to illustrate more than one text and it could even be used repeatedly in the same text. The Liber Chronicarum (Nuremberg Chronicle) uses the exact same city view to denote cities that were unknown to the artist.
Not much later, another illustrated book by the title Hypnerotomachia Poliphili (Poliphilo's Dream) was printed in Venice with very similar characteristics although different styles. They both are perfect examples of the successful integration of text and image into the overall layout of the page. However, the pages of the German book are densely filled with the texture of short, jagged, angular lines that designate both the Gothic script and the illustrations. On the other hand, the Italian book shows a different aesthetic very much in line with ancient Roman inscriptions. The frugal, quite elegant woodcut illustrations create an overall sense of classical tranquility and balance.
By the mid-sixteenth century, engraving had started to prevail over woodcuts as the favorite medium for book illustration. Since engravings and type required different kinds of presses, the illustrations began to be printed independently on separate pages and the overall result lacked the integration present in previous books.