Printmaking with Woodcuts

The most popular way for medical illustrators to reproduce their images for publication was the use of woodcut prints. It’s a process which involves gauging and slicing into a piece of wood the mirror of
A Woodcut Matrix
the image. The block of wood on which the image is carved into is called a matrix. The matrix is used for mass reproduction of that image.  
“Woodcut, the oldest technique used in fine art printmaking, is a form of relief printing. The artist’s design or drawing is made on a piece of wood (usually beechwood), and the untouched areas are then cut away with gouges, leaving the raised image which is then inked.”(visual-arts-cork)
There are different ways in which a final image can be pressed, Stamping, Rubbing, and Pressing. Stamping was the original method employed during the Renaissance. The ground medium is the paper or fabric on which the image was printed. The ground medium was placed flat on a surface, the woodcut matrix was inked up, and placed onto the ground medium, then pressed leaving an impression and the mirror image of the wooden matrix. Rubbing was a widely used method in China and Japan and later became very popular in Europe. It was the opposite of stamping, as the matrix was placed face up. Paper or fabric is then placed on the matrix, and the back of it is rubbed with a piece of wood or leather, known as a Frotton. The tool is now called a baren. The pressing method is a little more complex. A large cylinder is attached to a table and the cylinder is moved by a system of gears activated by rotating a hand-crank. The process became more complex through time. The woodcut process was advancing. to the end of the 15th century, when Johann Gutenberg developed a better method of printmaking; the printing press. It is argued that Woodcut was an inferior method of printmaking. However, if we look back at our favorite medical illustrator whose name is more recognized due to a popular show. It’s Grays Anatomy, the top-selling book that was made with cheaper materials, but the images were still beautiful. In case you haven’t seen one in figure two you will see a beautiful illustration by Henry Gray’s artist, Henry Vandyke Carter. Little known fact about this work is that these were made with woodcuts. Even though there were better methods of creating such detail, the two Henry’s stuck to a cheaper process, which, in the end, brought fame and fortune to them both (except Carter, he didn’t get credit until about 1901).  As an art thought, Woodcutting is really quite beautiful. It may lack the soft edges of a printing press, or the detail you would see in a Lithograph, but woodcuts have a subtle grace about them. I took a look at some of the different styles of woodcuts that have been produced in the past, and I find myself in awe of these artists and their ability to mimic and distort their surroundings.
ALBRECHT DURER   (German, 1471-1528)
The Rhinoceros (1515)
woodcut cut in the “black line” technique   8.4″ x 11.7″
A famous woodcut artist is Albrecht Durer, a German artist from 1471-1528.  Following my curiosity, I was led straight to Durer, his ability to manipulate his media to create images as clear as his Rhinoceros from 1515, which can be seen in figure 3. This print is very detailed, I would argue that woodcuts make for an impressively accurate reproduction, though there are many different processes which make a different image. Printmaking, using woodcuts is such an ancient process. It is still used by artists and students today, but none have mastered the quality of Durer or Carter.  
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One thought on “Printmaking with Woodcuts”

  1. Love the illustrations that go along with this, as I usually do with your posts. I never would have thought of medical illustrators using woodcuts, but of course in order to reproduce their work– which must have been central to their educational aims most of the time– they would have needed to uses processes like this early on. Very interesting!

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