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Traditional Printing Techniques



All methods of relief printing are characterized as being made from a printing substrate whose flat top surface carries the image when rolled with ink while all non printing areas, which remain the color of the paper are cut away so that they fall below the surface plane (dead level). It is one of the few techniques where prints can be pulled either from the pressure supplied by a press or solely from burnishing the back of the paper by hand. Wooden planks were the traditional material used for the relief substrate, but more durable cast metal would eventually become predominant for use in large scale commercial printing.

WOODBLOCK (woodcut)

Printing from cut blocks or planks of wood is the oldest printing technique known to man dating back to at the least third century in China. It was no doubt an outgrowth of the earlier practice of stone rubbing (ta-pen). This method spread throughout Asia where it remained a common and popular method of printing well into the 20th century. In the West, woodcuts had been used to place designs on fabric before paper was available, and they became a staple in reproducing images from as far back as the 1300’s. Relief printing grew in importance with the invention of the moveable type press a century later, but as metal became the choice substrate of skilled artists the quality of woodcutting fell into decline. When postcards were first manufactured traditional woodcutting was no longer used in commercial printing outside of Japan. The rare postcards made from woodblocks in the West most often appear between the two World Wars and they are most likely to have been published by the artists who created them.


Woodcut: This old illustration from an 18th century broadsheet shows the traditional way that wood was cut to represent drawn ink or copper engraved lines.

In woodblock printing an image was usually first drawn or painted onto a plank and then the areas not meant to print were cut away with knives, chisels, scrives, and gouges. A stiff ink is then applied to the surface of this substrate by hand with the aid of a rag, tampon, or dauber. After 1820 rollers began being used for inking either by hand or directly adapted to a printing press. Unlike most other methods, a great deal of pressure is not needed to pull a woodblock print, so once a thin paper was placed upon an inked block the image could be transferred simply by burnishing the paper’s back. A small amount of embossing may form around cut edges of the final image if heavy pressure is used to transfer it onto paper. Presses were eventually used to produce more relief prints in less time with the same incentive as today; time is money.


Woodcut: The cutting on early woodblocks usually just followed the lines drawn on a plank by an artist. Any unintentional marks left behind from the tools used to create it was considered a flaw in workmanship. Once modernist trends introduced the idea that art could be more than illusion, artist began letting their medium show through their images. On this postcard from 1933, the gouges and cuts made to create this woodcut are not hidden but become part of its style and expression.

Since the images from wooden blocks are cut with a knife or a gouge, they often leave tell tail marks behind that would not appear in any other medium. Lines that taper, hard straight edges and sharp angles can all be signs that a print was produced by the act of cutting. This is not to say that flowing lines cannot be found for a true craftsman can be quite adept. Under magnification however these cut lines are not as rigid as one might imagine for wood is an organic substance whose edges will crumble away without regularity.

Woodcut Detail

Color Woodcut: This detail of tree branches from a color woodblock clearly displays a sharp angular quality. While this can be controlled to a degree as a matter of style, this quality is inherent to the technique and is very typical of any image cut out of wood with a knife.

Woodcut Tools

Wood Cutting Tools: A variety of knives and gouges used to cut woodblocks are shown in the picture above. In relief printing the non-printing areas are cut away below the surface, and the surface is then rolled with ink. The shape of the cut areas and their edges will vary depending on the type of tool used to cut it. The wider the dead level, the greater the chances of accidental ink transfer as the peaks left in the gouged out dead zones can inadvertently pick up traces of ink and print if the paper sags into it. The narrower the line, the greater chance of the wood crumbling, which can lead to less surface to hold ink or the line may disappear completely.


The printed image from a woodblock generally appears as a flat solid color. All gradations must be created optically through the careful spacing of areas cut to print and not to print. Because inking methods are so variable, the printed areas may appear densely solid, which is the ideal, or mottled, which can distract from the image. It is often difficult to tell the difference between a woodblock print and a lithograph since they both capable of producing solid continuous tones. The borders surrounding inked areas on woodblocks often appear darker because the pressure from printing forces ink to spread outwards until it spills over the cut edge and accumulates (ink squash). The grain of the wooden plank may also sometimes bleed through the image, which is a dead giveaway of the technique. Seeing wood grain in an image however was not generally a desired trait in commercial prints and it tended to be avoided. Visible wood grain only became acceptable at the very end of the 19th century when artists began incorporating their materials into the visual meaning of their work. In some cases these wavy patterns actually became part of a prints design, typically substituting for water or sky. These contrasting patters could be brought out further by scouring planks with a wire brush that would minutely change the surface relief by removing soft areas of the wood grain before the hard.

Postcard Detail

Ink Squash: This detail from the back of a postcard shows that it was more likely printed from a block relief than by lithography due to the ink squash around the edges. As pressure is applied to a block, the ink on its surface migrates outward and gathers where the surface plane drops off. This edge is also the maximum point of pressure on the substrate from a press or when hand rubbing is used. This effect should only be considered a clue for a similar look can be caused by other factors.

Wood Grain

Wood Grain: This block of wood was scoured with a wire brush that removed softer areas of wood at a faster rate than hard areas. This created a very low relief but one high enough for the wood’s natural grain to be brought out when rolled with ink.

In relief printing it is the top surface of the substrate that gets inked and all areas cut away will be non printing, at least in theory. Broad areas within the dead level usually contain a wide variety of valleys and ridges that are left behind from the actions of cutting tools. While they all fall below the printing plane it is still possible for the high peaks to pick up some ink and for it to inadvertently transfer onto the finished print, especially when inking and printing is done by hand. On more modern prints this is often just considered part of the process but in general these unplanned for markings were undesirable. Some printers saw opportunity in this effect and developed the process known as lowering, which could create softer grey within an otherwise solid black tone or a vignetting effect around printed edges. The image area of the block was gently burnished to fall just under the printing plane where it might pick up small amounts of ink. Lowering however could not give consistent results so it was used sparingly on both woodcuts and wood engravings.


Reduction Printing
The reductive nature of woodblock printing provided for a technologically easy method of creating multiple color prints but one that required more careful planning. The areas to retain white, usually the paper color are cut out first, and then the entire surface plane of the remaining substrate is inked with the lightest color and printed. The same substrate would then be cut into again removing all areas where the light colored ink is to be retained. Then the block’s surface is covered with a darker ink, which is printed over the lighter image. This procedure can continue multiple times creating ever darkening layers until the image is complete. Since only one substrate is used, any single color must be printed on all the needed copies before it is cut into again. If prints are lost due to registration problems along the way, then the final press run is diminished as there is no way of going back to print more. The cutting of each successive color destroys the previous plate.

While many colors can be printed through the reduction method, most woodblock prints only employed two to four hues including black. Color was rarely used to create a realistic looking image, just a more attractive one. The pallet chosen for this technique was usually confined to similar hues that would lower contrast and enhance their tonal range. In this way they were close to traditional tinting methods, and were sometimes referred to as chiaroscuro woodcuts. This method was much too time consuming to be used for most commercial printing, but it was easy to simulate through lithography and line block and so that is how the style most often finds its way onto postcards.


Reduction Woodblock: It is often difficult to tell if a woodcut was printed with multiple blocks or through a reduction method. Sometimes one layer of ink will seep through the inadvertent nicks in the next to give a clue. If an image can be logically deconstructed in a reductive manner it is probably a reduction print. In the detail below we can see that after the whites were cut out the light grey would have been printed, then the block was cut again to create the brown design. Finally everything was cut away except for the surface plane that would print black. Difficulties in registration with this process often created a lot of waste, making it unacceptable for commercial printing. This card is probably a reproduction of a reduction woodblock in lithography.

Postcard Detail

Japanese Woodblock
By the 1740’s new color inks were being manufactured in Japan and many printers began adding green and pink to their woodblocks. Soon afterwards they were made in four colors with the addition of purple and yellow. By 1764 the artist Harunobi was producing full color woodcuts from ten different blocks. A very long and exacting regiment of apprenticeship was eventually developed for those working in this medium so that every artist allowed to draw an image would already have years of experience cutting, inking, and printing behind him. This prevented everyone in the production chain from making mistakes that would have detrimental consequences down the line. These types of color prints were so widely popularized by a culture that had reserved more elaborate forms of art to their elite that woodblock prints remained in strong competition with more modern techniques well into the 20th century. When Japan began to produce privately printed postcards in 1900, this traditional technique continued alongside more modern methods.


Color Woodblock: This early 20th century woodblock postcard reproduces an older woodcut by Torii Kiyonaga made in the 1780’s. While the style is more linear than what was in vogue at the time it was first printed, it still demonstrates how certain traditions remained constant over time.

By the late 19th century most prints in Japan were being produced in elaborate colors (Ukioye) through the use of multiple blocks that would each print an individual color. This process starts with a full sized drawing that is pasted face down on what will be the key block containing most of the image. Once the back of the thin paper was slowly peeled away, the drawing on its surface would be reveled and cutting could begin to relief the image. The prints pulled off this first key block, would then be pasted down on all the color blocks so that they could be cut in perfect registration. This created a separate substrate for every color the image required. Labor in the production color woodblock prints was strictly divided by experience. First one had to learn how to print before being allowed to cut. Only a master cutter was allowed to paste the drawing onto a block. It was only when all these skills were mastered so that problems could be anticipated beforehand that a cutter was allowed to move up to the position of artist and make original drawings.


Color Woodblock: This postcard displays the flat color fields that are typical of traditional Japanese prints and easily achievable through block printing. The style of the image is perfectly matched to the technique.

Unlike woodblock printing in the West where colors were printed in uniform flat fields, the Japanese showed themselves to be far less reluctant to manipulate the application of ink onto blocks. The most common method was in the creation of vignettes where a single block was inked in a manner that would produce a gradation of tones in one hue. Sometimes a single block would be inked in two blending colors or a single block was printed twice but each time inked differently. Since these tonal or color gradations are not in the block itself but created by the skill of those who ink it, there are always variations from one printed image to the next.


Color Woodblock: This postcard displays the tonal transitions common in Japanese prints that could be created through inking the blocks by hand. The four distinct compositional elements have enough empty space around them to comfortably receive the three colored inks on a singe block.

The art of papermaking originated in China but evolved differently as the process migrated both to the West and Japan. The Japanese did not view their handmade papers (washi) as manufactured goods as much as a product of cultivation. Papermaking had been the traditional winter occupation of farmers but by the 1870’s increased demand had forced much of its production to become mechanized in industrial settings. While Japan largely adopted Western methods to produce postcard stock, they continued to manufacture thinner papers for printing. Woodblocks printed by hand require thin paper to achieve the full effect of burnishing. Some cards were hand printed on traditional thin sheets of mulberry or rice paper that were totally unsuitable for mailing. These were sometimes mounted onto heavier stock but it may be advisable to look upon these items more as novelties than as postcards despite their similar size. Those woodblock postcards produced on heavier paper stock were most likely printed on a press.


Color Woodblock: This Japanese woodblock has been printed on a thin rice paper and mounted onto thicker paper stock. The card however remains flimsy and it is doubtful it was ever meant to be mailed.

While color woodblock printing was introduced to the West in the 19th century, the process could not commercially compete with the printing methods already in widespread use despite its popularity. The technique however was readily adopted by a number of artists who were happy to discover a fresh printing medium to work with that did not require a press. It was a different story In Japan where the woodblock tradition was so strong that it continued to be used alongside more modern techniques to create postcards in significant number up to the Second World War. A few Japanese publishers still continue to produce postcards in color woodblock.


Color Woodblock: While this more modern woodblock postcard shows some Western influence in its use of pictorial space and the looseness of its drawing, it still displays all the typical stylistic cutting of the traditional Japanese technique.

Compound Print
In compound printing the individual colored shapes that make up a single image are separated by sawing the substrate they lie on completely apart. In this way each individual component can be inked in its own color with greater speed and accuracy, and then reassembled to print an entire color image in one press run. This process imposes strict limitations on the design because no colors can overlap, and all color areas have to be shaped in a way that mades it possible for the whole image to be cut into pieces. While very tight color registration could be achieved, a white line was often visible between each cut piece from the loss of the sawed substrate. Compound prints have been made from woodblocks since the 15th century but they have proven too slow to print for modern commercial use.


Compound Style: While we can tell the line block postcard above was made from two separate plates due to ink overlap, it is designed in a style based on traditional compound woodcutting. The modern postcard below reproduces a compound woodcut made in 1898 by Edvard Munch. The requirements of the technique lent itself to simple compositions that incorporated modernist sensibilities. Many variations of this print exist due to the ease of changing colors and the experimental nature of the times.


White Line Block Printing
While similar to a compound print white line block printing is a uniquely American form developed by a group of artists in Provincetown, Massachusetts in 1915. It involved gouging out a wide line around the simple shapes of the image drawn on the wooden block. This is similar to the idea of a black key plate that traditionally holds the composition together in other color media, only here it is in white. Its look also mimics that of compound prints without having to cut the substate into pieces. This outlining also made it possible to use a brush or daub to ink each isolated area with a single color that would yield fairly consistent results. Theoretically the entire block could be inked at once but usually only one color was printed at a time so any spill over of color into areas beyond its designated white boundaries could easily be wiped clean. This allowed for a bit more complexity in the design from a technique that imposed limits on drawing and encouraged simple stylization. Proper registration was usually achieved by pinning the printing paper to the side of the block, but this meant that each print would be made start to finish one at a time. This lengthy process insured that its use would be confined to artists.


White Line Woodblock: This image of Provincetown is typical of white line block printing except that the colors are more muted than the typical print in this style.


Thomas Bewick took up the graver in the late-18th century during the general decline of woodcut printing. While he made no technological innovations, his ability to produce high quality images with this medium slowly attracted an audience that would lead to a revival in block printing. More importantly, these blocks unlike their intaglio rivals could be cut to the same uniform height as that of type and locked in a frame so that they could be used in conjunction with letterpress. During the 19th century wood engravings became the primary source of printed imagery for public consumption. No sooner did the process reach supremacy than it came into competition with newer printing techniques that would quickly replace it before the century’s end. Its use on postcards was largely relegated to the earliest forms of advertising cards. Even when it was no longer an economically viable printing method, wood engraving remained so popular with the public that cheaper printing methods sometimes tried to imitate its look. While wood engraving has disappeared from the commercial scene, it still has ardent practitioners within the art community.

Wood Engraving Tools

Wood Engraving Tools: The two tools at the bottom of the picture above are gravers for use on wood. The width and depth of an engraved line is totally dependent on the relationship between the V shape of the burin tip that cuts it and the amount of pressure that is applied by hand as seen in the illustration below. At the top with a strong wide cutting edge is a tinting graver capable of producing six parallel lines with one stroke. This tool not only saves on time, it ensures proper spacing between lines. If engraved lines are placed too close to one another the wood between them may crumble away and nothing will print.


In wood engraving it is the polished end grains of carefully seasoned hardwood are incised to create an image. Boxwood, so dense that it is the only wood that will not float in water, is the preferred substrate. Other types of hardwoods such as cherry are sometimes employed but its surface is more susceptible to crumbling. The hardness of these blocks, and their lack of directional grain allowed engravers to reproduce pictures with much finer details than those cut from planks of wood They still only produced solid tones, but subtle gradations could be created optically thanks to the finer lines. Specially crafted gravers are used to push wood out of the block in a precise manner more reminiscent of metal engraving with burins than the knife cutting of woodblocks. Only here in wood engraving, it is the surface areas that will be inked and print while those lines incised by the burin will become the dead zone and remain the color of the paper. Some tinting tools were even developed so that multiple parallel lines could be cut at one stroke when putting in grey tones. This also sped up production of this tedious process.

Wood Engraving Detail

Wood Engraving: In this detail a variety of engraved marks are used to create optical tone. The white on black cut lines are very evident, which are clear characteristics of a wood engraving.

White Line and Black Line Style
Most woodblocks came to be cut in a linear fashion in an attempt to imitate the look of the more prestigious metal engraved line. This tradition was initially passed down to the art of wood engraving where it became known as black line wood engraving. The problem with this process is that cutting wood away to leave a thin black line behind is a somewhat unnatural approach that does not lend itself well to the material. The finished product would often look forced because it was being made to appear as something it was not. The work of Thomas Bewick did not inspire interest for his technical innovations, but for the new way in which he approached the medium. Instead of carving out black lines, Bewick treated the surface of the block as a black field into which he would incise highlights in white. This method that became known as white line wood engraving attracted many followers and it has become the predominant stylistic approach to this medium since the 19th century.

Wood Engraving

White Line Wood Engraving: Where previously wood was cut away to reveal black lines, Thomas Bewick would gouge out white lines from a black field in ways that more naturally showed off the natural aspects of the medium.

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