Saturday 18 January 2014



The woodcut is one of the oldest of the numerous printmaking techniques, and in principle can range from either being one of simplest to very complex. A block of wood is carved into with gouging tools in order to produce an image. Ink is rolled over the remaining relief portion of the block and when paper is placed on the block the recessed areas will be inkless, effectively producing the desired image. When this starts to get truly complicated is when you need to make a new block every time you want to add another colour. Each block is carved only with the portion of the overall picture that is intened to be a certain colour. For example, to create Sharpe’s Dock WJ Phillips made one block that would be the evergreen trees in green, and another just the water for blue, and another just the boat for red, and so on and so forth. All the blocks must align perfectly to one another to create the overall image perfectly. The photograph below shows four blocks each to represent the design for the four colours used in Sybil Andrews masterpiece Speedway. These blocks are gouged in linoleum instead of wood, but the technique between a woodcut and linocut would be the same.

As one can see, these are certainly not the sort of modern prints you will find in editions of thousands or more, rather they are laborious and much limited in number. Artists will design, carve and pull their own images from the block. In the Middle Ages it might not have been uncommon for an artist to design a work and a master block-cutter to make the block. However mostly and certainly in modern woodcutting, the work is done by artist. The whole process is equally hands-on as painting a canvas, especially if the artist is carving the block and pulling the paper themselves.

The woodcut being so old has had an illustrious presence on the stage of world art history. Most notably it was in the spotlight in late medieval Germany and 19th century Imperial Japan, and again on a global scale in the early 20th to mid 20th century with what is known as the Woodcut Revival. The Woodcut Revival has been of some curiosity to me for a while; anytime I hear or see the word ‘revival’ my interest is generally peaked. 19th century revivalisms are something of a specialty for me.

As the woodcut has been present throughout the history of art, I will give a brief kudos to noteworthy artists of the German Medieval and Japanese ukiyo-e movements before moving ahead to discuss the revival of the woodcut and its presence in Canada. It seems silly to discuss a revival movement without first mentioning a bit about what treasures it seeks to revitalize.

In Germany in the 15th century the use of the woodcut became prevalent thanks to its use for illustration and text of early book printing. The period between 1450 and 1550 has been deemed the Golden Age of Woodcut. Germany was a mecca for early books; otherwise known as incunabula (books pre-1501) The Gutenberg Bible is an incunabula. There are two types of incunabula, and one has pages produced each from carving a single block of wood. Ultimately this is a woodcut. These can also be referred to as block books. Albrecht Durer worked in wood cut, and he was a master engraver. Whether or not one likes this style of art, his work is undeniably skillful and uncannily detailed. It received considerable praise during his own lifetime, particularly thanks to his 1448 publication of the Apocalypse series of 15 woodcuts depicting scenes from the Book of Revelations. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse is of particularly merit. Durer and his contemporaries work has made the woodcut somewhat of a national tradition in Germany, which would be dully noted by German Expressionists enthusiasm during the Woodcut Revival.

Leaving the western world behind, we will briefly move on to discuss the fabulous tradition of woodblock printing in the 18th through early 20th centuries. Although colour woodcuts have existed since ancient China, the Japanese truly excelled in this medium. This is such a rich tradition it is difficult to discuss in short. A whole blog could be devoted to ukiyo-e type woodcuts alone. However, some imagery that has become iconic and reproduced worldwide to this day are the work of Japanese woodblock artists. These artists would influence the woodcut worldwide in the 20th century. The work of Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) is probably some of the most popular imagery today.

Hints of reviving the use of woodcut printing stirred in Britain in the 19th century, but truly took foothold in France in the 1890s and into the early 20th century. Now famous artists such as Paul Gaugain and Edvard Munch were instrumental in this. Another integral figure in the making of the modern woodcut was Felix Vallotton. By the 1920s the Woodcut Revival was in full swing in Canada too.

The simplicity of medieval woodcuts actually lent well stylistically to the crisp, bold and reduced forms of the modern art that coincided with woodcut revival. Thus artists could both honour the traditional features of the woodcut without straying from modern artistic expression. In Canadian art, good examples of this would be the printmaking of Andre Bieler, Carl Schaeffer and Edwin Holgate.

The Woodcut Revival also coincides with the Art Deco movement. One aesthetic branch of Art Deco was an interest in Japanese art and design, known as Japonisme. Conveniently it had been less than a century since the popularity of Japanese colour woodblock masterpieces was still rampant. Thus, an enthusiasm for Japanese woodcut art meant it was used as inspiration worldwide.

This is particularly evident in Canada with W.J. Phillips. One only need glance at his famed Karlukwees colour woodblock print next to Hiroshige’s Night Snow at Kambara to see the connection. W.J. Phillips was internationally known for his capabilities with woodblock printing. Masters Gallery sold a copy of his portfolio An Essay in Woodcuts that had been in the ex-collection of a Harry Goebel, a distinguished connoisseur of printmaking in New York. He chose to include Phillips amongst the worlds very best of printmaking.

As mentioned earlier, German Expressionist artists helped in the revival of the woodcut. Other modern art movements used the technique as an integral feature, namely British Vorticism. This bold movement evoking art is a derivative of Italian Futurism, The Grosvenor School of Printmaking stems from Vorticism. Grosvenor School prints have gained considerable popularity on today’s art market. Some key Grosvenor figures are Claude Flight, Cyril Power and Canada’s very own Sybil Andrews. Although mostly the Grosvenor School used the linocut instead of the woodcut the technique is similar. Canadian Jock MacDonald experimented with woodcut, but preferred the malleability of linoleum ultimately.

The woodcut and linocut are just a few of many types of printmaking. In Canada other types of printmaking would become important in the country’s art history, such as the silkscreen printing projects supported by the National Gallery in the mid-20th century. For a glance at printmaking in the province of British Columbia specifically, Masters Gallery is putting on an exhibition entitled Printmaking in British Columbia 1889-1998.

By: Jill Turner

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Photo Credits:

1. WJ Phillips Sharp's Dock, Pender Harbour, BC colour woodblock print

2. Linoleum blocks for Sybil Andrews Speedway as seen in the publication Rhythms of Modern Life: British Prints 1914-1939

3. Heidelberg Incunabula

4. Four Horsemen of the Apocalyspe from Albrecht Durer's 15 woodcut Apocalypse series (1448 first pub.)

5. Utagawa Hiroshige The Great Wave

6. Paul Gaugain Soyez Amoureuses woodcut

7. Felix Vallotton Le Violin woodcut

8. Andre Bieler La Chapelle St. Famille, Ile d'Orleans woodcut and pochoir

9. Carl Schaeffer Houses in Winter 1930 woodcut

10. Edwin Holgate Nude by a Lake circa 1923 woodcut

11. WJ Phillips Karlukwees 1929 colour woodcut

12. Utagawa Hiroshige Night Show at Kambara 1833 colour woodcut

13. Image of the Harry Goebel ex-libris copy of WJ Phillips An Essay in Woodcuts

14. Claude Flight Speed linocut

15. Cyril Power The Tube Station linocut

16. Sybil Andrews Coffee Bar 1952 linocut

17. Jock MacDonald Indian Salmon Rack, Fraser Canyon BC 1931 linocut


  1. Excellent Blog on a subject many collectors and people should know about. I for one totally support Canadian block print makers of which far too many are forgot. Thanks for your comparatives, and discussion, hope it reaches far and wide.