Term applied to the technique of making a print from a block of wood sawn along the grain and also to the print so made. Although the term is often loosely used for any type of print made from wood, it refers specifically to those made from blocks in which the grain runs lengthways across the surface (as in a plank of wood). It can thus be distinguished from wood engraving, in which the print is made from wood sawn across the grain, producing a surface capable of taking finer detail. Woodcut is the oldest technique for making prints and its principles are very simple. The design is drawn on a smooth block of wood (almost any wood of medium softness can be used—beech, pear, sycamore for example) and the parts that are to be white in the print are cut away with knives and gouges, leaving the design standing up in relief. This is then inked and the design printed on a sheet of paper. Cutting blocks of any complexity is a highly skilled business and this part of the work has often been done by specialist craftsmen rather than the artist responsible for the design. Coloured woodcuts, generally made by using a separate block for each colour, have been particularly popular in Japan (see Ukiyo-e).
The origins of the woodcut are obscure (the principle was employed in fabric printing in China at least as early as the 3rd century ad). There is evidence that woodcuts as we know them were being produced in Europe in the 14th century, but the earliest surviving reliably dated example is perhaps the St Christopher (1423) by an unknown artist in the John Rylands Library, Manchester. Many of the earliest woodcuts were crude popular religious images designed to be sold at fairs and pilgrim shrines (see also block book), but in skilled hands the technique could produce much more sophisticated results. It was at its peak in the first thirty years of the 16th century, in both individual prints and book illustrations, with Dürer being the supreme master. The connection between woodcut and the art of the book was very close at this time, as both used essentially the same method of printing and therefore could be readily combined. However, in the course of the 16th century woodcut steadily lost ground to line engraving (which required a heavier press but could produce finer detail and subtler effects). By about 1600 woodcut was little used apart from jobbing work and ephemera—broadsheets, chapbooks, playbills, and suchlike—but in the late 19th and early 20th centuries there was a major revival of interest in the technique as a medium of original artistic expression. As photomechanical methods had now largely taken over the reproductive functions of printmaking, all kinds of hand engraving could make a fresh start. Gauguin and Munch were the great pioneers in the 1890s, using the grain of the wood to create bold and vigorous textural effects, and they were followed by the German Expressionists (notably the members of Die Brücke), some of whom virtually hacked the design into the block. See also chiaroscuro woodcut.