AskDefine | Define xylograph

The Collaborative Dictionary

Xylograph \Xy"lo*graph\, n. [Xylo- + -graph.] An engraving on wood, or the impression from such an engraving; a print by xylography. [1913 Webster]



  1. an engraving in wood
  2. a print taken from such an engraving



  1. to make such a print

Related terms

For the origins of the technique, and non-artistic use, see woodblock printing; for the related technique invented in the 18th century, see wood engraving.
Woodcut is a relief printing artistic technique in printmaking in which an image is carved into the surface of a block of wood, with the printing parts remaining level with the surface while the non-printing parts are removed, typically with gouges. The areas to show 'white' are cut away with a knife or chisel, leaving the characters or image to show in 'black' at the original surface level. The block is cut along the grain of the wood (unlike wood engraving where the block is cut in the end-grain). In Europe beechwood was most commonly used; in Japan, a special type of cherry wood was used.
The surface is covered with ink by rolling over the surface with an ink-covered roller (brayer), leaving ink upon the flat surface but not in the non-printing areas.
Multiple colors can be printed by keying the paper to a frame around the woodblocks (where a different block is used for each color). The art of carving the woodcut can be called "xylography", but this is rarely used in English for images alone, although that and "xylographic" are used in connection with blockbooks, which contain text.

Division of labour

In both Europe and Japan, traditionally the artist only designed the woodcut, and the block-carving was left to specialist craftsmen, called "formschneider" in German, some of whom became well-known in their own right. They in turn handed the block on to specialist printers. There were further specialists who made the blank blocks.
There were various methods of transferring the artist's drawn design onto the block for the cutter to follow. Either the drawing would be made directly onto the block (often whitened first), or a drawing on paper was glued to the block. Either way, the artist's drawing was destroyed during the cutting process. Other methods were used, including tracing.
This is why woodcuts are sometimes described by museums or books as "designed by" rather than "by" an artist; but most authorities do not use this distinction. The division of labour had the advantage that a trained artist could adapt to the medium relatively easily, without needing to learn the use of woodworking tools.
In both Europe and Japan, in the early twentieth century some artists began to do the whole process themselves. In Japan, this movement was called Sōsaku hanga, as opposed to the Shin hanga movement, which retained the traditional methods. In the West, many artists used the easier technique of linocut instead.

Methods of printing

Compared to intaglio techniques like etching and engraving, only low pressure is required to print. As a relief method, it is only necessary to ink the block and bring it into firm and even contact with the paper or cloth to achieve an acceptable print.
There are three methods of printing to consider:
  • Stamping: Used for many fabrics and most early European woodcuts (1400-40). These were printed by putting the paper/fabric on a table or other flat surface with the block on top, & pressing or hammering the back of the block
  • Rubbing: Apparently the most common method for Far Eastern printing on paper at all times. Used for European woodcuts and block-books later in the fifteenth century, and very widely for cloth. Also used for many Western woodcuts from about 1910 to the present. The block goes face up on a table, with the paper or fabric on top. The back is rubbed with a "hard pad, a flat piece of wood, a burnisher, or a leather frotton". A modern tool used for this is called a baren. Later in Japan, complex wooden mechanisms were used to help hold the woodblock perfectly still and to apply proper pressure in the printing process. This was especially helpful once multiple colors began to be introduced, and needed to be applied with precision atop previous ink layers.
  • Printing in a press: presses only seem to have been used in Asia in relatively recent times. Printing-presses were used from about 1480 for European prints and block-books, and before that for woodcut book illustrations. Simple weighted presses may have been used in Europe before the print-press, but firm evidence is lacking. A deceased Abbess of Mechelen in 1465 had "unum instrumentum ad imprintendum scripturas et ymagines ... cum 14 aliis lapideis printis" - "an instrument for printing texts and pictures ... with 14 stones for printing" which is probably too early to be a Gutenberg-type printing press in that location.
Though the Japanese influence was reflected in many artistic media, including painting, it did lead to a revival of the woodcut in Europe, which had been in danger of extinction as a serious art medium. Most of the artists above, except for Félix Vallotton and Paul Gauguin, in fact used lithography, especially for coloured prints.
Artists, notably Edvard Munch and Franz Masereel, continued to use the medium, which in Modernism came to appeal because it was relatively easy to complete the whole process, including printing, in a studio with little special equipment. The German Expressionists used woodcut a good deal.


Coloured woodcut first appeared in ancient China. The oldest known colored woodcuts are three Buddhist images dating back to the 10th century.
European woodcut prints with coloured blocks were invented in Germany in 1508 and are known as chiaroscuro woodcuts (see below). However colour did not become the norm, as it did in Japan. In Europe and Japan, colour woodcuts were normally only used for prints rather than book illustrations.
In China, where the individual print did not develop until the nineteenth century, the reverse is true, and early colour woodcuts mostly occur in luxury books about art, especially the more prestigious medium of painting. The first known example is a book on ink-cakes printed in 1606, and colour technique reached its height in books on painting published in the seventeenth century. Notable examples are the Treatise on the Paintings and Writings of the Ten Bamboo Studio of 1633, and the Mustard Seed Garden Painting Manual published in 1679 and 1701.
In Japan colour technique, called nishiki-e in its fully developed form, spread more widely, and was used for prints, from the 1760s on. Text was nearly always monochrome, as were images in books, but the growth of the popularity of ukiyo-e brought with it demand for ever increasing numbers of colors and complexity of techniques. By the nineteenth century most artists worked in colour. The stages of this development were:
  • Sumizuri-e (墨摺り絵, "ink printed pictures") - monochrome printing using only black ink
  • Benizuri-e (紅摺り絵, "crimson printed pictures") - red ink details or highlights added by hand after the printing process;green was sometimes used as well
  • Tan-e (丹絵) - orange highlights using a red pigment called tan
  • Aizuri-e (藍摺り絵, "indigo printed pictures"), Murasaki-e (紫絵, "purple pictures"), and other styles in which a single color would be used in addition to, or instead of, black ink
  • Urushi-e (漆絵) - a method in which glue was used to thicken the ink, emboldening the image; gold, mica and other substances were often used to enhance the image further. Urushi-e can also refer to paintings using lacquer instead of paint; lacquer was very rarely if ever used on prints.
  • Nishiki-e (錦絵, "brocade pictures") - a method in which multiple blocks were used for separate portions of the image, allowing a number of colors to be utilized to achieve incredibly complex and detailed images; a separate block would be carved to apply only to the portion of the image designated for a single color. Registration marks called kentō (見当) were used to ensure correspondence between the application of each block.

Chiaroscuro woodcuts

Chiaroscuro woodcuts do not necessarily feature strong contrasts of light and dark, but are old master prints in woodcut using two or more blocks printed in different colours. They were first invented by Hans Burgkmair in Germany in 1508, and first made in Italy by Ugo da Carpi a few years later. Other printmakers to use the technique include Cranach, Hans Baldung Grien and Parmigianino. In Germany the technique was only in use for a few years, but Italians continued to use it throughout the sixteenth century, and later artists like Goltzius sometimes made use of it. In the German style, one block usually had only lines and is called the "line block", whilst the other block or blocks had flat areas of colour and are called "tone blocks". The Italians usually used only tone blocks, for a very different effect, much closer to the drawings the term was originally used for, or watercolours.

Modern variant

In modern printmaking, a quick method of separating printing from non-printing areas is to cover the printing areas with a shield, and then blasting the whole surface, either by sandblasting or shotblasting. The shield may be a metal outline, or a thick coat of rubber cement or similar compound.

See also


A Woodcut Manual, J.J.Lankes, Tampa Bay Press
xylograph in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Ксілаграфія
xylograph in Czech: Dřevořez
xylograph in German: Holzschnitt
xylograph in Estonian: Puulõige
xylograph in Spanish: Xilografía
xylograph in French: Estampe
xylograph in Croatian: Drvorez
xylograph in Indonesian: Teknik cukil kayu
xylograph in Italian: Xilografia
xylograph in Hebrew: חיתוך עץ
xylograph in Dutch: Houtsnede
xylograph in Japanese: 木版画
xylograph in Norwegian: Tresnitt
xylograph in Polish: Drzeworyt
xylograph in Portuguese: Xilogravura
xylograph in Russian: Ксилография
xylograph in Swedish: Träsnitt
xylograph in Thai: ภาพพิมพ์แกะไม้
xylograph in Vietnamese: Khắc gỗ
xylograph in Chinese: 木刻
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