The emergence of wood engraving in Europe 

“The Greeks knew only two procedures of technically reproducing works of art: founding and stamping.”- Walter Benjamin 

The elementary method of stamping using relief woodblocks remained constant until the first half of the 14th century in Europe. Imprinting was primarily done on wax, followed by fabric and finally on paper. Early European woodblocks were more like elementary-high relief engravings in broad outlines, printed in thick black ink, excluding shading. To make them more appealing, the blank space began to be filled in with hand-tinting. Eventually, the engravers realised the use of horizontal and vertical lines could replace the need for colour. ‘The Buxheim St. Christopher’ is probably the earliest print featuring the use of shading.

    The Buxheim St. Christopher, Wood Engraving, early 14th Century

The emergence of woodblock printing soon took over book illumination and illustrations in the late 14th century. These books comprised religious imagery in relief, usually illustrating a short text. Besides illustrations, wood engravings were also frequently featured in the Chronicles. ‘The Chronicle of Nuremberg’ is one such archetype, published in 1493. The significant contribution of Nuremberg’s engravers to Renaissance graphic art was the introduction of cross-hatching or line-crossing in varying degrees to obtain a darker tone.

But who were these engravers? They were traditional goldsmiths, intricately skilled at engraving in metal. Since the process of printing from engraved metal was unknown prior to the 14th century, they practised as goldsmiths for almost five decades. As soon as woodblock printing was introduced, goldsmiths reinvented themselves as engravers, wood being an easy alternative to metal. The involvement of skilled engravers and the introduction of cross-hatching soon led to wood engraving becoming an independent artist medium.

The art of wood engraving reached its zenith with the Northern School of Renaissance, although the Italians never held wood engraving in high esteem. The reasons perhaps were that the Italians were painters rather than draughtsmen; secondly, their obsession was colour. Therefore, the simple black and white effect of wood engraving didn’t particularly draw their attention until chiaroscuro in engraving developed in the 16th century.

Prior to the 15th century, engravers were implementing metal engraving techniques on woodblocks. But wood and metal are not equal substances, therefore technical re-modification was necessary. Albert Dürer (1471-1528) was the first to overcome this impairment. To overcome it, he immediately increased the scale of his compositions, using bold lines to obtain greater contrast in black and white. Dürer’s greatest achievement in wood engraving was the invention of the middle tone. He realised if crosshatches create a dark tone of great density, then parallel hatches might produce a middle tone. Prior to Dürer, the luminary value in wood engraving was transmitted from light to dark. Now it varied between light, medium and dark. Dürer’s’ ‘The four horsemen, from the Apocalypse’ is one such archetype. According to Christian mythology, the four horsemen represent Conquest, War, Famine, and Death or Plague. Kicking off from a climactic moment, Dürer chisels out his horsemen against a middle tone he achieved by gouging networks of parallel lines in the background.

Albrecht Dürer, Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse, Wood engraving, 1497-98

Other Northern artists who enriched the art of black and white wood engraving are Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531), Lucas Cranch the Elder (1472-1553), and Lukas van Leyden (1494-1533). They executed a wide-reaching body of works in wood engraving, referring to Dürer’s graphic chiaroscuro. Being a court painter, Hans Burgkmaier designed many illustrations, including the famous ‘Triumph of Maximilian’. A group of Dürer successors, known as the Little Masters, were known for engraving small designs. Albrecht Altdorfer (1488-1538), was prominent among them. He is renowned for his series of 40 engravings, the ‘Fall and Redemption of Man’. These are small format engravings, only 3 x 2 inches in size. To increase the contrast value, Altdorfer engraved lines in greater proximity, thus achieving a denser middle tone.

Lucas Cranach the Elder, The Lamentation, from The Passion, Wood engraving, 1472
Albrecht Altdorfer, Fall and Redemption of Man, Wood engraving, 1510

Another influential artist of the Northern Renaissance was Hans Holbein, born in Augsburg in 1495/96. He started practicing wood-engraving in Basel. Holbein liberated the art of the Northern Renaissance from its Gothic and religious limitations, concentrating instead on more worldly affairs. For instance, his series of 34 black and white engravings, the ‘Dance of Death’ is in this genre. The Dance of Death is an allegorical notion in Christianity, that manifests the occurrence of death as equal and inevitable in all individuals. It is said in the Bible that every soul is equal before God. Holbein models his Death on this belief as a metaphorical representation against social injustice. In this series, Death leads people from different social strata to their salvation with a special treatment for each individual. It tends to appear that the wealthy and powerful are treated with extra aggression, while the underprivileged with extra care. For instance, the Advocate is under the surveillance of Death while receiving bribes from the rich and ignoring the poor. On the contrary, Death leads The Old Woman in a joyful procession to release her from a life of toil. Hans Lützelburger’s skilled engraving infuses life into Holbein’s’ ‘The Dance of Death’ series.

Hans Holbein the Younger, from The Dance of Death, Wood engraving, 1523-25
Thomas Bewick, The Cross-Bill, Wood engraving, 1847

In the 16th century, the art of black and white wood engraving went out of favour with the emergence of chiaroscuro engraving. However, the black and white practice of graphic art persisted in metal engraving and etching. In the 18th century, wood engraving was revived with fresh technical modifications by Thomas Bewick (1753-1828) in England. In contrast to the traditional engraving method, i.e. white to black, Bewick invented the ‘white line’ engraving. Apart from this, he employed boxwood, and the method of engraving across the grain to make it more convenient for artistic use. However, wood engraving remained a commercial medium for design and illustration, while modern artists of the 19th and 20th centuries turned to the alternative medium of woodcut.

Relief printmaking in modern Europe

In the 19th century, Japonism had a strong influence on the art and culture of modern Europe, relief printmaking being no exception. Some European artists began experimenting with black and white woodcuts. The French painter Felix Vallotton (1865-1925) was one amongst them, his greatest contributions being his monochrome woodcut prints. Inspired by the Japanese Ukiyo-e prints, he produced a volume of works in woodcut, that were contrary to tonal cross-hatching in the European tradition. Rather, his woodcuts are rendered in stark black and white contrast, delineated with simple strokes. His woodcuts explore the various facts of fin de siècle Paris, the politics of urban life, gender roles, and portraits of famous personalities.

         Felix Vallotton, Woodcut, 1893
Paul Gauguin, The Devil Speaks, Woodcut on paper, 1893, 27 X 42 cms

Paul Gauguin (1848-1903) is acknowledged as one of the most prominent painters of the Post-Impressionist period in France. In 1891, Gauguin travelled to Tahiti in the Polynesian Islands in search of primitivity. Nearly forty years after his death, his experiences were published as a travel journal titled ‘Noa Noa’, which means’ ‘a fragrant scent’. The ‘Noa Noa’ consists of a total of ten black and white woodcut prints. Influenced by the primitive craft of Tahitian wood engraving, the artist employed woodcut as a medium to portray his new experiences. Gauguin was very experimental in his approach towards woodcut. By rubbing sandpaper on plywood, Gauguin attained fine, thin lines to create middle tones.

In the last quarter of the 19th century, the legacy of German relief printmaking was revived in Edvard Munch’s woodcuts. Munch (1863-1944) was born into an economically deprived family, leading him to portray defining images of anxiety, grief, anguish, and mortality of the proletariat. His prints are dominated by flat black areas with less engraving. In fact, these flat spaces are not flat at all, evincing an illusion of depth by employing the tactile quality of the surface.

Edvard Munch, Angst, Woodcut on Japanese paper, 1896, 45.9 X 37.8 cms

In the first quarter of the 20th century, a number of creative movements emerged in Europe, the German Expressionist movement being one amongst them. It ushered in a new perspective in art through printmaking. Relief printmaking became the most important mode of expression for them. The German Expressionist movement initiated different ideologies to challenge the role of art in daily life, rejected the classical style, and accepted simplified, real-life distorted forms and subjects to express different shades of human emotion in black and white woodcuts. Käthe Kollwitz (1867-1945) was one of the most influential German Expressionists. She is renowned for her figurative black and white woodcuts. While other artists experimented with different mediums, Kathe condensed her expressions from paintings to black and white woodcuts. ‘Widow II’ is from the famous woodcut portfolio Krieg (War), comprised of a total of seven prints. It is about those who lost their loved ones in the war. A corpse-like female figure with a baby on her chest is delineated in stark contrasts of white against black, creating a sensation of doom. Käthe shows distinct skill in gouging, creating networks of lines to achieve details in the limbs.

Käthe Kollwitz, Widow II, Woodcut on paper, 1922, 30 x 53 cms

Several artist groups were established during the German Expressionist movement. The Brucke Artist Group was prominent among them, established in 1905. The group employed relief printmaking as a medium for mass communication. By taking advantage of the reproductive possibility of relief printmaking, they printed portfolios, manifestos, booklets, and posters in black and white or primary colours. Erick Heckel (1883-1970) belongs to this group. He is best known for his series of portraits in black and white woodcut executed in bold yet expressive gouging.

Erich Heckel, Roquairol, Woodcut, 1917, 32 x 24 cms

In the United Kingdom, Sir William Nicholson (1872-1949) and Haydn Reynolds Mackey (1881-1979) became famous for relief illustrations during the First World War. They are best known for their unconventional method of hand-tinting and layering black and white linocut prints onto a transparent sheet of colour. However, their basic black and white relief prints individually assert their stature in the history of printmaking.

Haydn Reynolds Mackey, Virgin at the base of the Cross, Linocut with white gouache, 1937, 40.5 x 26 cms

The famous Spanish artist Pablo Picasso (1881-1973) executed some of the most iconic linocut prints in black and white. His spontaneity in gouging represents his control over the medium. He is well regarded for popularising linoleum as a relief matrix.

Pablo Picasso, Le Dejeuner sur l’Herbe (Luncheon on the Grass), Linocut, 1961, 64 x 53.5 cms

In 1919, the Bauhaus movement came into existence in Germany, as a catalyst to redefine the purpose of art in everyday life. German-born artist Josef Albers (1888-1976) was closely associated with the movement and also taught at the Bauhaus School of Design. Grounded upon the Bauhaus Manifesto, Josef experimented with geomantic abstraction in various branches of visual art. Josef was particularly interested in employing varying surfaces in relief printmaking. To realise the different textual and spatial effects, he obtained prints from both conventional and unconventional surfaces, including plywood, linoleum sheet, and even from a cork matrix.

Josef Albers, Involute, Cork relief on kozo paper, 1944,  28.9 x 45.1 cms
Frans Masereel, The Urination, Woodcut on paper, 1922, 13.5 X 20.5 cms

Last but not the least, Flemish artist Frans Masereel (1889-1972) embraced woodcut for the graphic novel. Being a political cartoonist and illustrator, Frans Masereel reacted to the standardisation of social classification. He is regarded as the pioneer of the modern woodcut novel. He employed graphic novels as a catalyst to facilitate direct interaction between art and the viewer. His novels strictly contain black and white woodcut prints, excluding text. His ‘Book of Hours’, a parody of Christian devotional books popular in the Middle Ages, narrates his protagonist’s journey into a modern city. All illustrations are rendered in stark black and white contrast, defined by bold yet spontaneous gouging.

Contemporary approaches

With back-to-back World Wars, the 20th century brought sweeping socio-political and socio-economic changes across the globe. Emma Stibbon’s black and white and monochrome woodcuts frequently depict these scavenged recollections of the 20th century in Europe and the Western continent. In her ‘City in Transit’ series, she captures the abandoned site of socialist housing projects of Berlin in the twilight in monochrome woodcuts. Emma’s works explore how built landscapes and environments change as a result of human activities and natural forces. Her other series, including ‘Wild Lands,’ ‘Polar Region,’ and ‘Tidal, Sea, and Edge,’ describe the severe changes in the environment caused by global warming. In her large-scale woodcuts, the tactility of the wood is employed as an expressive component to create theatrical light and shadow.

Emma Stibbon, Berlin East IV, Woodcut, 2005, 117 x 235 cms

Thomas Kilpper is an enthusiastic relief printmaker interested in the history and politics of wars and social upheavals. He works extensively with site-specific monumental woodcut projects. He determines the sites that had a connection with his context, such as the former US military base near Frankfurt. It was used as the central prison and an interrogation camp for the Nazis. Later it was transformed into a basketball court. Thomas attempted to recreate history by engraving the entire floor. He pulled black-and-white prints on paper rolls and fabric, installing them on the site. Perhaps the reason for the black and white execution was to signify the loss of intermediate tones with the destruction caused by the war.

Thomas Kilpper, Don’t look back, Floor cutting, 1998

Christiane Baumgartner, Lisbon 1 -2, Woodcut on Japanese paper, 2001

Artist Christiane Baumgartner transforms her passion for video art into relief printmaking. “She uses the old medium of woodcut to reflect on the modern world as mediated through TV and video.”[1] She successfully captures speed and movement into her inanimate woodcuts through the use of horizontal lines in the matrix. When viewed up close, it appeared as an abstraction of lines, but each line contains a value to complete the image, just like a piece of information; thus, when viewed from a distance, the human brain translates the information of lines into a visual image.

The practise of black and white relief printmaking in Europe had a significant impact on popularising visual and print culture around the world.  The inexpensive, stark simplicity and easy reproductive nature of relief printmaking make it more effective to shape or affect public opinion, dialogue, or discourse. With these as the point of interaction, the art of black and white relief printmaking came alive while Europe was ascending towards Modernism, politically, culturally, and in warfare. In this time of flux, European artists re-contextualised black and white relief practice as a return to simplicity or to critique life in the metropolis in monochrome. Often, these prints portrayed dark melancholy, beholding the apocalyptic vision of the World Wars on mankind.


Hind Arthur M. An introduction to a history of woodcut. Dover publications, New York,1963.

Edward Woodberry George. A History of Wood-Engraving. Harper and Brothers, New York, 1883.

Figura Starr. German Expressionism-The Graphic Impulse. The Museum of Modern Art, New York. 

[1] Coldwell, Paul. Printmaking a Contemporary Perspective. Black Dog publication, London, UK.

By Nilanjan Das