Originality versus photomechanical process

Printmaking as a major art form in the United States has emerged in the last two centuries. During the Colonial epoch (prior to the 18th century), some inferior relief prints were executed from metal matrices by anonymous engravers. Wood as an alternative to metal, as well as the art of engraving, commenced with Dr. Alexander Anderson (1775-1870) in 1794, almost eight years after the USA was liberated from Great Britain. However, America was still subservient to Colonial culture. The new generation of post-independence engravers, including Dr. Anderson, were diligent imitators of Thomas Bewick. Wood engraving was primarily employed for commercial purposes, such as advertising illustrations, product labels, and illustrating juvenile literature. In 1841, Joseph Alexander Adams (b. 1803), a pupil of Dr. Anderson, invented the photomechanical technique of transferring images directly onto the block. In 1846, Dr. Anderson, along with Adams, published the Harper Illustrated Bible, which included 160 wood engravings. This technological advancement was a significant landmark in the history of American pictorial printing, but not in printmaking. The photo-transferring procedure allows for the replication of an image’s tonal nuances, eliminating the need for creative ways of cutting.

Contrary to this, a group of wood engravers sought ‘originality’ in the engraving process, improvising with cross-lining, stipling, and pricking. Therefore, a new school of relief printmaking emerged in 1870-1880. Timothy Cole, Frederick Juengling, William B. Closson, Elbridge Kingsely and Henry Wolf were prominent printmakers of the New School of American Wood-Engraving. The New School engravers were primarily concerned with the novelty of skilled execution. Self-expression and conceptual amelioration were never taken into consideration by New School engravers, unlike Mexican printmaker José Guadalupe Posada,who was working at the same time on his famous ‘Calaveras’ series. As a result, relief printmaking became a ‘dead art’ in the first quarter of the 20th century. However, the art of black and white relief printmaking persisted under the aegis of a few fine art printmakers, such as Max Weber, J.J. Lankes, and Rockwell Kent. Artist Max Weber (1864-1920) was born in Russia, migrating to America at the age of ten. Weber began working in wood and linocut after returning from Europe in 1909. Being exposed to the Cubist movement and Modernism, Weber looked back to his roots in the folk art of Russia.

Max Weber, Head, Woodcut, 1919

He was largely self-taught. Using the pen-knife as a tool, Weber executed his relief prints in a bold and primitive style. His relief prints were printed in single flat tones of black and white, and occasionally in primary colours. Printmaker J.J. Lankes’ (1884-1960) black and white woodcuts portray the rural beauty of pre-industrial America. Clouds floating over the valley, silent moonlight nights, and country roads are delineated in brilliantly rendered graphic chiaroscuro. Besides his single-sheet woodcuts, he also illustrated books written by prominent authors of the 1920s and 30s.

J.J. Lankes, Carolina Village, Wood engraving, 1923

Illustrator Rockwell Kent (1882-1971) was a proficient relief printmaker and explorer. Inspired by the supernatural approaches of romanticism, Kent went beyond the American genre, portraying human figures as a symbolic representation of mankind, struggling against the harsh forces of nature. His figurative black and white compositions are set amidst the mysterious landscapes that he experienced during his expeditions to the remote lands and seas of Tierra del Fuego, Greenland and Alaska.

Rockwell Kent, The Angel, Wood engraving, 1926

European influence

In the 1930s and 40s, German artists Josef Albers (1888-1976) and Werner Drewes (1889-1985) migrated to America with the closing of the Bauhaus under the Nazi regime. Migrating to America, Josef Albers was appointed as a teacher at North Carolina’s Black Mountain College. There he resumed his printmaking practice, experimenting with geometry in woodcut. In 1947, Josef executed ‘Multiplex’ a series of woodcut prints, paying great attention to the manner in which the “organic reference of the wood grain plays off against the straight lines of the figures engraved in them.”[1]

[1] Josef Albers Process and Printmaking(1916-1997), Museu Fundación Juan March, Palma April 2–June 28, 2014.

Josef Albers, Multiplex D, Woodblock on paper, 32.4 x 40.6 cm, 1948

Printmaker Werner Drewes executed someabstract views of America in black and white woodcut after migrating there in 1930. Another German-born illustrator, cartoonist, and printmaker, Fritz Eichenberg (1901-1990), was forced to flee Germany by the Nazis in 1933. He began his career as an illustrator and political cartoonist for the Federal Art Project after immigrating to America. His approach to wood engraving was realistic, with extraordinary implementation of graphic chiaroscuro.

Fritz Eichenberg, Wood engraving, 1950s.

The American born artist Lynd Ward (1905-1985) is regarded as the pioneer of graphic novels in America. Ward went to Germany in 1926 to attend a year-long special course at the National Academy of Graphic Arts and Bookmaking. There, Frans Masereel’s wordless novels caught his eye. Taking inspiration from Frans Masereel, he executed the first wordless novel in America, ‘The God’s Man’ in 1929. The novel includes 139 black and white woodblock prints, illustrating the protagonist’s life story manifested through his ambitions, love, greed, and death. The compositions are delineated in stark black and white contrast. Wardshows distinct skill in gouging, creating networks of parallel and horizontal lines to achieve tonal variations in his engravings.

Lynd Ward, From The God’s Man, Wood engraving, 1929

The mid-20th century brought the advent of television to America, paving the way for the Pop Art movement in the late 1950s. American culture now developed a penchant for vivid photomechanical representation. Artists such as Andy Warhol and Richard Hamilton were employing found images directly from magazines and newspapers in their works. Vija Celmins, on the other hand, uses found images as references for her drawings and prints. Nature and science were fundamental sources of inspiration for Vija Celmins works. She has devoted her entire life attempting to build a dialogue between these two courses. “In the late 1960s, America first landed on the moon and the media was full of dramatic images of outer space”[2]. Celmins began to use these images in her work as references. Her black and white woodcut series ‘Night Sky’ was one amongst them. Thousands of white dots are marked against a black backdrop. From a distance, it may appear photographic but “at close range, these shapes appear highly abstract and their connection to the source material of a night sky photograph is almost completely lost.”[3]

[2] https://www.tate.org.uk/art/artworks/celmins-night-sky-woodcut-ar00480

[3] ibid

Vija Celmins, Night Sky, Woodcut, 1997

Willie Cole’s work delves into the harsh realities of racism and how African Americans face prejudice on the Western continent. In 1988, Willie Cole executed ‘Stowage’, a large scale black and white woodcut in collaboration with master printer Maurice Sanchez in New York. In this print, Cole revives the floor plan of a slave ship, illustrating the tight arrangement of air vents. This floor plan was distributed to the masses in England and America in 1780 as a protest against slavery. Cole’s print is surrounded by porthole-like circles, each containing heraldic images representing different tribal clans of West Africa from where the slaves were bought. The wooden texture alludes to the wooden slabs on which the slaves might rest.

Willie Cole, Stowage, Woodcut, 1997

Artist Terry Winters invented an innovative way to cross-pollinate between traditional relief printmaking and digital technology. He generates his composition digitally, further transferring this digital drawing to woodblock with the aid of laser engraving technology. His interest in the interface between biology and technology led him to innovate this new way of using traditional printmaking mediums.

Terry Winters, Graphic Primitives, Woodcut printed on Japanse Kochi Paper, 1988

Other contemporary printmakers working and researching in the realm of black and white relief printmaking were Tom Huck, Jun Lee, Johanna Mueller. Tom Hunk is best known for his large scale satirical woodcuts in black and white. Taking inspiration from Albrecht Durer and  Jose Guadalupe Posada, Hunk constructed incredibly thin networks of lines, incorporating a denser middle tone than ever before. Johanna Mueller takes a step further to improve the environment by substituting environmentally friendly plastic sheets for woodblocks. Her engraving on plastic is intricately detailed, gouging networks of lines in various orientations to distinguish musculature, objects, and surfaces. June Lee’s black and white relief prints explore the hardship and struggle of the living world. Her black and white woodcuts are rendered in wonderful detail and graphic chiaroscuro.

Being a British colony, America adopted Thomas Bewick’s schooling in relief printmaking. Black and white relief printmaking was employed primarily for commercial illustration, but was not necessarily the favoured choice for artistic enterprise in the US. Few printmakers, such as Rockwell Kent and J.J. Lankes, executed in black and white relief printmaking with exceptional academic proficiency. Yet their prints were confined to illustrations, with no explicit attempt at conceptual development and stylisation. Black and white relief printmaking developed in America during the first quarter of the 20th century with artists migrating from Europe. Finally, by the latter half of the 20th century, post-Modern artists had successfully articulated black and white relief printmaking practice in the context of American culture and history.

Tom Huck, Bed of Bones, Woodcut, 1995-1998
Johanna Mueller, Eden, Engraving on plastic, 2020
June Lee, Hit List: Code C, Woodcut, 2014


Johnson, Una E. The Woodcuts and lithographs of Max Weber. Brooklyn Museum Bulletin, vol. 9, no. 4, 1948, pp. 7–12. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26458196. Accessed 30 July 2021.

Linton, W. J. The History of Wood-Engraving in America. Chapter I. The American Art Review, vol. 1, no. 5, 1880, pp. 181–189. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20559618. Accessed 3 Aug. 2021.

Griffin Gillett G. The Development of Woodcut Printing in America. The Princeton University Library Chronicle, vol. 20, no. 1, 1958, pp. 7–17. JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/26402819. Accessed 3 Aug. 2021.

Watrous James. American printmaking: a century of American printmaking, 1880-1980. Madison, Wis.: University of Wisconsin Press. 1984.