Updated: Apr 30, 2021
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In this post, we’re going to explore Block Printing. Have you heard of it before? It’s been around for almost 2000 years but it may be a form of art you don’t know a whole lot about. In this case, that’s a good thing. I’m going to fill you in on what you need to know about this ancient art. I’m also going to introduce you to Katie Argyle, an artist who’s been block printing her unique designs for years. She’s also shared her process with us, so this post is one you’re going to want to read right to the last word!
Origins of Woodblock Printing
There’s so much information available about woodblock printing that it was hard for me to pick and choose. I’ve done my best to summarize and compile it for you so it’s interesting, makes sense and is in somewhat chronological order. So, let’s have a look at woodblock printing across the centuries.
Woodblock printing has a long and prestigious history which began as early as 2 CE (AD) in China. The process, using colour and blocks of wood with patterns carved into them, was used to stamp designs on silk cloth and other textiles. The earliest surviving examples of textiles created this way date back to 220 CE.
Eventually, block printing moved to paper and as methods of papermaking became more advanced, woodblock printers found a new surface to work on. It became possible to successfully print text and illustrations.
For this method, ink was applied to letters and/or an illustration carved into a wood board. It was then pressed onto a sheet of paper, like we would do today with a stamp. The earliest example of a complete Buddhist woodblock printed book containing the date it was printed is the ‘Diamond Sutra’, which dates back to 11 May 868 CE.
The intricate frontispiece of the Diamond Sutra from Tang Dynasty China, the world's earliest dated printed book, AD 868 (British Library) Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6925162 “Diamond Sutra from Cave 17,” 868 CE. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The first known movable type was invented in China around 1040 CE. It was made of ceramic materials such as baked clay, which made it very fragile. It wasn’t until 1297 that wooden moveable type was introduced, giving printed text a more durable option.
As the printing of books and other texts grew in China, the knowledge of the process spread across Asia. It became popular in other counties such as Japan, where it was embraced. Over many centuries, it was used for practical and artistic purposes.
The earliest known example of woodblock printing in Japan, it is said, are the commission of one million small woodblock printed scrolls with Buddhist text on them by Empress Kōken around 765 CE. They were placed into small wood pagodas and distributed across the country.
During the 11th to 13th century, woodblock printed books, sutras, mandalas and other images and texts were generally made at Buddhist temples across Japan. At this time, because of the expense, printing was mainly something done by Buddhists to spread the word about Buddhism.
By the Edo period (1603 – 1867), books had become very popular and many had taken to printing them. Books were almost always printed using woodblock printing methods on Japanese paper and bound using a side-stitch. The Japanese literacy rate was very high and books on travel, gardening, cooking and more were in demand. There were even bookstores that offered the rental of text and illustrated woodblock printed books.
As for art, the Ukiyo-e type of Japanese woodblock printed art featured illustrations of kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, beautiful women and landscapes. The Japanese inks were water-based and provided a wide range of vivid colours, glazes and transparencies.
Evening Snow at Kanbara, from the series "Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō"ca. 1833–34
Utagawa Hiroshige, Source: The Met https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/56915
Perhaps the most popular image of the time, ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’, was created by artist Katsushika Hokusai. It’s estimated the original carved woodblocks printed around 5,000 copies of this work before they began to breakdown causing poor image quality.
Many of these impressions have been lost over the centuries with only a few remaining to date. You might be interested to know that the highest price paid for a print of ‘The Great Wave’ was in March 2021 when it was auctioned off for $1.6 million at Christies. Wow!
The Great Wave off Kanagawa, by Katsushika Hokusai via Wikimedia Commons colour woodblock print (1831), Public Domain
In 1868 reform and renewal came to Japan, opening it up to the world. The Ukiyo-e style of art and Hokusai’s work became great influence on impressionist artists such as Monet and Degas.
Here’s a great video showing you the Hokusai method of woodblock printing. It’s worth having a look. It’ll definitely give you a new appreciation for this art form.
Woodblock printing appeared in Europe in the 1300’s and was only used for printing on fabric. By the middle of the 15th century, block books, which were woodblock printed short books having 50 or less pages, were being produced. They were heavily illustrated with limited text. Being carved a page at a time into a block of wood, it’s easy to see why. They were never dated nor did they have any reference to who had printed them. This method was widely used in the printing of playing cards.
Part of an uncut sheet of woodblock printed playing cards, by Gilles Savoure, Lyon, France, 1490-1500. Museum no. E.988-1920
Europe’s history with woodblock printing was short-lived. Around 1440, German goldsmith, Johannes Gutenberg, invented the first printing press. It revolutionized how printing could be done. On average, 3,600 pages per average work day could be printed compared to maybe 40 using hand-printing. People began to move away from the old process of woodblock printing for more cost-effective methods.
Today, some artists continue to use the ancient method of block printing in their work. Some still use carved woodblocks to print with while others take advantage of new materials that have been designed to aid printmakers with their art. Either way, the process remains the same.
3 Types of Block Printing
1. Woodblock prints can be defined as a type of relief printing. Water-based inks in a variety of colours are used and application is done using a brush.
A key block is carved which has the most descriptive elements on it. A print is made of the key block, traditionally using black ink, and pasted onto other block of wood that is the same size. The next carving in the series is created by adding to the pattern made by the key block print. This process is repeated for each colour that will be used in the finished design.
When all the carving is complete, printing begins, first with the key block. When the ink is dry a different colour is applied to the next block in the series, and so on, until each colour has been added to make a completed print.
Credit: Adachi Institute of Contemporary Ukiyo-e
2. Woodcut prints are also a form of relief printing. The difference between woodblock and woodcut is the medium that the artists used to create the prints. Traditionally, Chinese and Japanese artists used water-based inks while European artists used oil-based inks for their printing.
The effects artists achieve in using these two types of ink are quite different. Water-based inks produce transparent effects that are quite soft and light, similar to those watercolour artists create. The oil-based inks are opaque and applied with a brayer. This creates prints that are sharp, bold and very well defined. They’re also more durable. Another distinguishing characteristic that woodcut prints have is that they’re mostly created using black and white line work.
The Four Horsemen, from The Apocalypse, Albrecht Dürer, 1498,
Source: The Met, Public Domain
3. Wood engravings are also part of relief carved printing, but there is a difference when it comes to where on a wood block the artist carves the pattern. On both woodblock and woodcut printing, the pattern is carved on the face of the wood block, the side with the straight grain on it. With wood engravings, the artist carves the pattern on the end grain of the block. That’s the side where you can see the growth rings of the tree.
The end grain is dense and much stronger making it more difficult to carve on. Special tools called burins having a v-shaped cutting tip were invented so artists could produce wood engravings with fine lines. Why carve on the wood grain end? Well, it made for longer production runs and gave illustrations, typically printing in only black ink, subtle gradations of value making them look more dimensional.
This image is available from the United States Library of Congress's Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3c02102, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=175183
The image above is a good example of the lights and darks that wood engravings create. This large wood engraving on the cover of this newspaper is from 1883. Such prints were made up of multiple engraved wood blocks that, when combined together, made a single image. It was a common process at the time, dividing the work up among a number of wood engravers.
Now that we have some knowledge about block printing under our belts, let’s move along and meet our guest artist for this week!
3T Art Blog Guest Artist
Katie Argyle – Expressive Artist Working with Block Printing and Multiple Mediums
I’d like you to meet Katie Argyle, an artist who is keeping the old tradition of block printing alive. She creates her own designs for prints which she then carves into woodblocks or into lino sheets that are specially made for today’s modern printmakers.
But she’s not just a printmaker. Katie is an artist who works in many mediums.
“I am a printmaker, a potter and a painter. I work across several mediums in a variety of ways. Artwork, both making it and selling it, has been the focus of my adult life.”
Cold Version, acrylic painting on canvas
Katie has been a full-time artist for the past 30 years. She graduated from Carleton University in 1996 with a BA in Interdisciplinary Studies-Medieval Art History/History. In 2009, she completed a 3yr Diploma Program at the Ottawa School of Art.
Part of a series of collaborative Halloween mugs which SOLD OUT! The mug was thrown on the wheel by Yass and decorated by Katie using sgraffito. (Sgraffito is a method of clay surface décor where you carve away the clay to create an image much like relief carving in lino or wood.)
When she began making art in 1991, she was creating low relief sculptures in a sculpting plastic called Friendly Plastics. She produced and sold jewellery pieces like brooches, earrings, hairclips, tie bars and wall pieces. From there, she moved on to other forms of art.
“About the same time, I was a calligraphy apprentice and was studying making manuscripts and wanted to learn how to do the illuminations and then how to make a book. Printmaking and illuminating went hand-in-hand and piqued my interest. I had also studied Medieval Art History in university, so I was awash in medieval imagery and wanted to know how to do that.”
Katie doesn’t remember exactly when she made her first print, but she’d always been interested in how prints were made. She remembers it being her brother who bought some lino (linoleum) that they both tried out for carving. Katie found carving to be very satisfying as a process and she still does today.
Print and carved block from Katie’s current series of Tarot cards
“I have found that to make a living in the arts, you must always be willing to change and adapt, to assess what your environment is and what will work for you in terms of keeping a roof over your head, yet satisfying the drive to create art that satisfies me.”
Over the years, Katie has not only created prints and artwork in a variety of mediums, she’s also been recognized for her work. In 2015, she was awarded an Honourable Mention for her painting in the RHGA 1st Open Juried Show. The City of Ottawa Art Collection (2012) and the University of Alberta Art Collection (2017) both have prints that were designed and created by Katie in their permanent art collections. She also has received the Mayor’s Choice Award through the Hill Potter’s Guild in 2018 and 2019 for her pottery.
‘Big Strong’ hand-built ceramic teapot, example of Katie’s pottery
“I am always in communication with my artwork. I respond to what I see or feel as I am creating. I spend a lot of time researching a theme, finding images, thinking about what process would serve the idea best, but I know that even as I sit down to begin the work I must stay open to what my material tells me. If I veer off-plan I am happy to do so. Show me what else can happen, where else you can take me. I am happy to go there.”
Katie has had the opportunity to be part of a summer residency with the Richmond Hill Group of Artists in Richmond Hill, Ontario at the Mill Pond Gallery.
Katie during her artist's residency at the Mill Pond Gallery
She’s also had the opportunity to teach workshops in painting, drawing, printmaking and ceramics.
Katie started teaching continuing education art classes for the City of Ottawa from 2009 to 2011, when she moved to Richmond Hill. Since then, she’s taught at the Hill Potters Guild, the Aurora Cultural Centre, for the Richmond Hill Group of Artists at the Mill Pond Gallery, at the Schwartz-Resiman Centre in Vaughan and at the Prosserman Jewish Community Centre in Toronto.
In 2017, Katie taught art for the Reena Program in Toronto. Her students were adults with developmental disabilities. Her teaching was so well received that Katie was awarded a Certificate from the House of Commons recognizing the benefits of her teaching in the program.
Katie’s currently teaching at the NewMakeIt facility in Newmarket, Ontario. You can sign up to take painting and/or ceramic classes with her. She also teaches privately if that’s something that works better for you.
Recently, Katie joined a printmaking collective in Barrie, Ontario, called PRNT.
“One of the main things I love about block printing is that I am part of a very old tradition. I love that!”
More of Katie’s block printed works:
Good Morning – 1) 48x48 acrylic on canvas painting (right), 2) 4 x 6”
relief print on Japanese paper based on the painting (left)
In Memoriam Farmland, woodblock print, 24x48”, hand carved woodblock
Print from Katie’s current series of Tarot cards
Artist to Artist Series of hand-printed cards of famous artists
Shade Tree, colour block print, A/P
Octopus Ring - sgraffito, octopus on stainless steel ring base
Katie driving a steamroller to make a large sized print. She organized this steamroller event with a grant from the Town of Richmond Hill in 2017 and has taken part in a total of four events just like this across Ontario.
You can catch up with Katie a few ways:
- to purchase her work or to get info about her classes at: firstname.lastname@example.org
- to see what she’s involved in, go to https://linktr.ee/KatieArgyle
- stay up-to-date on Social Media - Instagram at @katieargyle7
- Facebook at Katie Argyle
“What I want to do is make things until I die. I am driven to make the thing I haven't seen before. I am intrigued by what process and materials do to an idea, how it is changed, how I have to change and adapt to what is happening in front of me.”
Katie’s Step-by-step: How to Make a Block Print
Definition of Relief Printing (aka Block Printing)
In relief printmaking, everything that is not meant to be printed is cut away from the block using a variety of carving gouges and knives. The remaining raised surface is inked or painted and the print is produced by placing paper or other materials onto the surface of the inked/painted block. The image is transferred from the block by pressing down onto the block either by hand or with a printing press. The resultant print is considered the artwork, not the block.
The assortment of tools Katie uses to create block prints
PREPPING 1. Choose your image. I used the image on my business card for this print.
2. Choose your block material, also known as your substrate. I am using soft lino from Above Ground Art Supplies. Other materials that can be carved and printed include erasers, softoleum, battleship lino, vinyl floor tiles, even cintra a sign material and wood such as pine, birch or even plywood.
3. Choose your paper and tear it to size if needed (printmakers never cut their paper). I am using Stonehenge which is a printmaking paper. Sketchbook paper and Japanese papers are also good for "proofing" or making your first test prints.
4. Transfer your image to your block. I have drawn directly on my block with a pencil based on the image on my business card.
Note: if your image contains text or numbers you must carve these in reverse so it prints correctly on the paper.
CARVING 5. Carve all around the perimeter of the shapes you have drawn on your lino. I use a small u-shaped carving tool to carve a line all around the major elements of my design. I do this to set my main elements apart from the background and from each other. This is my entry point into the print and it is the "next thing that I know to do for sure" which is always the question I ask myself as I continue the process of carving my block. I take it one step at a time.
6. Clean up the small areas.
With the small U gouge and one at a time, I make choices about what bits of my drawing cross over each other. What do I need to carve and what do I leave?
7. Clean up the background with a different size/shape of gouge. I don’t want the background, which in this case is the sky, to feel like the birds or the tree limbs. I need to use a different tool to carve the lino in a new way. I am striving for a contrast of line and texture in my final print. An interesting print will have both.
Finished background carving.
8. Add texture to the tree limb surfaces and the leaves with a tiny v-shaped gouge. I will use this same tool to add feathers to the birds and to open up beaks where needed.
9. Add details to birds with small u-gouge. I add lines to the birds to create beaks and I can spin the u-gouge straight up and down on the lino to cut small perfect circles that I can lift up to create eyeballs for my birds.
10. Ready to print.
I have gone as far as I can and now need to print my block to see if any further changes/carving needs to be done. This is called proofing your block.
I squeeze some ink onto a glass surface and then use my brayer to spread the ink out. I am looking for a thin layer of ink and I am listening for a "sizzle" sound as I roll across the surface of the ink with the brayer.
12. Application of the ink.
I roll the inked up brayer over my craved block in one direction only. I check to make sure the whole surface is inked. I should also hear the sizzle sound on my block as the brayer rolls over it.
13. Apply paper.
I lay my paper on my inky block and use a baren (a tool to burnish/push the paper onto the block) to transfer the image from the block to the paper. I rub the baren in a gentle circular motion making sure I cover the whole surface including all edges.
Barens can be traditional Japanese bamboo pad, or wooden spoons, or smooth rocks, or in this case a purpose built plastic baren which is part of a set of carving tools.
14. And now the Big Reveal!
It is always a surprise to see what your print looks like.
15. Adjustments to your carved block.
From this first print, I can make adjustments to my block.
16. Artist Proof.
Once I am happy with the print I can call it an Artist Proof or A/P. This print sets the standard for any other prints that may be part of an edition of prints using this same block.
Prints are always signed in pencil with the edition number, title and signature of the artist along the bottom beneath the image. Additional information may be written on the back in pencil as well (paper type, ink used, location, date etc.) Katie’s print, titled ‘A Murder of Crows’, was made using Caligo Ink. It’s an oil based ink which, when dry, is waterproof. This means that she can add a wash of watercolor, ink, paint or pencil to the printed layer and the image will remain crisp and clear. This print may also be used in a collage or a multi-media artwork. If water-based ink had been used, the printed image would deteriorate and run if any other mediums were applied on top of it. For this purpose, Katie almost always prefers to use oil-based inks for her printmaking projects.
Thanks, Katie, for sharing your process and all that very useful information about block printing with us!
So, what do you think? Is block printing something you’d like to try? I think it’s something that’s definitely on my list of things to learn to do. I hope you enjoyed all the great information Katie provided us about her process. I did. And I can’t wait to see the whole set of Tarot cards when she’s done!
All during the month of May, the 3T Art Blog will be looking at Drawing. Materials, styles, model-drawing, drawing still life, we’re going to cover all of it to help you create the art you’ll love!
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