Long before the invention of moveable type and the printing press, wood was used as a means of transferring imagery and for reproducing important documents in print.
A form of woodblock printing was implemented by the Chinese to print books more than 1,000 years ago. As a means of printing on cloth, the earliest known examples date back almost 2,000 years. This is an ancient technique that is still used to transfer images, patterns and words onto textiles or paper.
The technique is simple and has remained relatively unchanged since the first woodblock was cut for this purpose. The process is so straight forward that we now just call this type of printmaking "woodcut" for short.
To make a woodcut, or master, that is to be used for printing, the design or lettering is first drawn in reverse onto a wooden block. The wooden block is then cut, or carved, in a way that the area to be printed remains at the original surface level. In other words, the background, or area not to be printed, is the area that is cut away.
The actual art of carving the wood block is known as xylography. Once carved, the block will then be "inked" and brought into contact with the cloth or paper that is to be printed on. Because the design was laid out as a mirror image in reverse on the block, a normal view will be the end result of the print. For multi-color printing, a woodcut block for each color would be used.
In Japan, woodblock printing was taken to a whole new level between the 17th and 19th centuries. This is known as the Edo Period, a dividing point in Japanese history. Edo is present day Tokyo. The artistic genre know as "ukivo-e," which translates roughly to mean pictures of the floating world, utilized this type of print making.
The incredible woodblock prints that were produced during that time featured motifs of landscapes, history, and theater portrayed in beautiful colors. There are really three different forms of art involved in this procedure and consequently three steps: the drawing and layout, the carving of the woodblock, and then the mixing of colors for printing.
There is an exhibit currently on view at the Legion of Honor museum in San Francisco, which showcases the art of woodblock printmaking in Japan. This special exhibit titled, "Japanesque: The Japanese Print in the Era of Impressionism," will be open through Jan. 9. Some of the impressionist and post impressionist artists also included in this exhibit are Vincent van Gogh (1853-1890), Edouard Manet (1832-1883), Mary Cassatt (1844-1926), and James Whistler (1834-1903).