History of Woodcut and Woodblock Printing

What Illustration is and the Advent of the Woodblock

In today’s A Study in Staircases, we take a look at what illustration is, the events that led to the advent of the woodblock, and how the idea spread.

Illustration is described as “A picture in a book or magazine” or “an act or process of illuminating” [ 1 ]. I would argue that over time, the definition of illustration has indeed changed and become broader. An illustration, to me personally, is a picture that tells a story or brings a story to life. It has a narrative that can be easily seen and interpreted. It isn’t a stationary scene such as portrait or landscape. This could include a depiction of war with soldiers taking potshots at each other across the snowy terrain, a cowboy trying to calm a spooked horse as he is under threat of being trampled to death, or the panel of a comic with Batman punching the Joker across the face.

Ancient Egyptian paintings, pre-Columbian picture manuscripts, and cave paintings were often painted to tell sequential stories. They would represent day to day life, or important events in their history. They were histories not written in word, but in pictures. This tradition of sequential pictures or stories told through art continued through the Greeks and others until the early days of Christianity, when monks would meticulously create illuminated manuscripts [ 2 ]. They were beautifully illustrated with colored inks and gold and silver leafing with a quill in between hand-calligraphed words and in the margins. Manuscripts literally translate to “hand-written.” These books would take decades of work and were often treasured by the monasteries they were made in. Most people of that time would never have the chance to see these holy scripts or their beautiful art. Most books in general were difficult to come by as they all had to be hand-copied and were very rare. Most people couldn’t read at the time, as their access to writing was so very limited. It wasn’t until the western invention of the printing press centuries later that books became accessible to all [ 3 ][ 4 ].

In Asia, however, they were using a method called “woodblock printing” as early as the 8th century, before the printing press was even a thought in the [Occidental] mind. They would carve symbols and pictures into wood and, using these as a stamp, distribute writing and art. This was a technique used by Chinese and Japanese Buddhist monks for religious purposes and was primarily limited to them until the 1700s. At first it was only by the commission of an emperor, but eventually, they went on to woodblock sutras, images, mandalas, and more [ 5 ].

It was when Europe opened up trade with China in the 13th century that they finally caught wind of this revolutionary idea of using something to mass-produce letters and images. They had started getting things like books, paper money, and playing cards from the East and wished to replicate the idea. [ 6 ].

The Holy Roman Empire, of course, seized upon this new invention and began commissioning woodcut illustrations to add to their texts and place illustrations in books.

Unfortunately, woodblocking was not the most cost effective because when mass-producing things like books, the wood would split and have to be recarved and replaced [ 7 ][ 8 ].

The first woodcut illustrations that appeared in books were often awkward, made by woodcarvers who were unskilled in fine art. Early illustrations were often mocked for the childish look about them. It wasn’t until years later that woodcutters began to commission artists to make line art on the wooden blocks. The woodcarvers would then cut around the lines using a tool they referred to as the “gouge,” which was a sharp metal spoon-like tool placed on the end of a wooden handle. It was similar to an awl [ 9 ][ 10 ].

It wasn’t until later into the 15th century that they began to make movable metal type through a technique called “engraving,” which was used by talented metal makers and goldsmiths in Germany and Italy. Their cutting technique was also referred to as “intaglio,” where metal is cut into using a tool that is called a burin [ 11 ][ 12 ].  Since these metal letters could last almost indefinitely and could often be more detailed, this quickly replaced the woodcutting technique for printing. One of the first to use metal moveable type was Johannes Gutenberg, who used it to mass-produce the Bible, copies of which were sold at the World Fair. These are known as the “Gutenberg Bibles” [ 13 ].

A woodcut image from German publication, “Der Buchdrucker.” Two men setting type in the background, while two others prepare a run. 1568.

Engraver illustrators were often more skilled and ambitious, rivaling the work of fine artists. The earliest engraver illustrators were related to goldsmiths. This includes Martin Schongauer, Albrecht Dürer, and Andrea Mantegna. Engraving quickly fell out of style as it was seen as a cheap, mass produced alternative to meticulously made “fine art” paintings. Illustrations in books all but disappeared in the west from 1550 until the 19th century [ 11 ].

Luckily, the technique of woodblocking did not lose popularity in the East. In fact, Japan perfected the art. In the 1700s, Buddhist monks finally released their tight grip on the technique, and prints became available to the public. Printers began to appear all over, as did artists. Artists usually worked on commission for the Shogunate, samurais, or other higher-ups, but as woodblock gained popularity the art became widespread and available to anyone who could afford to pay for it.

Woodblocking techniques were a little different from those of Woodcutting, as it was a collaborative effort between a team of people. Artists did the original drawing with a brush and ink on tissue-thin paper. It was then handed to the carver, who secured the paper to the wood with a thin layer of glue, then covered the back of the paper with grease to make it see-through. Then, following the direction of the brush strokes, they would cut around the inked region with a sharp knife so the lines would be raised.

While printing in black ink was the default in the beginning, printmakers eventually found ways to add colors to their woodblock prints. They did this by using the “key” block, putting the ink on another piece of tissue thin paper, and repeating the process of cutting for each color. They could make gradations and patterns by brushing the blocks with different inks or wiping away areas of ink. They would finish off some prints by sprinkling them with mica dust to make give them a sheen [ 14 ]. Most commonly, they would put their finished products on “Hosho” paper, a paper made from mulberry bark, though they also would put patterns on objects such as fans, and silks [ 5 ].

Because of the rise of woodblock, art began to be widely distributed throughout Japan, often illustrating scenes of the more hedonistic and rich lifestyles such as scenes of courtesans, bathhouses, feasts, [and] the “ideal” woman, and more. This subject and style of these paintings were referred to as Ukiyo-E, or “Pictures of the floating or passing world,” which was a Buddhist phrase describing the fleeting nature of life [ 15 ].

Despite depicting scenes of affluence, often times the rich of Japan did not value the work at all, seeing it as cheap trash for the common man. Only a few Japanese artists, such as Kitagawa Utamaro, were able to market their art to the upper-class communities.

In 1862, during the Meiji Restoration the trade ban with other countries was lifted. For hundreds of years, foreigners had not been allowed into Japan or even allowed to trade at all. But an American fleet of ships came in, demanded that they open free trade, and Japan agreed.

Westerners began arriving in droves, whether to trade, teach, or study this newly available culture. Japan learned about Western sciences and blended them with their art. Due to the ease of access and cheapness of woodblock prints and objects, Europe suddenly got a surplus of Japanese goods. The Japanese style of architecture, fashion, and especially woodblock Ukiyo-e became very fashionable and highly sought after. This trend was called “Japonisme” or what I would call “The First Weaboos” [ 16 ].

Westerners would collect these prints en masse and place them in galleries and art collections. It was especially popular with artists who were dissatisfied with the leading, traditional “academic” style of art. This included James McNeill Whistler, Vincent Van Gogh, Mary Cassat, Edgar Degas, and more. Most of these artists would paint scenes from life just as these woodblock prints depicted. Some would outright use Japanese symbols or fashion in their art. Van Gogh went so far as to copy Japanese prints in oil, studying their vivid colors and lines. This inspiration and trend in art in Europe and America led to the Impressionist and post-impressionist movements.

The Ukiyo-e woodcut style, as seen on a signboard outside the Ginza Kabukiza theater in Tokyo.

Japonisme and Ukiyo-e were not just important to impressionists and post impressionists. They also re-introduced the idea of mass-making prints of artwork [ 17 ]. Claude Monet used this idea in pieces such as his “Haystacks” series, which were simple woodblocks of the silhouette of the subject printed on multiple canvases that he then painted over to show the changing light at different times of day or different parts of the year [ 8 ]. It also opened the doors to having illustrations in books, in ads, news, and propaganda, which opened up an entirely new avenue for artists, as their art now could be consumed by the masses. Becoming an illustrator was extremely profitable and became a popular job for many fine artists. This led to the advent of the “Golden Age of Illustration” as well as graphic arts such as comics and cartoons.

Japonisme lent itself to new architectural designs, which were especially prevalent during the Art Nouveau movement, and ultimately still influences the world of design today. However, it did not just affect Europe. Due to the gates being more or less open through the Meiji Restoration, Japan had, in turn, learned new things about Europe and the modern world. They began to take Western ideas, like their architecture, and apply new techniques to their own arts and engineering. They learned about oil painting, and science. They had their own sort of industrial revolution and, today, Japan has become one of the leading markets for new technology. The West and the East began to “trade off” ideas on art styles, Japan stealing the ideas of the cartoon and Disney to begin making Manga, and the West taking the idea of Manga and anime to heart, especially in the younger generations.

Since the Meiji Restoration, the West and Japan have had an interesting relationship with art, trading ideas and growing upon them. Ukiyo-e style is still very popular, though it has transformed and changed through the years, inspiring much of modern art and illustration today [ 18 ].


  1. “A woodcut image from German publication, ‘Der Buchdrucker.’ Two men setting type in the background, while two others prepare a run. 1568” Source: https://wellcomecollection.org/works/j5mg28du
  2. “The Ukiyo-e woodcut style, as seen on a signboard outside the Ginza Kabukiza theater in Tokyo.“Source: https://pixabay.com/photos/ginza-tokyo-japan-kabuki-kabukiza-641773/

A professional illustrator and mixed media artist, Rowan is a regular at local conventions as an artist, vendor, and guest, teaching panels and workshops. She also speaks on mental health and confidence struggles we all face. Rowan’s work in graphic design includes interior illustrations, book covers and character studies. More recent endeavors include streaming tabletop games on Twitch as a professional Game Master, hosting TikTok art challenges, and contributing to The Unconventional.


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