Printmaking is the generic term for a number of processes, of which woodcut and engraving are two prime examples. Prints are made by pressing a sheet of paper (or other material) against an image-bearing surface to which ink has been applied. When the paper is removed, the image adheres to it, but in reverse.
The woodcut had been used in China from the fifth century A.D. for applying patterns to textiles. The process was not introduced into Europe until the fourteenth century, first for textile decoration and then for printing on paper. Woodcuts are created by a relief process; first, the artist takes a block of wood, which has been sawed parallel to the grain, covers it with a white ground, and then draws the image in ink. The background is carved away, leaving the design area slightly raised. The woodblock is inked, and the ink adheres to the raised image. It is then transferred to damp paper either by hand or with a printing press.
Engraving, which grew out of the goldsmith’s art, originated in Germany and northern Italy in the middle of the fifteenth century. It is an intaglio process (from Italian intagliare, “to carve”). The image is incised into a highly polished metal plate, usually copper, with a cutting instrument, or burin. The artist inks the plate and wipes it clean so that some ink remains in the incised grooves. An impression is made on damp paper in a printing press, with sufficient pressure being applied so that the paper picks up the ink.
Both woodcut and engraving have distinctive characteristics. Engraving lends itself to subtle modeling and shading through the use of fine lines. Hatching and cross-hatching determine the degree of light and shade in a print. Woodcuts tend to be more linear, with sharper contrasts between light and dark. Printmaking is well suited to the production of multiple images. A set of multiples is called an edition. Both methods can yield several hundred good-quality prints before the original block or plate begins to show signs of wear. Mass production of prints in the sixteenth century made images available, at a lower cost, to a much broader public than before.