Known more formally as xylography, woodcut is a relief printing process in which the illustration to be printed is carved into a block of wood (along the grain--unlike wood engraving, which is cut into the end-grain). This block is then inked and printed by stamping, rolling or pressing against a medium (paper for books, although the technique was first used in China as early as the 3rd century CE to print textiles).
Originally, the design of the woodcut and the actual carving of the block were separate processes undertaken by separate people. The block-cutters were known as formschneiders in Germany, an early European center of woodcut book illustration. Two of the most famous of all early printed books, the Nuremberg Chronicle and Hypnerotomachia Poliphili, were both illustrated with woodcuts:
From roughly the middle half of the 15th century some books in Western Europe had both their text and their images printed as woodcuts as a less expensive alternative to setting the text from movable type. Known as blockbooks, surviving examples of these books are today very rare and, for all practical purposes, are not collectible.
In Western Europe, the height of woodcut illustration probably was that achieved by German artist Albrecht Dürer in works like The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse (the Lilly Library at Indiana University in Bloomington, IN, has an original specimen of this woodcut--it is absolutely breathtaking!):
It was in Japan, however, that many experts feel woodcuts achieved their finest expression, which is something we will examine in more detail tomorrow....