The oldest method is woodblock printing, which can be traced back to China around 220 A.D., and examples of this form date from the 6th century. But perhaps the best-known type is linocut, where a design is cut into a linoleum block with a sharp knife or chisel, the raised (uncarved) areas representing a mirror image of the desired picture or pattern. This can then be inked and used to print on paper.
Lino-cutting is named after its original medium, linoleum, which is no longer widely used for this purpose. The essential part of this technique is that one carves into a block of veneer, which is then inked and used to transfer the image onto paper. Early laboratory experiments date back to 1900, but it was not until the late 1920s that artists began seriously to explore printmaking in this way. It became especially popular among certain groups of artists during the 1930s, including Ben Nicholson, Barbara Hepworth, and Eric Ravilious.
In the 1940s printmaking as a medium began to re-assert itself as an independent art form, as more artists started to concentrate on it as a means of expression. In Britain, this was partly because of the growing threat of war and its effect on their traditional way of life – Eric Ravilious for example having been killed in 1942 in an air crash while on his way to Iceland.
The government-commissioned several artists including Paul Nash, Peter Lanyon, and Patrick Heron to make accurate drawings of bomb-damaged areas before the cities were rebuilt. For the most part, these works were not intended for exhibition or publication, but during 1944–45 Ravilious worked on a series of lithographs that were intended to be reproduced in the government’s “Survey of Bomb Damage” report. The prints were, however, never published and remained unknown until they appeared at auction many years later.
Woodcut is a relief printing technique in printmaking. An artist carves an image into the surface of a block of wood—typically with gouges—leaving the printing parts level with the surface while removing the non-printing parts with a chisel. Areas that the artist cuts away carry no ink and are therefore left blank, creating the impression that the printed image is ‘floating’ above the block.
Wood engraving is a term for a woodcut in which the artist works “in the grain” of the wood. In Britain from about 1750 to the end of the 19th century, an engraver would create a drawing on a large block of boxwood and use a tool called a burin to cut along the lines to recreate this drawing in print form.
In addition to prints made by printing onto paper, there are also self-published artists’ books formed with original printmaking methods. The design of the print itself can serve as the artist’s work of art; in this case, the print is an interpretation or visual abstraction derived from a combination of the original drawing and its block.