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How You Can Keep the Long Tradition of Block Printing Alive Today

Have you ever wanted to try printmaking? As one of the oldest types of art, it takes has a variety of different forms. Some, like etching, use acid in their process, while others use special screens and squeegees to craft an image. You can get extremely technical in printmaking, which is part of its appeal; but for those that find that fact intimidating, have no fear—there is a type of printmaking that is great for beginners but that professionals love, too. Called block printing, this technique involves you creating a stamp that you press onto paper, cloth, or another material using ink.

What is the history of block printing?

Block printing has a long history that spans thousands of years. Originating in East Asia, the technique existed in China as early as the 2nd century CE; one of the earliest surviving woodblock printings was done before 220 CE. Images and text were cut into blocks of wood and printed on silk cloth. Eventually, the printing made its way to paper, and by 600 CE the approach was used to display religious texts, calendars, calligraphy, and more.

Block Printing

“Diamond Sutra from Cave 17,” 868 CE. [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Early prints were stamped in one color beginning with black ink. Vermillion followed next, and the addition of this second color was a big deal because, for every new hue introduced, a second carved block had to be produced and match up perfectly with the other color. The Ming Dynasty (1368 – 1644) was the peak of woodblock printing; the imagery produced during this time comprised many different subject matter, from the opera to folklore to Chinese New Year. Starting in the 19th century the technique was in decline as other forms of printing became in vogue.

Block Printing

“The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai via Wikimedia Commons

Of course, China wasn’t the only place to have woodblock printing. Ukiyo-e is a type of Japanese art popularized from the 17th to 19th century featuring illustrations of kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, and beautiful women. One of the world’s most popular images was created out of woodblock printing—the Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai. Ukiyo-e went on to influence western Impressionist artists like Degas and Monet, as well as Post-Impressionists including Vincent van Gogh as well as iconic Art Nouveau artist Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec.

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Sara Barnes

Sara Barnes is a Staff Editor at My Modern Met, Manager of My Modern Met Store, and co-host of the My Modern Met Top Artist Podcast. As an illustrator and writer living in Seattle, she chronicles illustration, embroidery, and beyond through her blog Brown Paper Bag and Instagram @brwnpaperbag. She wrote a book about embroidery artist Sarah K. Benning titled 'Embroidered Life' that was published by Chronicle Books in 2019. Sara is a graduate of the Maryland Institute College of Art. She earned her BFA in Illustration in 2008 and MFA in Illustration Practice in 2013.
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