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Botanical Art and the Woodcut

 ‘The Cross-Bill’ wood engraving in Thomas Bewick’s A History of British Birds (1847 edition)

Botanical Art and the Woodcut

September 2017

Dear Friends:

Of all the forms of expression in printmaking, the woodcut is the most ancient. Woodblock printing is a technique for printing text, images or patterns used widely throughout East Asia and originating in China in antiquity as a method of printing on textiles and later paper.

Its early beginnings in Egypt and China came from the use of wooden stamps designed to make symbolic or decorative impressions in clay and wax. With the development of paper on the Chinese mainland in the second century A.D., the stamping devices gradually evolved into wood blocks. As plank wood was utilized by the artist and the craftsman, he was able to cut and print more sophisticated and complex designs. Many of the earliest images were for popular Buddhist religious use.

The woodcut in western art evolved as a later expansion of the utilitarian printing of textiles from wood blocks used extensively in the early 14th century. Though paper from the east was known in Spain in the 11th century, it was not until paper was produced in large quantities in France, Italy, and Germany in the 14th century that the art of the woodcut began to unfold. In southern Germany, woodcuts began as primitive religious figures. Their directness, simplicity of line, and economy of means made them very powerful. They were handbills for veneration, sold for pennies to pilgrims visiting holy places and to the populace on religious feast days. Woodcuts of Christ or the Virgin Mary were often pasted inside traveling chests or onto small altar pieces and frequently sewn into clothing to give protection.

The Holy Family with Three Hares – Albrecht Dürer c. 1496

National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa


As the invention of printing from movable type became a reality in the mid-15th century, the woodcut began to appear in more highly developed forms in herbals and plant illustration. Now, for the first time, people could widely share the knowledge about plants developed over the centuries. Printing was introduced into Germany in the 1440’s. By the late 15th century the great artists of the time, Durer and Hans Holbein in Germany, Lucas von Leyden in the Netherlands, and Titian in Italy were using this new medium with great eloquence. Plants, perhaps even more than today, were of primary importance in everyday life. Physicians, therefore, were considered among the most important plantsmen of their day. Many consider Hans Weiditz’s illustrations for Brunfels’ Herbarum vivae Eicones (1530-36) to be the height of woodcut artistry.


Tulip and Willow design by William Morris 1973

The 16th century German artists, Albrecht Durer and David Kandel were highly acclaimed for their excellence in wood carving.  Kendel’s woodcuts for the Kreuterbuch of Hieronymus Bock critically examined a large number of herbs, plants and trees, drawing upon recent investigations and theories by medieval and ancient writers.

It was not until the 17th century that a more highly developed art began to come forth. The Japanese printmaker’s concept of the symbolism of subject matter, asymmetric composition, the use of flat color, pattern, and line were a great influence upon the work of Gauguin, Van Gogh, Lautrec, Whistler, and others.


Papaver somniferum var paeoniflorum
Plate from Honz? Zufu
by Iwasaki Tsunemasa
Also important to include is the18th century artists James Sowerby and his engravings for the monumental Flora Londinensis, Tachibana Morikuni Japanese master of both Kano and Tosa styles, Elizabeth Blackwell who produced her original engravings for the Herbarium Blackwellianum Emmendatum et Auctum, which is considered one of the most important delineations of herbs and other medicinal plants created during that period and the school of Georg Ehret with his botanical etchings for the Phytanthoza Iconographia, also known as the Illustrated Record of Flowering Plants.


Woodcuts have remained even to our own day one of the artistic media most used for the depiction of plants. Here is a short list of 20th century wood engraving artists that include

  1. Grace Albee
  2. Mario Avati
  3. August Fischer
  4. Carl Grupp
  5. Pat Hardy
  6. David Kessler
  7. Leonard Lehrer
  8. Georg Kinzer
  9. Hans Alexander Mueller
  10. Gerard Brender a Brandis
  11. Anne Smith Hook
  12. Toshi Yoshida






The wood block is carefully prepared as a relief pattern, which means the areas to show ‘white’ are cut away with a knife, chisel, or sandpaper leaving the characters or image to show in ‘black’ at the original surface level. The block was cut along the grain of the wood. After inking the block, the image would print “in reverse” or mirror-image, a further complication when text was involved. The art of carving the woodcut is technically known as xylography, though the term is rarely used in English.


For colour printing, multiple blocks are used, each for one colour, although overprinting two colours may produce further colours on the print. Multiple colours can be printed by keying the paper to a frame around the woodblocks.

Woodblock for textile printing, India, about 1900, 22×17×8 cm


There are three methods of printing to consider:


Used for many fabrics, and most early European woodcuts (1400–40). These items were printed by putting paper or fabric on a table or a flat surface with the block on top, and pressing, or hammering, the back of the block.


Apparently the most common for Far Eastern printing. Used for European woodcuts and block-books later in the 15th century, and very widely for cloth. The block is placed face side up on a table, with the paper or fabric on top. The back of the paper or fabric is rubbed with a “hard pad, a flat piece of wood, a burnisher, or a leather frotton”.[2]

Printing in a press

“Presses” only seem to have been used in Asia in relatively recent times. Simple weighted presses may have been used in Europe, but firm evidence is lacking. Later, printing-presses were used (from about 1480). A deceased Abbess of Mechelen in Flanders in 1465 had “unum instrumentum ad imprintendum scripturas et ymagines … cum 14 aliis lapideis printis” (“an instrument for printing texts and pictures … with 14 stones for printing”) which is probably too early to be a Gutenberg-type printing press in that location. [2]

In addition, jia xie is a method for dyeing textiles (usually silk) using wood blocks invented in the 5th-6th centuries in China. An upper and a lower block is made, with carved out compartments opening to the back, fitted with plugs. The cloth, usually folded a number of times, is inserted and clamped between the two blocks. By unplugging the different compartments and filling them with dyes of different colours, a multi-coloured pattern can be printed over quite a large area of folded cloth. The method is not strictly printing however, as the pattern is not caused by pressure against the block.[3]



  1. Schoyen collection
  2. An Introduction to a History of Woodcut, Arthur M. Hind, p64-94, Houghton Mifflin Co. 1935 (in USA), reprinted Dover Publications, 1963 ISBN 0-486-20952-0
  3. Shelagh Vainker in Anne Farrer (ed), “Caves of the Thousand Buddhas” , 1990, British Museum publications, ISBN 0-7141-1447-2
  4. Woodcut: The Holy Family with Three Hares – Albrecht Dürer c. 1496. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, CA.
  5. Woodcut: Tulip and Willow design for block printing fabric by William Morris 1873
  6. Woodcut: “The Cross-Bill”, Loxia curvirostra.  Wood engraving in A History of British Birds by Thomas Bewick
  7. Woodcut:  Papaver somniferum var paeoniflorum, ‘Honzo Zufu’ (Illustrated manual of medicinal plants) by Kan’en Iwasaki (1786-1842). Wood block print and manuscript on paper. Japan, 1828. Inscription reads ‘Found purple one at Mount Nokogiri, Chiba’ – see
  8. Woodcut: Woodblock for Textile Printing.  India about 1900.







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