Woodcut or woodblock prints are a type of relief print, the terms only generally differentiate Eastern and Western practices (woodblock referencing Eastern practices and woodcut Western). As the name suggests, blocks of wood are carved to produce the desired image. However, opposite to an engraving, the artist must cut away everything they do not want printed. What is left is inked (rolled onto the block) and pressed onto dry paper, either by stamping or utilizing a relief printing press. Multiple color prints often require multiple blocks to be carved (depending on the design, one color per block), though if carved carefully, an artist can create full, multiple colored prints with a single block.
Woodblock printing originated in China, the earliest surviving examples dating back to 220 AD. Like its Western counterpart, it was also used for printing, images, patterns, and most often, text. It was the most common method of printing books and other texts and images until the 19th century. Rubbing was the most popular method of printing in the East throughout history, but was not common in Europe until the 15th century where it was used mainly for block-books. The actual printing process isn’t terribly different compared to the earlier description, however, after inking, instead of applying pressure to the block, the paper or fabric is rubbed into the ink covered block with a burnisher or other hard, flat object. In some contemporary settings, this process is used to make proofs of prints, before inking and printing the final pieces in a press.
Of particular interest to artists and collectors alike is Japanese woodblock prints (木版画, mokuhanga), most iconically the ukiyo-e genre. Ukiyo-e (浮世絵), translated as, “pictures of the floating world,” was incredibly popular from the 17th to 19th century. Some famous pieces include: The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Hokusai, Otani Oniji III by Sharaku, Princess Takiyasha Summons a Skeleton Spectre to Frighten Mitsukuni by Kuniyoshi, etc. These prints covered numerous subjects from beautiful women, kabuki (classical Japanese dance-drama theater), historical scenes, folk tales, and even erotica. Hishikawa Moronobu is noted to have had the earliest success with ukiyo-e paintings and monochromatic prints in the 1670s. Color prints came gradually, first added by hand, but by the 1760s Suzuki Harunobu’s nishiki-e prints (also known as brocade pictures) popularized full color.
Western woodcut prints tend to have a more graphic aesthetic, embracing bolder lines, large areas of inked space, and wood grain in their images (See: Emil Nolde). Even much earlier examples of these prints in the West, with their grander scale and even color display this tendency (See: block books, often religious texts, encyclopedias, etc. such as Ars Moriendi, mid 1400s and Hortus Sanitatis, 1490s).
Eastern prints tend to be considered as having much more nuance in their use of color, pattern, and linework. They can be much less graphic when compared side by side with Western prints. Even as artists began to be influenced by Western techniques and traditions it remained uniquely rooted in traditional painting. The Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden (芥子園畫傳, Jieziyuan Huazhuan), an early Qing Dynasty painter’s manual (and example of early color printing in China), for example, was an incredibly popular reference for artists in Edo for their artistic training. The iconic painterly aesthetic of Eastern woodblock prints, as compared to Western prints, can be accredited to their unique process, in addition to a number of specific technical choices in ink and material types. Japanese prints, in particular, use water based inks (rather than oil based ones), which are brushed onto the block rather than rolled, along with glazes and varnish to achieve transparency and gradient in their color (See: Bokashi, ぼかし), as well as the use of traditional handmade paper (See: Washi, 和紙; literally meaning Japanese paper, this can be made from a number of fibers and in a number of thicknesses and types).