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Thaw Conservation Center


Thaw Conservation Center

Image of print
Albrecht Dürer (1471–1528)
Coat of Arms of Michael Behaim, ca. 1520
Woodcut printed in black ink on laid paper

Dürer and the Woodcut

Woodcut | Woodblock | Side-by-side examination

The woodcut, one of the earliest printmaking techniques, became popular in Europe around 1400. Woodcuts are produced by carving an image into a block of wood, usually a hard fruitwood, cut parallel to its grain. Only the lines and shapes of the drawn design are left standing in relief; all other areas of the wood are carefully excised with sharp woodworking tools, such as gouges, chisels, and knives. A viscous ink, which would in Dürer's time have been composed of finely ground lampblack and oil, is applied to the raised surface by dabbing or by rolling with a brayer. The image is then transferred onto a sheet of paper, either manually, by rubbing it against the inked surface of the block, or, mechanically, by the use of a printing press. The image on the block appears in reverse on the page.

The difficulty of cutting the woodblock and the likelihood that the lines would break down with repeated printings meant that early woodcuts were characterized by crude, thick lines without much shading or texture. Albrecht Dürer transformed woodblock printing through the use of fine, graceful lines, intricate details, and subtle gradations, efforts that could be achieved only through skillful and precise carving.

Defining Beauty: Albrecht Dürer at the Morgan exhibition page »

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The programs of The Morgan Library & Museum are made possible with public funds from the New York City Department of Cultural Affairs in partnership with the City Council, and by the New York State Council on the Arts with the support of Governor Andrew Cuomo and the New York State Legislature.

Background images: Photography by Todd Eberle unless otherwise noted. © 2006 Todd Eberle.