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The Printed Image in China, 8th–21st Century

May 5–July 29, 2012

Printing Techniques

Woodblock Printing in Monochrome

Woodblock printing continues to be used in China, marking a more than one-thousand-year history. To produce a single-color woodblock print, an illustrator or scribe first draws or writes a picture or text on a piece of paper using a brush and carbon ink. The paper with the ink drawing is then dampened and placed face down on a wooden block. The carver (who can see the drawing in reverse through the paper) cuts away the blank areas, leaving the linear design in relief. The carved woodblock is then brushed with ink, and a sheet of paper is spread over it and brushed lightly with a soft pad before being removed to dry.

Woodblock Printing in Multiple Colors

Printing in two colors and in fine lines dates back at least to the twelfth century in China. Impressions in multiple colors, produced by using a set of blocks, each carved for a different color, reached a level of perfection about 1630. Printers created finely nuanced gradations of color by brushing diluted or concentrated inks on the same block. The technique required the precise positioning (known as registration) of one or more blocks on the paper, achieved by means of an ingenious printing table slit vertically down the middle. A stack of paper was fixed on the right. The firmly positioned woodblock on the left was then inked and the sheets of paper pulled across the slit onto the inked block. To apply another color, the block was replaced and the process repeated using the same stack of paper until all colors had been applied. The leaves were usually bound into a volume by folding the print along the middle and gluing the back of the fold to the spine in so-called butterfly binding.

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