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Woodcut art prints; Renaissance

Art prints of various kinds have existed for thousands of years, beginning with simple cylinder seals and woodblocks to create images and patterns. They slowly evolved into a medium for sharing art, gaining complexity in the hands of various artists and printmakers. The concept of woodcut art prints arrived in Europe around the 15th Century and became popular as a way to mass produce religious images such as scenes from the Bible.

Like any commercially focused art, the quality of these early woodcut prints was often quite poor, with images rapidly thrown together to illustrate books or religious objects. The technology was new to western artists and so you would often find an artist designing an original artwork, with additional artisans used to create the actual woodcut that would be used in the printing. As you would expect though, a few artists, intrigued by the concept of prints, began to teach themselves the necessary skills in a search for ever improved quality and detail.

Two of the earliest notable artists, both from the German Renaissance movement, were Albrecht Dürer and Lucas Cranach the Elder, who both lived in the late 1400s and early 1500s, but there the similarities end.

The woodcut art prints of Dürer and Cranach the Elder

Debate still rages over whether Dürer carved his woodcuts himself, or worked closely with others, but there seems little doubt that even if he was just a designer, he had a remarkable grasp of the medium and how best it could be utilised. The craftsmanship in Dürer’s plates is truly exceptional; beautifully chiselled, with unique use of curve and line to create effects never before seen. He produced around 300 woodcut art prints mostly based around religious themes such as the Last Supper, the Virgin in Glory, and the Apocalypse.

His woodcut pieces were also exceptional for their quality of light and shade; one of the greatest challenges to artists creating woodcuts or engravings as there is no easy way to create shades of grey. Many artists were inspired by Dürer’s work, whether by his technique, or the popularity of his prints. Cranach was amongst them, but had a very different artistic style, largely ignoring lighting and shade to focus on contours and linework as something of a purist engraver.

Cranach is very well known for his painted portraiture; it is thanks to him that we have any idea what many significant people of the past look like, such as Martin Luther, Albert of Brandenburg, and Anthony Grenville. Though his limited edition woodcuts include portraits, they are often at their best when depicting large scale scenes. Artworks like The Tournament in the Market Square or Stag Hunt are striking in their detail and complexity, with your eye constantly picking out new details.

Intaglio and engravings dominate, and Rembrandt emerges

Dürer was one of the first artists to explore making engravings, and he produced some remarkable work in that medium as well, but the true master came in the 16th century. As woodcut faded out of usage in favour of intaglio print techniques like etching, drypoint, and aquatint, Rembrandt van Rijn’s career was just getting started, and he warmly embraced art prints and engraving as much as he embraced painting.

Another artist who worked on religious subjects extensively, he also produced many self portraits, perhaps simply as convenient practice for a technique which he constantly evolved, determined to bring light and shade out as fully in art prints as in oil paintings. He obsessed over his work, trying different paper, different inks, different tools and steps in the printing process, and was rewarded with incredible results that changed the artform in ways that are still visible today.

Though often seen as a commercial endeavour; a way to mass produce images, often at inferior quality, the work of these three artists showed that the art print could be the equal of any other medium in the right hands.

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