Chiaroscuro Woodcuts

As a rule I’ve stuck to just one-color linocuts mainly because my printing setup at the moment is fairly primitive. What I want to talk about here is going to be about woodcuts, but the same rules apply to linocuts and the process of pulling prints.

The main thing to solve when doing more than one color in a hand-pulled print, is getting the colors to line up. In any multi-color printing process, this is called “registration” and it applies to pretty much all color printing, whether it’s magazines, cereal boxes, or your inkjet printer. You know when you put a new ink cartridge in and you have to print out that one sample page? That’s so your printer can register the colors.

There are lots of ways to register colors efficiently by hand, as the Japanese have been showing for centuries with their brilliant, multicolor woodblock prints.

For me, in terms of my lino work, producing anything full-color or multi-color has not been a goal.

The one exception, and the one multi-plate variation that intrigues me, is what is called a chiaroscuro print.

“Chiaroscuro” is an art term from Italian meaning “light and shadow”. In drawing and painting, it can be described as the modulation of light and shade across a surface.

Notice that there are only two colors, blue and black. The white areas have simply been carved out of the blue woodblock. Image courtesy of de Young & Legion of Honor Museum Stores.

I’ve always found one of the most satisfying sketching methods is working on toned paper and drawing with both white and black (or light and dark) crayons or pastels. Pulling the highlights out with white on a toned paper creates a depth that is different from drawing on white paper.

Chiaroscuro prints take this principle and adapt it to the generally flat colors achieved in pulling prints. In woodcuts (and lino), it generally means adding a second plate with just select highlights carved out. From the samples I show here, You can see that the potential is pretty broad.

Use of a dark color on the base plate adds a great deal of drama. Chiaroscuro woodcut from 2 blocks, attributed to Ugo da Carpi, after Raphael, circa 1517-18. Image courtesy of Library of Congress.

This method of adding dramatic depth to woodcut prints was invented in Germany in the 1500’s and taken up by the great Albrecht Durer and others, and was subsequently developed to a high degree in Italy in later years.

A more modern application of this technique. This piece, of Don Quixote by Hans Alexander Mueller, was done in 1950. The second color is not used so much for highlights as for differentiating foreground from background, as well as to suggest the ethereal quality of Quixote’s dreamscape. Image courtesy of Lofty Marketplace.

Cheap prints of various subjects became enormously popular, both because of the chiaroscuro technique but also because this was art for the masses, art that anyone could buy. Before woodcuts, art for the masses just didn’t exist.

Planning a chiaroscuro linocut would not be difficult but I will need a better printing setup before I attempt anything like this!

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Author: mooney2021

I am a commercial artist and illustrator from New York and now retired. I'm also a longtime Charles Dickens fan and I've embarked on a project to illustrate his great BLEAK HOUSE.

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