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History of Printmaking

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Stone rubbing actually predates any form of woodcut. To enable Chinese scholars to study their scriptures, the classic texts and accompanying holy images were carved onto huge, flat stone slabs. After the lines were incised, damp paper was pressed and molded on the surface, so that the paper was held in the incised lines. Ink was applied, and the paper was then carefully removed. The resulting image appeared as white lines on a black background. In this technique lies the very conception of printing. The development of printing continued with the spread of Buddhism from India to China; images and text were printed on paper from a single block. This method of combining text and image is called block-book printing (see Block Book).

The earliest known extant Chinese woodcut with text and image combined is a famous Buddhist scroll, about 5 m (about 17 ft) long, of the Jingangjing (Diamond Sutra; ad 868, British Museum, London). These early devotional prints were reproduced from drawings by anonymous artisans whose skill varied greatly. The crudeness of the images indicates that they were reproduced without any thought of artistic interpretation, but as was to be true in Europe during the 1400s, such early works of folk art were important in the development of the print.

Printmaking originated in China after paper was invented (about ad105). Relief printing first flourished in Europe in the 15th century, when the process of papermaking was imported from the East. Since that time, relief printing has been augmented by the various techniques described earlier, and printmaking has continued to be practiced as one of the fine arts.

Toward the end of the Ming dynasty in the 1640s, there appeared a text called Painting Manual of the Mustard-Seed Garden. This was actually an encyclopedia of painting, intended for the instruction and inspiration of artists. Many of its beautiful instructive woodcuts were in color as well as in black and white. A reprint edition of the Painting Manual was brought to Japan, and with it came the basic woodcut technique, which Japanese artists gradually developed.

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