The History of Relief Printmaking

Updated February 21, 2017

A relief printmaking process involves the creation of two surface areas on the master block or plate. One layer is raised and receives the printing ink, while the second layer sits at a slightly lower level and receives no ink at all, thus revealing the colour of the paper when the print is made. Most relief prints involve cutting or gouging into a flat surface to create an image or design. The woodcut is a classic example of a relief print.


The woodcut is a relief cut and the oldest form of printmaking. Developed in China as a way to place stamps and patterns on paper, wood relief designs have been around almost as long as paper, which was developed by the Chinese in the second century A.D.

By the eighth century, landscapes and portraits were being carved into wood blocks as complete images. With this development, the printmaking process eventually spread to Japan and elsewhere.


Since the development of the woodcut, other surfaces such as linoleum, cardboard and metal have been used as a printmaking material. In each case, a carving tool such as a knife, gouge or chisel is used to remove part of the surface and create areas that will not take any ink. Use of metal for a relief print is rare, but there was a short period at the end of the Medieval era where artists used thick metal plates (usually copper) to create mostly religious images on metal plates. Germany and France were the home of most metalcut prints. This type of printmaking required a lot of work to remove enough metal to create an interesting relief print.

Wood Grain

Master blocks for woodcuts were always fashioned from the softer woods. Boxwood, sugar pine, basswood, cherry, beech, yellow poplar and birch are some of the top choices for woodblocks. Near the end of the 18th century, a new woodcutting technique was developed by Thomas Bewick of northern England. Creating mostly images of birds, Bewick developed the art of wood engravings in which drawings were carved into the end-grain of woodblocks instead of the side-grain that was used for a woodcut. In a wood engraving, the master block of wood proved to be very durable, so large numbers of prints could be made from each image. Also possible was the rendering of fine detail in each print.

Modern Materials

The Die Brucke or "The Bridge," a popular German art movement of the early 20th century, began to experiment with linoleum as a carving surface instead of wood. These prints were called linocuts and have been in constant use since that time. The linocut had several advantages over using wood. The quality was uniform and the material was easy to carve. Also there was no grain, so now the artist did not have to worry about having the pattern of the wood influence the final result. Since their introduction to the art world, linocuts have remained popular and were even used by artists like Matisse and Picasso.

Built-up Relief Printing

The other type of relief printing involves adding material to the master surface to create a relief print. This kind of printmaking usually comes under the label of collagraphy and is more of an experimental technique. Cardboard or matboard can be used as a base and as a material to build the second layer. But in recent times, artists have enjoyed experimenting with a wide variety of attached materials, such as cheesecloth, pieces of wood, parts of sponges or even items from the trash, to create a unique collage-type of design. The number of prints made from one of these built-up constructions tends to be less than a dozen.

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About the Author

Henri Bauholz is a professional writer covering a variety of topics, including hiking, camping, foreign travel and nature. He has written travel articles for several online publications and his travels have taken him all over the world, from Mexico to Latin America and across the Atlantic to Europe.