The history of the Western woodcut begins with the proliferation of printed religious images in the early part of the fifteenth century. Often sold as souvenirs to religious pilgrims, these prints came singly or in bound collections. As the expertise of printers grew, images increased in complexity, with multiple figures and a few lines of religious text. More than anything else, though, woodcuts developed through their close relationship with the early printed book, largely after the 1450s, when Johannes Gutenberg perfected a standardized system for printing with moveable type. With this system, it became possible for the first time to produce printed text accompanied by illustrations for such diverse topics as anatomy, botany, religion, and, by the early to mid-1500s, popular works like Dante's Divine Comedy and Boccaccio's Decameron.
Printed books fulfilled the potential of a wider audience through an abundant diversity of topics, eventually also including geography, architecture and travel, but also through the use of a medium that was much cheaper than anything that had preceded it, like hand scribed and colored illuminated manuscripts. Virtually any type of wood could be used, cutting a block did not necessarily require special tools and printing could be done with or without a press (though of course a press would have been necessary for producing entire books with text and illustrations).
Woodcuts are relief prints, which means that the areas that are to be blank are cut away, leaving the design to be printed raised from the block. The raised surface is then rolled or daubed with ink, and then a sheet of paper is placed on the surface and pressed either by hand or by press. The impression produced is the mirror image, or the reverse, of the cut block, so images must be cut accordingly to insure their readability in the finished product.
When compared to other types of printing, like etching or engraving, woodcuts can be distinguished by a tendency towards bolder, heavier lines that vary in width and shape. Woodcuts can also contain solid dark areas (where the wood surface has been left intact), whereas in engravings dark areas on closer examination are actually composed of fine lines cross-hatched to produce a dense, dark effect. Cross-hatching is a technique carried over from drawing and used to produce sculptural and chiaroscuro (light/dark) effects. They are quite common and easily produced in etchings and engravings, but are a laborious and difficult technique to master in even the finest woodcuts, and so it is not surprising that most of the woodcut prints presented here are more linear in style, relying on single-hatched shadings to produce dimensional effects. (Single-hatchings resemble parallel lines, whereas cross-hatchings resemble a grid effect.) Because of the relative simplicity with which one could learn to produce woodcuts (as opposed to engravings or etchings), the medium became quite popular with both folk artists and more sophisticated practitioners alike.
(E. L.) David Landau & Peter Parshall, The Renaissance Print 1470-1550. New Haven: Yale UP, 1994. (esp. ch. 3: "How Prints became Works of Art: The First Generation").