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What is a Block Print?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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A block print is a piece of printed material made using the block printing technique. In block printing, the printer carves the design to be printed into a solid block, much like a stamp. The design can include text or be purely visual, and the block can be applied to paper or textiles. Block printing is an ancient printing technique, and numerous examples of historical block prints can be found in the historical records of Europe and Asia.

The origins of the block print can be found in the round cylinder seals used by the Mesopotamians. These seals are the first known examples of a fixed design on an element which is designed to be rolled over another element, thus transferring the design. Cylinder seals were made from carved stone or clay, but printers started to switch to wood because it was easy to handle and carve. Woodblock prints, also called woodcuts, dominated the nascent publishing industry for hundreds of years. The engraving is a descendant of the block print, although the technique for creating the block with which to print is different.

Many famous artists, such as Hiroshige, worked in the block print medium. Block prints were also used to produce books and other printed material. Printers quickly learned how to create multi-colored block prints, using blocks with different designs on them which could be used to overlay color. A complex block for printing could take weeks to carve to perfection, and if there was an error, the entire block would need to be scrapped. Carvers needed to have an excellent design sense, as the block prints in reverse, meaning that the image needs to be carved in reserve so that it will print the right way. A well-made block print is a stunning work of art, representing hours of labor and a superb visual sense.

Several techniques can be used to create a block print. First, the block is inked with the assistance of a roller. The carved areas will show up as white in the final product, while the raised portions left behind will print. The block can be used to stamp paper, the printer can place paper on the block and rub it, or the block can be mounted in a printing press. Each technique will produce a block print of a slightly different style, and if the block is well cared for, it can be used again and again.

It is relatively easy to make your own block print. Working with wood can be challenging, but linoleum is an excellent alternative. Many modern artists produce linoleum prints by carving pieces of linoleum, and they can be easily made at home. Linoleum designed for linoleum cuts can be found in many art supply stores, along with tools to carve it with. With the addition of ink, a roller, and paper, the artist is ready to start printing, limited only by the imagination.

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Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Musical Expert researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By elizabeth2 — On Mar 22, 2011

It sounds like carving a block for printing takes a lot of skill and patience. Can you imagine having spent days, maybe weeks, carving out a block, and to then make a mistake and have to start all over again? How awful that must be! I could never do it!

By calpat — On Mar 21, 2011

I think I did something like this in my high school art class. We were given a rectangular piece of something -- I can't remember exactly what kind of material it was -- that resembled a tile.

We then used special tools to carve a picture into the material. I remember that I carved a picture of Dino from The Flinstones.

Next we covered the image we had carved out with ink, and pressed it, ink side down, onto a piece of paper. And there was Dino on the paper!

It was really a lot of fun to do!

By elizabeth23 — On Feb 15, 2011

Arts and crafts block prints can be a lot of fun. They're an easy way to design t shirts, for example, and can be fun to do with younger kids.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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