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Printmaking is the process of printing an image by transferring ink from a matrix, the block, stone, or plate, onto paper. The process of creating the art prints differs from photographic reproductions in that it offers an element of originality in addition to the variance inherent in the printing process.

Development of Printmaking in China

The first prints made on paper were relief prints originating in China shortly after the development of paper in 105 AD. The earliest relief prints were created from holy images carved onto large flat stone slabs and printed to accompany classic texts. The earliest known woodcut with text and image combined is the famous Buddhist scroll, the Diamond Sutra created in 868 AD. The early development of paper in China allowed printmaking to develop here well before it emerged in Europe.

Japanese Prints

The development of Japanese printmaking is very closely tied to China. Japanese graphic prints emerged in the middle of the 18th known as Ukiyo-e or “pictures of the floating world.” These prints were created for a popular audience and are characterized by their colorful, flat shapes, detailed imagery, and dramatic subjects. In the 19th century Japanese printmaking shifted to landscape, most famously in the extensive series of Japanese landscapes by Hokusai and Hiroshige. By the middle of the 19th century, Hokusai’s prints had traveled to Europe where they were very influential in the work of the Impressionists, as well as, printmakers like Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec. This influence was known as Japonisme.

Development of Printmaking in Europe

Printmaking developed in Europe in the 15th century paper mills in Germany, France, and Italy. While the earliest European woodcut, found in a monastery in Eastern Europe dates to 1370-90 AD, this print of the crucifixion scene is too large to have been printed on the early paper available at the time and must have been printed on linen. The earliest known European woodcut on paper is a Dutch Madonna from 1418. Early European prints were created for devotional purposes and depicted Saints, the life of Christ, and the Virgin Mary. Once paper could be inexpensively manufactured editions of illustrated books emerged.

Renaissance and Baroque Prints

While goldsmiths in the Middle Ages printed impressions of their engravings and etchings to keep a record of their work, engraving and etching developed as a means of producing artistic images during the Renaissance period. Albrecht Durer, one of the most well known artists of this period, was trained as a goldsmith and used his training as an engraver, and his eye for detailed observation, to create some of the most detailed and beautiful engravings in the early 16th century. Durer mastered the techniques of woodcut, engraving, etching, and dry point, invented modern  watercolor, and drew in almost every medium. By being such a versatile and well-versed artist he moved printmaking beyond its craft origins. After Durer printmakers were trained by drawing, not working with the metal or wood. Durer depicted a wide variety of subjects from epic and highly detailed scenes of the apocalypse to his iconic engraving of Adam and Eve done in 1504.