Color Relief Prints

by Victoria Chick

Woodcuts are one of the relief processes and have been outlined in a previous article, Relief Prints. You may find reading it useful to better understand the following additional information on color woodcuts.

There are several types of color relief prints you might find offered to you as a collector. One is sometimes called a chiaroscuro print but is really a 16th century wood engraving with color tints, not a true woodcut. Another, called the “Baxter Process print”, was a combination of intaglio and woodblock and was used for 19th century commercial purposes. I am going to omit a discussion of those processes here. My information in this article will be limited to true color woodcuts.

One type of true woodcut uses a separate block for each color. After the first block, in which the lightest color is printed, subsequent blocks are printed on top of the previously printed, dried color, gradually building the design. The printmaker can redo a block if necessary to improve the design. Generally, color woodcuts have a small edition. The woodcuts using a block for each color would rarely go over 50 prints. Some artists would decide to limit the edition to 50 and then initially print far fewer, leaving it open for them to complete the edition later. Many, such as Margaret Jordan Patterson, never did compete many of their editions; so their works are much rarer than the edition numbers would suggest.

Also a true woodcut is the reduction woodcut. In the reduction process a single woodblock is used and the wood is gradually carved out between each color run. The reduction process is sometimes jokingly called a “suicide” print because, as carving progresses, the previous states are destroyed. There can be no additional prints made of a reduction woodblock. If the edition says 20 you can be sure there will never be any more. Because it is not possible for the artist to go back to redo a state, considerable thought has to be done in planning the design as well as the actual carving out of the wood.

In both approaches to doing color woodcuts, it is critical to place the woodblock and paper together in the exact same way each time a color is added. This relationship is called registration. The printmaker will have a method to make certain registration occurs so that all parts of the image line up correctly.

In both approaches to doing color woodcuts, it is critical to place the woodblock and paper together in the exact same way each time a color is added. This relationship is called registration. The printmaker will have a method to make certain registration occurs so that all parts of the image line up correctly.

Another commonality is the sequence of inking which provides that the lightest and most transparent colors are done first and the darkest, most opaque colors printed last. This is not a hard and fast rule because artists are creative and sometimes rules are broken to arrive at special effects. As you look at color woodcuts you may be able to determine the sequence of inking. Sometimes one of the colors you see may be the color of the paper on which the inks are printed.

The pressure needed to transfer the ink to the paper from the woodblock varies. The old tradition of color woodcut that came from Japan used hand rubbing to achieve the transfer. That method is often still used by printmakers in various countries. Using a printing press will generally give a more uniformly inked print.

It is a matter of preference to the individual artist or collector. One method is not “better” than another. Each method just produces its own effect.
The history of color woodcuts ranges from the early, simple, two color woodcuts of the German psalters printed in the 15th century to the complex Japanese 18th century woodcuts with 10 or more colors.

In Europe, by the mid-19th century, color woodcuts were being used to illustrate children’s books. Although artists working in the medium of color woodcuts were rare before the 20th century in the U.S., there was an exhibition of the work of Arthur Wesley Dow in 1895 at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Dow, like many 19th century artists in both Europe and America, had seen exported Japanese prints. These influenced him and he, in turn, influenced other artists to take up the color woodcut process. A great number of East Coast American artists, originally trained as painters, were attracted to working with color using woodcuts. A group of them became identified as the Provincetown Printmakers.

On the West Coast, color woodcuts began to be entered at the Panama – Pacific International Expositions in San Francisco and the Panama – California Exposition in San Diego in the years leading up to WWI. Some of the participating artists, like Gustave Baumann, were naturalized American citizens, having come out of the craft movement in Europe where color woodcuts were not uncommon. Others, like Margaret Jordan Patterson, had spent time working and traveling in Europe and were the second generation of printmakers making color woodcuts influenced by Dow in Massachusetts.

In 1933, the Brooklyn Museum mounted an exhibition, “American Color Prints”. The work of artists making color woodcuts in regions all over the United States was curated into an exhibit that showed the range and sophistication of color woodcuts as well as color etchings, and lithographs.
More recently, people have been able to see large collections of color woodcuts in exhibitions at The Whitney Museum of American Art, and the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American Art.

Color woodcuts from the first half of the 20th century can be extremely expensive due to rarity and demand. Contemporary color woodcuts are more moderately priced but usually bring higher prices than black and white woodcuts. Look for them at print exhibitions, through online searches, and at art galleries.

1. “Eagle Ceremony at Tesuque Pueblo” by Gustave Baumann, 1932, pictured above. This color woodcut, printed for the literary and art publication Colophon, is monogrammed, but not hand signed. There were originally 2000 copies published. As time has passed the books have become scarce; some were cannibalized because the prints in them were more valuable than the book, some have just worn out, and some have been preserved in the rare book sections of libraries. The price for this woodcut is far lower than a hand signed Baumann with more colors. Baumann used a separate wood block for each of three colors and the printing paper supplies an additional color.

2. This signed, untitled woodcut is by illustrator David Frampton, pictured to the right. Frampton is well known for his children’s book illustrations and prefers making them using the woodcut medium. Harper Collins and Eerdmans Books for Young Readers are two publishers that have matched their authors with Frampton’s imagination and skills as an illustrator. Frampton also uses a separate block for each color.

3. California printmaker, Kirstin Francis, developed this woodcut, picture in the center of the article, “Threshhold “, using the reduction method. Only a single block of wood was used with the wood being carved away between color runs. Her highly expressive work is done in small editions and many of them have sold out. More of her figurative and symbolic color woodcuts can be seen through her dealer at