Early Colour Printing: German Renaissance Woodcuts

In the development of colour printing, one of the two centres was German-speaking central Europe. (For a review of prints from the other centre – Northern Italy, especially Venice – click here.) The chiaroscuro woodcut involved the cutting of multiple plates, usually two or three, in blocks of wood and printing each in colour sequentially on a single sheet of paper, producing an image with areas of different colour, some produced by overprinting of inked fields. The blocks are cut so that the highlight areas were removed, the remaining area being printed as shade (called “tone”); usually a block with a line design was printed over the top, often in black (called “key”, “line” or “outline”). This produced prints that were not full colour replicated the effect of wash drawings or drawings on tinted paper.

Woodcut prints from multiple plates was not the only method of printing in colour. Discounting hand-coloured line prints, colour printing was done with stencils and stamping and printing in colours on tinted paper. Colour printing was used for text in devotional works, book title pages, music scores, calendars, charts, diagrams, maps and all manner of material that was not strictly pictorial.

The book is arranged as a catalogue of British Museum’s holdings of German chiaroscuro and colour woodcuts. Almost all of the prints are relief (rather than intaglio). It covers 150 years of printmaking, ending around 1600, with a coda of a revival of colour printing from the C17th and C18th. The advance of this survey is that it includes book illustrations as well as single-sheet prints. Reproduced here are pages with texts printed in two colours, a prime use of two-colour printing. “Calendars, printer’s devices, music, diagrams, even passages of text with extensive ‘rubrication’ or red text demonstrate that many if not most printers were skilled colour printers, even if their projects did not involve images printed from multiple colours. […] the vast majority of colour prints were produced for books or ephemera, including broadsides and pamphlets that were intended to be used and then discarded.”

Printer Erhard Ratdolt (1442-1528) is generally credited with inventing colour printing from blocks in the 1470s. By 1482, Ratdolt was making multiple-block colour prints in scientific treatises. Whether he actually invented it, Ratdolt’s are the earliest datable examples so far identified. Considering how delicate prints are and how few survive, it is unlikely accomplished earlier dated prints will be discovered. Ratdolt was from Augsburg. He travelled to work as a printer in Venice, where he encountered the most advanced techniques of the day. He brought this knowledge back to Bavaria and made Augsburg (frequently the site of the court of the Holy Roman Emperor) the epicentre of the German printmaking renaissance.

By 1507-8, Lucas Cranach the Elder (c. 1472-1553) and Hans Burgkmair (1473-1531) were making chiaroscuro prints. They experimented by printing in precious metals. Cranach’s St George was printed in black line and gold highlight on indigo-dyed paper. His Venus and Cupid (1509) is more Italianate than his most typical paintings.

Burgkmair’s Lovers Surprised by Death (1510) shows skeletal death killing a soldier, while his lower attempts to flee. Death has her robe clamped in his jaws. The setting is Venice and perhaps the death that has found them is the plague, a common scourge of Venice.  

Savage notes that the first white-line woodcut was not made by Urs Graf (c. 1485-1529) in 1521, but was at least current by the publication of Pelbartus of Temesvár’s Pomerium (1502). The title vignette shows a monk reading at a lectern in a garden, with four mythological animals in roundels at each corner of that image. White ink was not a viable medium, hence the use line-cut relief blocks with black ink. Two of Graf’s prints of standard-bearers of the Swiss Confederacy are reproduced here. A stunning print in red tone and black line on an off-white paper of Adams and Eve (after Hans Sebald Beham (1500-1550) has glinting line highlights cut into the tone block, which gives the figures and tree of knowledge a flickering reflective quality. It is like looking at a statue group carved in polished red stone. 

After Sebald Beham, The Fall of Man, c.1550–1600, two-block colour woodcut
(red, black), 350 × 253 mm. British Museum, 1845,0809.1734

Hans Baldung “Grien” (1484/5-1545) and Hans Wechtlin (1480/5-after 1526) worked in another HRE court in Strasbourg. Baldung’s Preparation for the Witches’ Sabbath (1510) is a famous early colour print and is reproduced in multiple colours. Wechtlin’s Crucifixion (two versions, c. 1510 and 1511 or later) is as sombre and pictorially deep as a painting. Wechtlin designed elaborate ornamental architectural frames for the tableaux. In Skull in Frame (c. 1510-3), the skull fills its frame, the jaw protruding towards the viewer. The tone block defines the roundness of the skull through shading through areas and hatching.

A selection of prints from the later C16th demonstrate the multifarious uses of colour printing, mainly from books. Although the designs are sometimes workmanlike, the skill of the printers is of a high standard. The intarsia panels are colour woodcuts printed on paper which were pasted on to furniture, wall panels and doors. Few of these survive, either unused or (even rarer) on the surface to which they were applied. Erasmus Loy’s were architectural scenes, with strong perspective, designed to imitate relief carvings, usually the preserve of the well-off. 

Erasmus Loy, View of an Arcade, c.1557–70, two-block colour
woodcut (ochre, red-brown) with stamp of privilege, 280 × 210
(sheet). British Museum, presented by William Mitchell,
1895,0122.129

A beautifully accomplished chiaroscuro print of the Rhinoceros (1515) by Albrecht Dürer (1471-1528) is actually a C 17th Dutch addition of a tone block to the original line block produced by Dürer. Savage suggests that the development of this addition was to compensate for the worn condition of the much-printed block. The woodcut revival of the 1600s to 1800s was mostly in the form of recreations, tone blocks added to old line blocks and variants of works by esteemed masters, such as Beham and Dürer.

The items are organised in chronological order and technical data is provided, though there is little by way of information on papers or ink composition, which is too specialist for such a volume. A bibliography and index are included. There are microscopic photographs, showing the order in which blocks were inked and printed. No matrices (blocks) are illustrated. Alternate states and single-block impressions are reproduced when available.

This is a valuable overview of early printing, striking a balance between covering a multitude of examples and providing technical explanations. It shows thorough knowledge of the latest research into the field and perfectly complements Naoko Takahatake’s The Chiaroscuro Woodcut in Renaissance Italy (Prestel, 2018), which covers the other half of the story of early colour printing. Recommended for collectors, printmakers and those studying the German Renaissance.   

Elizabeth Savage, Early Colour Printing: German Renaissance Woodcuts at the British Museum, Paul Holberton Publishing, 2021, hardback, 240pp, fully illus., £50, ISBN 978 1 911 300755

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