What we know as printing today in our homes, in our offices or at the counter of a high street retail store is only the latest incarnation of a process that has developed over centuries.
It is more than evident that the speed in which something can be printed onto paper has increased over time, as advances in technology have been made. However, the efficiency that we now see in today’s printing process owes a great deal to the early pioneers who wanted to record words and images in a printed format and often used a great deal of artistic skill and patience to do so.
One such method that inspired future generations to record events in a printed format was the process of Woodblock Printing, which originated in ancient China.
Earliest Surviving Woodblock Printing
The earliest surviving example of Woodblock printing is a Chinese print in the three colours of the Han dynasty on silk, which is believed to date back to around 220 AD. It’s known that woodblock printing developed in Asia several centuries before it did in Europe, where the Chinese were the first to use this particular process to print solid text.
In Europe, the printing of these types of images onto cloth were further developed into the printing of images on paper, with these being commonly known as ‘woodcuts’. The use of these techniques in Europe in order to print substantial amounts of text together with images in a block-book format only arose after the development of movable type, which is the system of combining printing and typography that uses movable components to reproduce the elements of a document.
This was developed by Bi Sheng, a Chinese inventor, about four hundred years later.
It’s commonly thought that the first use of Woodblock printing was to print onto textiles. The technique for printing on fabrics was also used in Roman Egypt in the fourth century, as well as form of block printing called ‘Tarsh’ which flourished in the Arabian region during the 9th and 10th centuries.
Following this, the invention of Block-books, where both text and images are cut on a single block for a whole page, started to appear in Europe in the mid-15th century. With these almost always undated and without any statements on who was the originator of the print or where the printing took pace, determining the dates of these is a very difficult task.
Block-books printed in the 1470s were often made from cheaper materials and were cheaper in their quality as a result but these continued to be printed sporadically up through the end of the 15th century.
Most block-books before the year 1480 were usually only printed on one side of the paper and many were printed with two pages per sheet. This produced an opening book consisting of two printed pages, followed by some openings with two blank pages. The blank pages were then glued together to produce a book very similar looking to one that had been type-printed.
Where both sides of the sheet had been printed, it’s said that some form of a printing-press was used.