WOODBLOCK PRINTING

The woodblock printing developed into an independent form of fine arts in the 6th century in Eastern Asia and during the Renaissance period in Europe. Originating in China, the woodblock printing technique spread throughout India, Tibet, Mongolia and Japan, following the dissemination of Buddhism. The Tibetan name of a woodblock board is ‘par’ which was adopted by the Mongolian language to be pronounced as ‘bar’. Woodblocks of various sizes, ranging from very small to a metre in diameter, would be carved to print various images from simple shapes to elaborated images of deities with multiple heads and arms. The image to be printed was carved as a relief matrix on a wooden board before being pressed on a piece of paper, silk or a fabric using a red mineral-based paint and black ink.

The requirements for illustrations in books and sutras increased in the beginning of the 20th century, when the development of woodblock printing reached its zenith. During this period there were over 760 woodblock studios.

        The major woodblock printing places of Khalha and Buriatia, which printed Mongolian books and sutras, were in the Urga, Zaya Huree, Uizen Gong Monastery, Mayahan Huree (Kobdo), Choir Monastery (Dundgobi), Murun Monastery (Kubsugul), Unu Monastery (Dornogobi) and Khalha Temple (Dornod).

       The wood block is carefully prepared as a relief matrix, which means the areas to show 'white' are cut away with a knife, chisel, or sandpaper leaving the characters or image to show in 'black' at the original surface level. The block was cut along the grain of the wood. It is only necessary to ink the block and bring it into firm and even contact with the paper or cloth to achieve an acceptable print. The content would of course print "in reverse" or mirror-image, a further complication when text was involved. The art of carving the woodcut is technically known as xylography, though the term is rarely used in English.

       For colour printing, multiple blocks are used, each for one colour, although overprinting two colours may produce further colours on the print. Multiple colours can be printed by keying the paper to a frame around the woodblocks.

There are three methods of printing to consider:

Stamping: Used for many fabrics, and most early European woodcuts (1400–40). These items were printed by putting paper or fabric on a table or a flat surface with the block on top, and pressing, or hammering, the back of the block.

Rubbing: Apparently the most common for Far Eastern printing. Used for European woodcuts and block-books later in the 15th century, and very widely for cloth. The block is placed face side up on a table, with the paper or fabric on top. The back of the block is rubbed with a ‘hard pad, a flat piece of wood, a burnisher, or a leather frotton’.

Printing in a press: ‘Presses’ only seem to have been used in Asia in relatively recent times. Simple weighted presses may have been used in Europe, but firm evidence is lacking. Later, printing-presses were used (from about 1480).

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