Scarcely another method has had such a deep and lasting effect on print-making as the invention in 1516 of the chiaroscuro woodcut by Italian artist Ugo da Carpi. After centuries of simple woodcut prints, the chiaroscuro technique constituted a totally new means of expression. By using differently cut wood blocks, artists were at last able to modulate dark and bright areas through a sensitive use of colour. The finely nuanced play of light and shade, the contrast between precise lines and fields of colour, mixed together with sensual and intellectual impulses, explain the particular attraction of this new form of woodcut.
The technique spread like wildfire in Renaissance Italy, attaining its aesthetic zenith above all in Venice and Parma, but also in the circles of the Rafael school in Rome. The Print Collection at the Wallraf-Richartz-Museum has a large number of chiaroscuro woodcuts and is now presenting them for the first time as a suite: A Revolution in Printmaking – The Italian Chiaroscuro Woodcut of the Sixteenth Century brings together over 30 works by famed printmakers such as Ugo da Carpi, Antonio da Trento and Andrea Andriani. The exhibition in the Print Room runs from 22 September 2017 to 14 January 2018.
The chiaroscuro woodcut distinguishes itself by the way that several wooden blocks are employed to produce the print. Separate blocks bear either the outlines, or the colour values marked out as surface areas. The “key blocks” and colour blocks are then augmented by others for applying the areas that will appear white in the print. By printing after and on top of one another, a highly complex overall chromatic structure comes into being, with its own heightening in white, which above all lent itself to print reproductions of pen and ink wash drawings.