Coloring Within the Lines: The Use of Stencil in Early Woodcuts

Fig. 1. Workshop of the Very Small Hours of Anne of Brittany, The Nativity (ca. 1490, France), stencil-colored woodcut, 23.1 x 16.4 cm in coffer (ca. 1490, France), wood, iron, leather, horsehair, and linen, 22 x 33 x 15 cm. Art Institute of Chicago, restricted gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Vance; the Amanda S. Johnson and Marion J. Livinston Fund, 2009.49.

Fig. 1. Workshop of the Very Small Hours of Anne of Brittany, The Nativity (ca. 1490, France), stencil-colored woodcut, 23.1 x 16.4 cm in coffer (ca. 1490, France), wood, iron, leather, horsehair, and linen, 22 x 33 x 15 cm. Art Institute of Chicago, restricted gift of Mr. and Mrs. William Vance; the Amanda S. Johnson and Marion J. Livinston Fund, 2009.49.

Recently there has been a renewal of scholarly attention paid to coffrets à estampes, fascinating wood and metal boxes from the late 15th to early 16th centuries whose inner lids were usually decorated with colored devotional woodcuts.1 While historians are still trying to decipher what function these enigmatic containers served, they agree that the boxes appear to have been fabricated in Paris and that a majority of the prints can be attributed to the workshop of the Master of the Very Small Hours of Anne of Brittany, now identified as the painter Jean d’Ypres, who was active in France between 1490–1510 (Fig. 1). Print scholars have long valued these boxes because several woodcuts originally produced in great numbers survive today only because they were preserved within the coffrets. Since the majority of these woodcuts were colored using stencils, they present an opportunity to explore the materials and techniques of this enduring print-coloring technique.

Color was an important, even essential aspect of many early prints, especially for devotional subjects. The addition of color made the images more eye-catching, naturalistic and legible, and within the religious culture of the time, the hues could also have conveyed meanings that brought the viewer into a closer connection with the divine.2

On the earliest-known European woodcuts, transparent colors were brushed freehand over broad patches, allowing the printed black lines of the image to show through. Such freehand painting was later replaced by the more efficient and consistent practice of applying color through stencils. The differences between paints applied freehand and those put on with a stencil can be subtle, but stencil-applied colors are generally recognizable by the uniformity with which the paints are applied and the occasional slight ridge of paint sometimes visible at the edge of an area of color. Often, due to the apparent lack of any mechanical means of registration, fields of color are slightly out of alignment with the printed design.

Fig. 2. Sacred Monogram (ca. 1500), colored woodcut, 22.6 x 16.5 cm. National Gallery of Art, Rosenwald Collection 1943.3.637. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Fig. 2. Sacred Monogram (ca. 1500), colored woodcut, 22.6 x 16.5 cm. National Gallery of Art, Rosenwald Collection 1943.3.637. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Scientific analysis of the paints used on early woodcuts indicates that colorists favored inexpensive, water-based paints in a limited palette that included both mineral and organic or dye-based pigments. Typical colors include green (copper-based), orange (lead-based), red (possibly brazilwood- or madder-dye-based), blue (possibly indigo- or woad-dye-based) and yellow (possibly buckthorn-, saffron- or weld-dye-based). Various tones of purple were created using a mixture of red and blue, and a dye-based green paint could be made with a mixture of yellow and blue.3 Paints on many stencil-colored prints have a smooth, matte appearance because colorists learned to modify their paints by adding chalk (calcium carbonate) to the mixtures, formulating viscous paints that could be applied in even layers that would dry faster and would not bleed beyond the outline of the stencil.4

Another common feature of stencil-colored prints is a pattern of uneven, dark lines painted through large fields of color. In a French woodcut of the Sacred Monogram (ca. 1500) one can see numerous lines throughout the purple background (Fig. 2). This is the result of the thin tabs used to support the stencil when it was cut: the tabs blocked the paint as it was applied through the stencil, creating gaps in the coloring that were later touched in by hand. Although the same paint was used, the hand-applied areas are more thickly deposited and have a darker appearance.

The use of a stencil for the controlled application of color is a fundamental idea. If one considers the hand-silhouette paintings found at Paleolithic sites as a type of stencil image then the process can be viewed as one of the earliest-known design-repeating techniques. Stencil use has been documented in ancient Rome, Medieval Europe and Tang Dynasty China. Closer to the period of the early Renaissance in Europe, references to stencils can be found in written sources for the technical history of Medieval and Renaissance painting. Examples of stencil use have been found on 14th-century church walls, panel paintings, ornamental borders of illuminated manuscripts and painted-cloth wall coverings.

In the 15th-century treatise Il Libro dell’arte, Cennino Cennini describes how to make a starch (flour) batter that can be used “per incollare carta per fare i strafori” (for pasting up parchments to make stencils).5 It is unlikely Cennini was referring to stencils for coloring prints as his principal focus is on techniques related to manuscript, wall, panel and cloth painting. Still, his instructions demonstrate that this was a familiar technique and that stencils needed to be reinforced so as to withstand repeatedly being brushed over with paint.

Fig. 3. The Hand as the Mirror of Salvation (1466, Germany), colored woodcut, 39.1 x 27 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection 1943.3.639. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Fig. 3. The Hand as the Mirror of Salvation (1466, Germany), colored woodcut, 39.1 x 27 cm. National Gallery of Art, Washington, Rosenwald Collection 1943.3.639. Courtesy of the National Gallery of Art.

Although the use of stencils has a long history, it is unclear when the technique was first adapted to the task of coloring prints. The earliest reference to a print colorist, or “Briefmaler,” is found in a 15th-century list of painters in the city of Nuremburg. The record, dated 1422, identifies Michael Wiener (Wyener), whose profession is listed as “brief und kartenmoler und patronirt tuecher” (print and card painter and stenciller on cloth).6 This citation suggests that the technique of stenciling was connected with the coloring of playing cards as well as the older craft of cloth painting.

The Nuremburg record implies that print and card colorists may have worked with stencils as early as 1422, but there is no evidence of woodcuts or playing cards from the early 15th century with stencil-applied paints. Stencil coloring has only been observed on prints dating from the late 15th century and later. The Hand as the Mirror of Salvation, a German woodcut with both freehand and stencil-applied color, dated in the block to 1466, records the approximate date when stencils were first employed to color prints (Fig. 3).

By the mid-16th century, the practice of using stencils to color woodcuts was well enough established to be included in Hans Sach and Jost Amman’s Book of Trades (Fig. 4). Published in Frankfurt in 1568, the book features Amman’s wood-cut illustration depicting the activities of a “Briefmaler.” In the illustration the colorist is shown at a table in a well-lit room using a wide brush to apply paint through a stencil onto a print. In the foreground of the colorist’s studio, prominently displayed on a storage locker, are shallow vessels for paints and a supply of additional brushes. A 1512 inventory describing the contents of the workshop of an Antwerp-based printer Andriaan Janssoens “de Verlichter” (the illuminator) could almost be used as a caption for Amman’s image as it lists “cut and uncut patterns [stencils], brushes, pans with tempered and untempered paint, … colored and non-colored prints and a stock of paper.”7

Fig. 4. Jost Amman, Briefmaler (1568), woodcut from Eygentliche Beschreibung Aller Stände auf Erden, Frankfurt: Sigmund Feyerabend.

Fig. 4. Jost Amman, Briefmaler (1568), woodcut from Eygentliche Beschreibung Aller Stände auf Erden, Frankfurt: Sigmund Feyerabend.

Other documents in the Antwerp archives describe vast quantities of woodcuts being produced and colored by printmakers in the city in the early 16th century.8 Large-scale production of stencil-colored woodcuts is illustrated in Amman’s print by the tidy stacks of prints shown on the table in front of the Briefmaler and along a shelf in the back of the room. Two different groups of prints are depicted: the neat pile of prints in the back of the room is topped with a sheet showing a figure on horseback followed by a figure on foot bearing a lance. On the table in front of the colorist, atop the stack of prints he is working his way through, is a woodcut of two figures, each holding a lance with his left arm. Stencil-colored prints of foot and equestrian soldiers such as these were fashionable in Amman’s time and would have been issued as individual prints or pasted together to form processional friezes.9

The stencil used by the colorist in Amman’s image appears to be a blank sheet perforated with irregular holes, but examination of a group of 16th-century stencils in the collection of the New York Public Library reveals that stencils were frequently cut, not from blank paper, but from surplus impressions of prints.

The NYPL stencil fragments owe their survival to the practice of 16th-century bookbinders who pasted together recycled scraps of paper to make boards that were used in book covers. This “printers waste” was discovered in the course of repairing the damaged binding of a 1519 copy of Erasmus’ Enchiridon militis Christiani printed in Basel. Within the leather book covers were 23 print fragments derived from at least four different woodcuts. Many of the fragments have stencil holes cut along the perimeter of key design elements and bear traces of stencil-applied paint. As with the practice for making stencils noted by Cennini, these had been reinforced by mounting them onto a second sheet of blank paper before the openings were cut.10

The majority of fragments come from impressions of a large woodcut of Christ as the Man of Sorrows surrounded by scenes from the Passion. There are no intact surviving impressions of this woodcut and the fragments provide an incomplete record, but it is possible to reconstruct the composition. In the center of the print, dividing the inscription “ECCE HOMO,” is a monumental figure of Christ, his shoulders draped in a purple robe that is open to reveal his scourged body. Surrounding the central figure are seven medallions depicting familiar events from the Passion. The scenes are, counterclockwise from the upper left: Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem, the Last Supper, Christ in the Garden, the Crucifixion, the Entombment, the Resurrection, and at the upper center, Christ in Limbo. Altogether, this would have been a very large print. Given the 180mm diameter of each of the medallions as a basis for calculation, the full sheet would have corresponded closely to the traditional Imperialle paper size (approximately 50 x 74 cm) (Fig. 5).11

Fig. 5. Colored and uncolored impressions of Christ’s Entry to Jerusalem from Christ as the Man of Sorrows (fragments) (ca. 1500, France), color woodcut, fragments approximately 12.5 x 19 cm each. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, New York Public Library. Photo: Denise Stockman. ©The New York Public Library.

Fig. 5. Colored and uncolored impressions of Christ’s Entry to Jerusalem from Christ as the Man of Sorrows (fragments) (ca. 1500, France), color woodcut, fragments approximately 12.5 x 19 cm each. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, New York Public Library. Photo: Denise Stockman. ©The New York Public Library.

Fig. 6. Christ as the Man of Sorrows (ca. 1500, France), color woodcut, fragments approximately 12.5 x 19 cm each (digital reconstruction stencil fragments arranged to show scale of original print). Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, New York Public Library. Photo: Denise Stockman, digital reconstruction: Lara M. Kaplan. ©The New York Public Library.

Fig. 6. Christ as the Man of Sorrows (ca. 1500, France), color woodcut, fragments approximately 12.5 x 19 cm each (digital reconstruction stencil fragments arranged to show scale of original print). Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, New York Public Library. Photo: Denise Stockman, digital reconstruction: Lara M. Kaplan. ©The New York Public Library.

At least four different impressions of this print can be identified in the stencil fragments: an uncolored impression with residues of a red/orange paint, an impression colored in light purple or rose, an impression colored in orange and blue, and an impression colored in orange, blue and rose. It is easy to imagine that the final, fully colored print would have included elements such as Christ’s halo colored in yellow and areas of the landscapes highlighted in green.

Elemental analysis of the paints on the colored and uncolored fragments showing Christ’s Entry into Jerusalem confirmed a typical palette for early color woodcuts.12 The orange paint is lead-based (red lead) and all the other paints are organic or derived from dyes. Analysis of the residues of red-orange paint in the area of Christ’s face on the uncolored fragment was also significant for lead (Fig. 6).

Devotional woodcuts of Christ the Man of Sorrows were popular in the late 15th and early 16th centuries. A Christ as the Man of Sorrows surrounded by seven scenes of the Passion of similar size is recorded in the print collection inventory of Ferdinand Columbus (1488–1539). The Columbus print, however, is described as containing an upper-center scene of the Flagellation rather than the Christ in Limbo of the NYPL fragments and likely references a different woodcut.13

In 1938 Henry Meier of the NYPL recognized the importance and rarity of these stencils and published his evaluation of their significance.14 News of their discovery was also reported in the New York Times.15 Meier’s thorough and carefully considered discussion of the stencils and their probable origin remains an important study of the phenomenon of printers waste and stencil-coloring technology. Yet the illustrations that accompany the article should be regarded with caution, as Meier did not note that the photographs of the stencils document their condition after they were restored. Recent examination has revealed that, after their discovery, groups of fragments were overlaid and taped together like a collage in order to create a more complete picture of the original woodcut (Fig. 7). Reconstructing the fragments in this manner was visually effective but unfortunately obscured evidence regarding how many surplus impressions of a print were required to fully color a print using the stenciling technique.

Fig. 7. Recto and Verso of fragments of Last Supper and Christ in the Garden from Christ as the Man of Sorrows (fragments) (ca. 1500, France), color woodcut, fragments approximately 12.5 x 19 cm each. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, New York Public Library. Photo: Denise Stockman. ©The New York Public Library.

Fig. 7. Recto and Verso of fragments of Last Supper and Christ in the Garden from Christ as the Man of Sorrows (fragments) (ca. 1500, France), color woodcut, fragments approximately 12.5 x 19 cm each. Miriam and Ira D. Wallach Division of Art, New York Public Library. Photo: Denise Stockman. ©The New York Public Library.

On the basis of the book’s provenance and the style of the panel stamps on the binding, Meier concluded that it had been bound in Paris. Putting this finding together with his stylistic evaluation of the fragments, Meier concluded the woodcut had probably been produced in Paris within the circle of a book illustrator that Wilhelm Ludwig Schreiber referred to as the Vérard-Meister. Recognizing that the cutting of the Man of Sorrows was of less refined workmanship than the book illustrations, he suggested the woodcut was the product of a lower class of print workshop.16 A recent scholar has proposed Northern Italy as the print’s more likely origin.17

During the late 15th and early 16th centuries, printmaking and stencil-coloring techniques were practiced internationally, and the movement of prints and woodblocks from one region to another meant that subjects and styles could be easily seen and copied throughout Europe. It is sensible to assume the NYPL stencils were made, used and later recycled within the Parisian workshop where the Erasmus book was bound. However, as prints are portable, with a well-documented history of being traded internationally, it is also intriguing to speculate that in an era of mass print production, there could have been a market for paper scraps to be recycled into different, more useful materials such as paper boards for book bindings.18

As early as the mid-15th century, printers were already experimenting with multi-block color printing processes, but as these techniques were more labor intensive and costly, many continued to rely on versatile, economical stencils for coloring prints. Even after the development of color lithography in the 19th century, which revolutionized the possibilities of color printing, stenciling remained a viable technique for both commercial and artistic printmaking. Notable examples from the last century include World War II–era Soviet propaganda posters,19 and vibrant portfolios by artists such as Fabius Lorenzi, Sonia Delaunay and Henri Matisse.20 Review of early stencil-colored woodcuts and the documentation associated with their creation, such as the NYPL fragments, demonstrates that stencil coloring survived the centuries with little technical change from how it was developed and perfected in the Renaissance. The longevity of the stencil technique, perhaps, is due not only to its simplicity and economy, but also to its aesthetic character, in which color is conveyed in a bold yet imprecise manner, creating multiples that appear appealingly handmade and unique.


The author is grateful to the staff of the New York Public Library for their assistance with my research, especially: Shelly Smith, Head, Conservation Treatment; Denise Stockman, Assistant Conservator, Barbara Goldsmith, Preservation Laboratory; Madeleine Viljoen, Curator of Prints; and David Christie.

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  1. See Séverine Lepape, “When Assemblage Makes Sense: An Example of a Coffret à Estampe,” Art in Print, Vol. 2, No. 4 (2012): 9–14; Maureen Mullarkey, “Late Gothic Coffers,” Antiques (February 2009): 66–71; Susanne Karr Schmidt, Altered and Adorned: Using Renaissance Prints in Daily Life (Chicago: The Art Institute of Chicago, 2011): 58–59. []
  2. On the role of color in the history of printmaking, see Susan Dackerman, “Painted Prints in Germany and the Netherlands” in Susan Dackerman, Painted Prints: The Revelation of Color in Northern Renaissance and Baroque Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts (Baltimore: Baltimore Museum of Art, 2002): 9–47. []
  3. For a more detailed discussion of pigment analysis on color prints, see: Shelly Fletcher, Lisha Glinsman and Doris Oltrogge, “The Pigments on Hand-Colored Fifteenth-Century Relief Prints from the Collections of the National Gallery of Art and the Germanisches Nationalmuseum,” in The Woodcut in Fifteenth-Century Europe, ed. Peter Parshall (Washington DC: National Gallery of Art, 2009): 277–97, and Thomas Primeau, “The Materials and Technology of Renaissance and Baroque Hand-Colored Prints,” in Dackerman, Painted Prints: 47–78. []
  4. Primeau, 67. []
  5. Cennino d’Andrea Cennini, The Craftsman’s Handbook, trans. Daniel Thompson (New York, 1960): 65. Thompson here translates carta as parchment, although he acknowledges it may also refer to paper: 6n1. []
  6. Albert Gümbel, “Archivalische Beiträge zur älteren Nürnberger Malereieschichte: III. Die Malername der Nürnberger Meister- und Bürger-bücher 1363–1534 und der Steuerlisten 1392– 1440” in Repertorium für Kunstwissenschaft Vol. 5, No. 1 (1907): 57. []
  7. Jan Van der Stock, Printing Images in Antwerp: The Introduction of Printmaking in a City: Fifteenth Century to 1585, trans. Beverley Jackson (Rotterdam: Sound & Vision Interactive, 1998): 98; and Appendix 3, Doc. 13: 319. []
  8. Ibid., 94, 98, 121. []
  9. For examples, see Walter Strauss, The German Single-Leaf Woodcut 1550-1600: A Pictorial Catalogue (New York: Abaris Books, 1975): 28–9. []
  10. The blank sheets were delaminated from the prints when the binding was taken apart and the fragments separated. []
  11. E.J. Labarre, Dictionary and Encyclopedia of Paper and Paper Making (Amsterdam: Swets & Zeitlinger, 1969): 249. []
  12. Noninvasive, X-ray fluorescence analysis was conducted at the NYPL Barbara Goldsmith Preservation Laboratory using a Brucker Tracer III–V handheld XRF analyzer. []
  13. Mark McDonald, The Print Collection of Ferdinand Columbus 1488–1539: A Renaissance Collector in Seville, 2 vols. (London: British Museum Press, 2004), 2:473. []
  14. Henry Meier, “Woodcut Stencils of 400 Years Ago,” Bulletin of the New York Public Library 42 (1938): 10–19; reprinted, without an introduction and bibliography, in The Print Collector’s Quarterly, Vol. 25, No. 1 (1938): 9–31. []
  15. S. Leery Maes, “Library Makes Unique Art Find; Discovers the Only Known Woodblock Stencils in Repairing an Old Book,” New York Times, Jan. 22, 1938. []
  16. Meier, 15–16. []
  17. Mark McDonald, “The Revelation of Colour: Review of exhibition: Painted Prints: The Revelation of Color in Northern Renaissance and Baroque Engravings, Etchings and Woodcuts, Baltimore Museum of Art,” Apollo (2003a): 48–9. []
  18. For more on the mobility of prints see: Michael Bury and David Landau, “Ferdinand Columbus’s Italian Prints: Clarification and Implications,” in McDonald, The Print Collection of Ferdinand Columbus, 1:185–196. []
  19. Jill Bugajski, “Artful Coercion: The Aesthetic Extremes of Stencil in Wartime,” Art in Print, Vol.1, No. 4 (2011): 25–34. []
  20. For example: Fabius Lorenzi, World War I Infantry Scenes in Japanese Fans, Paris, c. 1918; Sonia Delaunay, Compositions, Colors, Ideas, Paris, 1930; Henri Matisse, Jazz, Paris, 1947. []