Two categories of printmaking were known in early modern Europe: relief (e.g. woodcuts, with the printable design above the surface of the block, often of wood) and intaglio (e.g. engraving, with the printable design below the surface of the plate, often of metal). Woodcuts generally consist of one matrix (printed surface), known as the key block (‘outline block’, usually in black). Almost all of the few well-known colour prints from before c.1600 are single-sheet (‘fine art’) woodcuts that were printed in register (by superimposing impressions of different matrices, one per colour).
In the cultural and artistic revival that characterised Tudor rule, woodcut was the dominant category of printmaking; woodcuts were produced in England from 1481, but intaglio prints are known only from the mid-sixteenth century. The examples presented in this theme not only make visible a previously unknown body of colour prints, but also demonstrate that the earliest printed colour was not necessarily extraneous and ‘merely’ decorative, adding flat areas of colour to brighten up independent outlines. Instead, it was an essential component of the print’s design. They trace a colour printing technique that is conventionally associated with later single-sheet woodcuts in mainland Europe back to earlier visual elements in English books.