A Pacing Woodblock

Block-printed Paper

Tales of Decorated Paper. Preface

Most often applied for the internal parts of furniture, used for lining inner side of cases and boxes for various instruments and objects, as well as for covering walls with or for decorating endpapers and covers of books, decorated paper is often at the background of objects, lending to them an elegance and becoming a sort of upholstery, less visible and yet a subtle way of enrichment, which, when opening a cabinet, a jewellery box or a book, gives aesthetic pleasure and a sense of wonder.

Unfinished flower ornament (17th - 18th c.)Vilnius University Library

Such paper perfectly shows the need to decorate, embellish, alter the surface of objects and spaces, fluctuating between the quest for harmony and horror vacui, the fear of empty space emanating from “the urge which drives the decorator to go on filling any resultant void” which the art historian Ernst Gombrich suggested to call the love of the infinitive - amor infiniti.

It could be said that the golden age of hand-made decorated paper is the 18th century, the time when a major part of Europe admired not only the Neoclassicism, but also Oriental cultural tradition to create musical, rhythmical ornaments reflecting both abstract geometrical and natural motifs. Particularly inspired by oriental fabrics, Europeans designed their own patterns and used them for the decoration of paper.

Bicolour block-printed paper, 17th c., From the collection of: Vilnius University Library
Sprinkled endpapers, 18th c., From the collection of: Vilnius University Library
Suminagashi marbling technique, 19th-20th c., From the collection of: Vilnius University Library
Paste paper book cover, 2nd half of 18th c., From the collection of: Vilnius University Library
A cover decorated in brocade technique, 18th c., From the collection of: Vilnius University Library
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Blue paste paper cover of death register bookVilnius University Library

Contrary to the present time, until the second half of the 19th century covers of books often were not related to the content of the book. Owing to that, the patterns of decorated paper used for early hand-made books offer for the modern eye unexpected visual and semantic collections.

In our times such paper is made by only a few artisans, while examples of the five earliest decoration techniques – block-printed, sprinkled, marbled, paste and brocade paper – can be seen mostly only in museum and library collections. The five parts of Tales of Decorated Paper open up a motley, varied and occasionally unexpected pattern of garments worn by the books kept in the collections of Vilnius University Library.

Printing woodblock with floral ornamentVilnius University Library

A pacing woodblock. Block-printed paper

Block-printing (xylography) or woodcut is one of the earliest printing techniques widely used for book printing, particularly for illustrations both before and after the invention of Guttenberg's printing press.

Woodblock print (2021) by Ieva RusteikaitėVilnius University Library

A block of wood allows to easily reproduce images, so as to reproduce an image of a certain size there is no need for a large printing press – in some cases a person’s hands are enough.

Vignette depicting putti (17th c.)Vilnius University Library

Many masterpieces (such as Albrecht Dürer's woodcuts) had been carried out following this technique, however, block-printing was also used in folk art – while printing images of saints, calendars and playing card backs.

Gilded cloth book cover (18th c.)Vilnius University Library

Although workshops of block-printed paper appeared in the 16th century, this craft had started flourishing in the 18th century. At that time colourful Indian cotton chintz fabrics that were decorated using wood blocks depicting plants, flowers, or motifs from Oriental stories, became exceedingly popular.

For a long time, such fabrics were considered to be luxury goods, therefore European manufacturers of decorated paper began offering a cheaper replacement that was made locally – paper decorated with certain patterns.

Watermarks (18th c.)Vilnius University Library

Paper for decoration was made following an early technique based on manual work when cotton, linen and hemp waste – rags – were processed into paper in the paper mills.

Sheets of rag paper would usually be drawn up by hand, therefore they often were not large and of irregular size. Manufacturers would leave their marks in the produced paper sheets – these are called watermarks. They are of exceptional value to historians aiming to establish the period of creation of manuscripts, books or pieces of art.

Book covers created using xylographic paper decoration technique (18th c.)Vilnius University Library

Woodcut printing technique illustrations (2nd half of 18th c.) by Denis Diderot, Jean R. AlambertVilnius University Library

A drawing was first of all put on a wood block and then, with the help of sharp carving tools, chiselled into the wood block according to the drawing. After covering such carving with paint, high relief parts were printed on the paper, whereas lower parts remained blank.

Inaccurately connected spots of printed pattern show that the same wood block was pressed several times so as to fill the entire paper sheet. Patterns were chiselled into wood blocks in such a way that would allow to combine several prints, fill the entire paper sheet and create an impression of seamless ornament.

Bicolour block-printed paper (17th c.)Vilnius University Library

Block-printed paper appeals by its coloured layers. While decorating, a separate wood block was used for each colour of printing. Covered with different colour paints, wood blocks would be pressed one after another. Thus, multicoloured paper decorated with patterns was made.

This ornament was printed by two separate wood blocks with a compatible drawing and patterns. Greenish flowers were printed with one block and reddish pellets were pressed on the left empty spaces with another block.   

One of the distinctive features of block-printing is unevenly added colour spreading in veins, often accompanied by squashed edges.

Blue colourVilnius University Library

Paint for printing had to be neither too thin nor too thick.   

Many paint preparation recipes were kept secret by manufacturers. It is known, however, that in the 15th–18th centuries paints of various sorts had still been made of natural pigments and dyes that were mixed with some binder or mordant. For instance, blue colour was made of ultramarine and indigo.

Bicolour block-printed paperVilnius University Library

Tools (2nd half of 18th c.) by Denis Diderot, Jean R. AlambertVilnius University Library

After printing the most ornate block-printed paper was additionally coloured by hand. A special stencil would be placed on the primary print, which quite often was in black colour, and some areas would be covered with patterns coloured with a brush in desired colour.

Every additional colour required a separate stencil. It is a known fact that in decorating workshops colouring was often done by women.

Hand-coloured woodblock-printed paper (17th c.)Vilnius University Library

This technique was characteristic to paper decorated in craft shops of France; they were known as “domino” or “dominotier” paper (French: papier dominoté).  Four colour layers and two techniques – printing and colouring by hand – can be seen in this exhibit.

The outline of the black carving is quite bright, perhaps printed in thick black printing paint.

The second layer – printing of red flowers, if compared to the black one, is, on the contrary, quite obscure and imprecise, the paint is unevenly spread.

Finally, the third and the fourth layers – yellow and light purple – are coloured by hand.

Illustration from series "Fifty four chapters of Genji in modern manner". (ca. 1850-1869) by Utagawa YoshitakiVilnius University Library

In the 18th century, sheets of block-printed paper with larger patterns were used as wallpaper. Decorated sheets, interconnected and glued to the wall, would make a solid ornamental drawing. Sometimes printers and bookbinders used such paper for book covers.

Wallpaper on the book cover (18th c.)Vilnius University Library

Tales of Decorated Paper is a five-part story.

The second part: A Swarm Landed. Sprinkled Paper >>

Credits: Story

Original idea and research by Ieva Rusteikaitė. Creators and contributors: Gediminas Auškalnis, Gediminas Bernotas, Kristina Gudavičienė, Nijolė Klingaitė-Dasevičienė, Raimondas Malaiška, Vida Steponavičienė, Marija Šaboršinaitė, Jonė Šulcaitė-Brollo. 

For professional consultations and the attention given during the creation of this story we are grateful to our colleagues from the Manuscripts, Graphic Arts, Rare Books and Documental Heritage Preservation divisions of Vilnius University Library – Paulius Bagočiūnas, Monika Baublytė, Virgilija Guogienė, Linas Jablonskis, Valentina Karpova-Čelkienė, Sondra Rankelienė, Aušra Rinkūnaitė, Sigitas Tamulis, and Brigita Zorkienė.

We would like to express our special gratitude to the head of the VU Museum of Zoology, Dr Grita Skujienė, for her inspirational cooperation. The exhibits from the collection of zoologist, ornithologist Count Konstanty Tyzenhauz (1786–1853), kept in Vilnius University Museum of Zoology, conclude the second part of Tales of Decorated Paper.

Tales of Decorated Paper were enriched by three objects from earlier research in VU Library’s collections. The mottled gilt material cover of Filozof indyjski... (Warsaw, 1769) by Robert Dodsley and Mikołaj Rej was presented before in Bibliotheca Curiosa (Vilnius: Vilnius University Press, 2016) compiled by Sondra Rankelienė and Indrė Saudargienė. In addition, the publications from the collection Knygos menas (The Art of Book) compiled by Sondra Rankelienė, Aušra Rinkūnaitė, Guoda Gediminskaitė, Brigita Zorkienė, and Irena Katilienė published in the spring of 2020 – that is, Jacobus Wallius’ Poematum libri novem... (Nuremberg, 1737) and Joseph Penso de la Vega’s Rumbos peligrosos... (Antwerp, 1683) – have also joined the Tales where they – hopefully – revealed their significance. We are also grateful to Sondra Rankelienė for her suggestion of using [Onufry Kopczyński’s] GRAMATYKA DLA SZKOŁ NARODOWYCH NA KLASSĘ I (1780), whose jacket featuring the inventive use of coloured wallpaper we included in the first part of the Tales

Tales of Decorated Paper were created in Vilnius University library – the oldest and largest academic library in Lithuania. The present-day library preserves over 5 million documents, with the oldest being over 8 centuries old. VU Library aims to spread the wealth of knowledge stored in its troves with the community and society. 


Bagdzevičienė, Jurga, Kruopaitė, Laima. Pigmentai ir dažikliai restauruojant kultūros vertybes. Vilnius: Savastis, 2005.

Chapman, S. D., Chassagne, S. European Textile Printers in Eighteenth Century. A study of Peel and Oberkampf. London: Heinemann Educational Books, 1981.

Doizy, Marie-Ange. De la dominoterie à la marbrure: histoire des techniques traditionnelles de la décoration du papier. Paris: Art & Métiers du Livre, 1996.

Gombrich, Ernst H. The Sense of Order. A Study in the Psychology of Decorative Art. London, New York: Phaidon Press Inc., 2012, p. 80.

Laucevičius, Edmundas. Popierius Lietuvoje XV-XVIII a. / Бумага в Литве в XV-XVIII вв. / Paper in Lithuania in XV-XVIII centuries. Vilnius: Lietuvos TSR mokslų akademijos centrinė biblioteka, 1967.

Klajumienė, Dalia. Vilniaus gyvenamųjų namų interjerų dekoro elementai: nuo klasicizmo iki moderno. Vilnius: Vilniaus dailės akademijos leidykla, 2015, p. 257-329.

Krause, Susanne; Rinck Julia. Buntpapier - ein Bestimmungsbuch / Decorated Paper - A Guide Book / Sierpapier - Een gids. Stuttgart: Dr. Ernst Hauswedell & Co. KG, Verlag, 2016.

Marks, Philippa J. M. An Anthology of Decorated Papers. A Sourcebook for Designers. London: Thames & Hudson, 2016.

Veléz Celemín, Antonio. El Marmoleado. De papel de guardas a la obra de arte. Madrid: Ollero y Ramos, 2012.

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The story featured may in some cases have been created by an independent third party and may not always represent the views of the institutions, listed below, who have supplied the content.
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