--- Go to the Opening Page of this web site ---

Series for the Mainichi Daily News

Woodblock Printmaking - a simple introduction

Part One

Handmade woodblock prints are one of the favourite souvenirs taken home by visitors to Japan, and their beautiful colours and soft fluffy paper have delighted viewers for over three centuries. Whether it be a print of a geisha from a past age, a kabuki actor strutting across the stage, or even a more modern image, the woodblock technique seems to provide the perfect means of expression to catch the essence of things Japanese.

Elementary school students in Japan all learn to make simple woodblock prints in their art classes, and many of them keep it up as a hobby when they get older. The most common type of prints they make are cards for New Year, and thousands of people around the country keep albums full of hand printed cards they have received in exchanges with friends or acquaintances. Art supply stores and community centers set up displays of such cards each January, and even the Post Office sponsors a national competition for printmakers to enter.

Professional printmakers study and train for many years to reach the top levels of their craft, but as the actual techniques of making prints are really quite simple, it is possible for beginners to obtain very satisfying results on their first attempts. Over the next few weeks or so in this space I will outline the basic procedures for making simple woodblock prints. I will include enough information to allow you to actually make your own prints, starting from scratch and proceeding step-by-step to the finished product. The same techniques can be used to make not only prints for framing or collecting, but also personalized greeting cards for Christmas or New Year, unique name cards (meishi), or attractive stationery such as letter paper or envelopes. I will cover selection and preparation of suitable designs, cutting the woodblocks, doing the actual printing, sources for materials, tools and instructional materials, and also ideas for other applications of the woodblock technique.

Only a few, quite inexpensive tools will be needed. A special work place is not necessary, and the dining room table (or kotatsu!) will do quite well. As for artistic ability? Well of course, a budding Hokusai could no doubt produce stunning designs, but even those of us who are closer to that elementary school level can make beautiful prints. A great deal of the beauty seems to lie in the production technique and the materials themselves, and I can speak from personal experience that a person with very modest creative abilities can turn out satisfying work. Like to give it a try? Join me next week, and let's get started!

Part Two

Woodblock prints are made by what is known as a 'relief' process. Planks of wood are carved to leave raised areas on which pigments are brushed. The colours are transferred to paper by rubbing with a tool known as a 'baren'. The step-by-step instructions in this series of columns will cover preparation of a design, transferring it to wood blocks, carving, printing, and troubleshooting. As space in the column is limited, descriptions will necessarily be quite concise. Read carefully, and if my instructions leave you a bit unclear on what to do at any point, don't hesitate, try .... 0428(22)2212!

When I receive correspondence from Japanese friends, it is frequently written on handmade paper decorated with seasonal designs. Use of such paper is very popular in Japan, and I thought that it might be a good idea for our demonstration of the woodblock printing process to show how to make some.

As this is April, and I'm not particularly imaginative, I will use a simple design of cherry blossoms based on origami flowers folded by my wife. The pattern will appear in two opposite corners of the notepaper with the rest remaining blank for the message. Making the master sketch is the first step, and this should be drawn the same size as the final print. For your first printmaking attempt, avoid including many small details in your design, and stick to simple masses of colour. After you have something suitable down on paper (any handy paper will do), pencil in an outline to show where the edge of the print will fall, and then about a centimeter outside this line, mark in the position of two printing paper guides that we will later carve on each woodblock, an 'L' shape in the lower corner, and a simple straight line along the bottom edge (see photo). (All printing will be done with the paper held along its length, and not 'standing up'.)

My notepaper is to be printed in three colours, pink blossoms, a yellow highlight, and a green background. Each will need a separate woodblock, so three tracings must now be prepared to guide the carving, one for each colour. These tracings are made by taking pieces of thin paper and pinning them in place over the master sketch, one at a time. On each one, trace around the outline of all the areas where that particular colour is to appear, using a fine point marker. Ignore everything else. 'Shading in' these outlined areas will make it a bit easier to do the carving later. Also trace (carefully!) the exact position of those two paper guides. We thus get a sheet matching one colour that appears in the print. A complicated woodblock print design can require dozens of these tracings, but I think that we'll stick with about three for now ...

In next week's column, we'll paste the finished tracings onto the blank woodblocks and start carving. See you then!

Part Three

Finished your homework? Colour separation tracings all ready? Let's get on with the carving!

Before the cutting can begin, the tracings must be glued onto the woodblocks. Use a standard household paste, spread a thin layer smoothly over the surface of the block, and then place the tracing FACE DOWN in position on the wood. (Later, when we are printing, that paper also will be placed face down to receive the colour). Smooth out the tracing paper carefully, being sure not to distort it or stretch it in any direction. Repeat the process on another block with each tracing (using both sides is OK).

For carving, we will use three knives from a standard 'school' set, first cutting around the outlines with the main carving knife ('toh'), next removing wide unwanted areas with the round chisel ('marunomi'), and finally trimming away waste close to the printing areas with the small flat chisel ('aisuki').

You can hold the carving knife either in your fist (giving stronger cutting), or just like a pencil (giving easier guidance). Cut around the outlines, holding the knife at an angle that will produce a beveled edge on the final areas (Fig. 2a). Keep the tip of the blade about 1 ~ 2mm deep in the wood, and go right around the entire outline of each area. When this is done, switch to the round chisel, and start gouging away the waste wood (unshaded portions of each tracing). Only the waste lying within about 5cm of any printing area will need to be removed. You should aim to create a 'valley' around each of these areas, with a depth that varies with the distance (Fig. 2b). Hold the chisel firmly in one hand, and guide the tip with the fingers of the other, always being careful to keep your fingers safely behind the cutting edge. Work with a scooping motion, changing direction as the grain of the wood dictates. Do not carve right up to the outlines previously cut with the 'toh', but keep a short distance away.

The last stage is the final trimming with the small flat chisel. Use it in the same fashion as you did the round chisel, guiding with your fingers, and carefully pare away the waste wood right up to the outlines (Fig. 2c).

When the main carving is done, it is time to cut the two guides on each block for the printing paper. Use the main carving knife to cut on the lines, and the small flat chisel to clear away the waste, and make a couple of shallow ledges like those shown in the next photo. Cutting these ledges will allow the paper to be positioned in the proper location on each block to allow the colours to line up perfectly. When this is done, wash the blocks to remove leftover tracing paper, and get ready to start mixing your colours. Until next week ....


Part Four

Are you still with me? I hope so, because we're getting closer to the payoff, and soon you'll see your finished print!

Before we can start printing, there is a bit of preparation to do.....

Paper: It is inconceivable that we would use any paper other than 'washi' (Japanese traditional paper) for woodblock printmaking. The long fibers provide the strength necessary to stand up to the beating it gets when being rubbed onto the blocks, and yet also give it the famous soft fluffy texture for which it is famous. Many types of washi are suitable for woodblock work. If you are choosing one in a paper shop, ask the advice of the clerk, and try to get one not too thick, not too thin. A 'sized' paper (in Japanese - with 'dosa') is preferable. Two common woodblock papers are 'hosho' and 'torinoko'.

Cut the paper to the appropriate size for your print, remembering to leave extra margins for the paper to fit into the guides carved on the woodblocks. (These margins will be trimmed off after printing.) For your initial printing attempt, a stack of about 10 sheets should be sufficient for experimentation. Before the actual printing can begin, the paper must be moistened. If we tried printing on dry paper, it would expand unevenly as it absorbed the water from the blocks, and registration of multiple colours would become impossible. One convenient way to moisten the paper is to press it between sheets of wet newspaper for a couple of hours (pros do it the night before). Use a shallow basin of water and a brush like a wallpaper brush (or wide, clean paintbrush), dampen alternate sheets of both the printing paper and the sheets of newspaper, then stack them together as shown in the picture, and wrap the stack in a plastic garbage bag until the moisture has equalized. What level of dampness are we aiming for? The printing paper should end up feeling about like a shirt that has just come out of the spin drier, ready for hanging on the clothesline. Make sense?

While the paper is 'cooking', the other materials can be prepared.

Paste: Using a paper cup and an old chopstick, take some white household paste (just like we used for pasting the tracing on the blocks) and blend it with water to about the consistency of .... of what? Well, how about - runnier than face cream, thicker than pancake batter. Make sense?

Pigments: Printmakers use many types of pigments, but probably the easiest ones for beginners to handle are standard watercolours from tubes. You can either pick the colours you want from the selection at the store, or mix your desired shades using primaries, just like you did back in elementary school. Whichever way you choose, squirt some of the desired colour into a saucer or shallow bowl, add water, and mix to about the consistency of .... of what? This will be up to you. A very watery mixture will produce a light, delicate colour in the finished print. Using less water will result in a deeper, stronger colour. You have complete control, and will have to experiment to find the combination that suits you. For my sample notepaper, where I wanted a very delicate tint, I diluted the pigments to about the strength of tea.

Lay a damp towel under the woodblock so that it won't slide on the table while you're printing (only very slightly damp - otherwise the block will warp upwards ...), and lay out your materials ready for use - pigment bowl with the small paintbrush, cup of paste with a chopstick, the woodblock printing brush, the baren, the stack of moistened paper (tucked away inside wet newspapers to keep it damp), and a basin of water with your moistening brush standing in it. A few minutes before starting, use this brush to moisten the surface of the woodblock so that it will be ready to receive the colour.

So there we are. The preparation is all done, and next week we'll finally start the actual printing work. See you then!

Part Five

Welcome back! Colours mixed? Paper moist and ready? Let's get on with it! Making each colour impression is a simple step-by-step process. A few minutes before starting printing, moisten the surface of the block well.

1) Transfer some colour to the woodblock. How much? Just a moderate smear. Don't try to 'paint' the block, just move some pigment over there. After seeing the final result, you will be able to see if you need more or less colour next time.

2) Transfer some paste to the woodblock. How much? Just a blob hanging from the end of the chopstick (more for wide areas). Don't be stingy. Without paste, the colour will be weak and blotchy. Too much doesn't really hurt at all.

3) Mix these together with the main brush. Dig in. Imagine you're scrubbing the floor with it. The colour and paste must be spread thoroughly over all the raised portions of the block. Add more pigment or paste if there doesn't seem to be enough. Don't rub the brush over those places outside the 'valley' we previously carved around the design areas. The final few strokes should be soft, gentle, and straight across the block, to smooth out the mixture. If you position a desk light shining on the work area, you should be able to see a smooth, glossy layer covering the block. Move on quickly to the next step (before it starts to dry).

4) Put some paper on the block. That's easy for me to say! (This is awkward, and I should have asked you to practice this step before we started.) Slip a sheet out of the damp newspapers, and hold it face down as in the photo with the second and third fingers of each hand. No thumbs. Slide the corner into the 'L' mark carved on the block. Put your thumb down to lock it in place. Place the other side of the paper against the straight guide. Put your thumb down to lock it there. Let go with your fingers, while keeping your thumbs down firmly. When the paper has fallen smoothly onto the wet block, lift your thumbs off gently, trying not to disturb the position of the paper. Move right along ....

5) Grasp the baren, and rub the back of the paper to create the impression. How hard to press? Harder than you think. This is tough paper, even if it is wet, and you are trying to press the pigment right into it. Apply pressure with the heel of your hand, rather than through your fingers (see photo). Rub in a side-to-side motion at first, and then in a circular pattern. Cover all the necessary areas, and only those areas. Rubbing where the 'valley' is carved will leave you with blotches in unwanted areas. It should be done in a few seconds. If the paper is thin, pressure should be lighter, but a thick paper will need real grinding away at it. If necessary, the baren can be lubricated with a drop or two of camellia oil to help it slide.

6) Peel off the paper with a quick motion, inspect your work, and slip it back under the newspaper where it will remain moist until the next colour. If you've prepared, say 10 sheets, repeat this process on all 10, making adjustments as necessary depending on the results (more/less pigment, longer/harder rubbing, more careful brushing, etc.). When done with the 10, change the block, and move on to the next colour. And so on until you're finished....

There's more to discuss, but we're about out of space this week. I'll cover some further aspects of the printing procedure in our wrap-up column next week. But go ahead, don't wait for me. Get busy!

Part Six

Hello again, and how did you make out with your printing during the week? What, you had problems?

Is the impression uneven, no colour in some areas? Perhaps you:

  • waited too long before getting the paper on the block, and the pigment dried in place.
  • didn't brush the pigment thoroughly over the entire area.
  • didn't use enough pigment and paste.
  • didn't rub firmly enough with the baren.
  • missed some areas with the baren.
  • don't have enough moisture in the paper.

The colour is not smooth, but 'watery'. Perhaps you:

  • didn't use enough paste.
  • have just too much water in the pigment mixture.
  • have too much moisture in the paper.

Smears of colour show in unwanted areas (different every time). Perhaps you:

  • pressed the baren into that valley surrounding the coloured areas. (try and keep it absolutely horizontal)

Smears of colour show in unwanted areas (similar each time). Perhaps you:

  • didn't carve those unneeded areas deep enough.

Different colours don't 'register' properly. Perhaps you:

  • are not getting the paper nicely placed into the guide marks on the blocks.
  • didn't carve the guide marks in the correct place.
  • stretched the transfer paper when pasting it down (if so, you'll have to re-carve that block from scratch).

The colour is too weak. Perhaps you:

  • have diluted the pigment mixture too much.
  • are not putting enough pigment on the block.
  • are not pressing firmly enough with the baren.

Colour 'blobs' hang over the edge of the printed areas. Perhaps you:

  • are using way too much paste
  • are forgetting the final gentle strokes with the brush

Looking at this list of possible problems may make you think that it's impossible to get it right! Actually, the printing process is really not difficult - once you've got a bit of experience under your belt. If your first attempt is not so attractive, please don't give up at that point. Take a close look at it and try to figure out what needs to be altered to improve it. If you're still stuck after trying the hints in the above list, give me a call and maybe I can help. If you're still stuck, then bring your stuff over to my place, and we'll work it out together.

I hope that this little series has provided enough of a stimulus to get you started in woodblock printmaking. I would be very interested in seeing samples of your hand-printed pictures, namecards, calendars, fans, book covers, gift wrapping paper, origami paper, ex libris, stationery, and of course New Year cards. I'll make you a promise - send me a sample of your work - and I'll send you one of mine. I'm waiting!

This 'baren' will always take you back
to the main page ...