Questions on Woodblock
'clipped' from my e-mail files ...
(A separate 'FAQ' with
non-technical questions is over
in the Feedback section of the website.)
> Is it true that all printing is on paper sized with hide
glue? Is it sized by the papermaker or the printer? Can you tell me
the specifics since this is not discussed by any texts I have found?
It is inconceivable that we would print on paper without a
gelatine sizing being applied first (I speak of traditional
techniques ...). There are two main reasons: the first is that
without sizing, the pigments sometimes tend to 'creep' out into
unwanted areas of the print, because the unsized paper acts like
blotting paper to absorb the water in the pigment. The second is that
without sizing, both the front and back surfaces of the paper are
easily damaged during the printing process - the back is torn by the
baren, and the front loses fibers which stick to, and remain on, the
In the old days I am told, printers (or their assistants) did the
sizing themselves. Nowadays it is almost all done by specialists. My
situation is completely typical: I order the paper from the
papermaker, specifying dimensions, thickness, kozo (mulberry)
content (usually 100%), etc. When it is ready some months later, he
sends it directly to the paper sizer (one that I specify). This man
knows my habits, and sizes it to my specifications. Sizing is applied
with large brushes separately to both the front and back sides of the
paper, and it is then hung up to dry. The humidity of the drying room
is controlled carefully (by opening and closing windows on all sides)
in order that the paper not be allowed to dry too quickly. When the
paper is finally ready he forwards it to me for use.
The printer must be in regular contact with the man doing the
sizing, because the amount of size used (and its 'thickness') vary
depending of the type of image being printed. I am told that one of
the traditional publishers (Adachi) still sizes their paper 'in
house', in order that they will have exact control over the result.
Sizing the paper is a difficult difficult job, and if it is not
done very well, the paper will be useless. I have tried it myself,
but now turn willingly to Misawa-san for this job ... I wrote
introduction to his work in my newsletter (the Summer 1992
If you're ordering Japanese paper from somewhere, and intend to
use it for printmaking, you should thus specify 'dosa-biki'
> Should I use commercial paste when printing? I could make my
own (and have done so) but the stuff you buy lasts for months and
will not mildew. Just squeeze it out of the green plastic tube ...
I used to use this type of paste also. It was indeed very
convenient, not going moldy, and always ready at hand. But I was
strongly criticized by expert printers for using it, and for good
reason. Unlike paste made from rice or wheat flours, this commercial
paste has a very strong tendency to shrink when the print is drying.
If you are finding that areas of the paper on some of your prints
develop waviness when dried, and the prints won't stay flat even when
pressed, then you should suspect this paste as the culprit. I used to
have a lot of trouble with this, but not when using 'proper' rice
> I have a question about the two types of woodblock printers
in Japan today, Sosaku hanga or creative printmaking in
particular. Would this term apply to all types of printmakers, like
myself for instance, a lithographer? Or is it applicable just to
When I used the terms 'sosaku hanga' and 'dento
describing my work, I did so to try and categorize the two worlds
as simply as possible. In reality, 99% of all 'hanga' activity here
in Japan is now in the world of original prints. So as a result,
modern printmakers of whatever genre - including lithographers such
as yourself - simply think of themselves as 'hanga-ka' - printmakers.
They would only add the term 'sosaku' if there was some possibility
of confusion with people like myself, craftsmen working in the
traditional side of things.
One side effect of this is that there is now no word in Japanese
for a person like me. I cannot be simply described as a
'hori-shi' (a carver) as I do many other things. Likewise for
'suri-shi' (printer). 'Hanga-ka' refers only to people doing
'original' work ... The word 'shokunin' , generally translated
as 'craftsman', comes close, but no Japanese shokunin would ever
think of becoming involved with peripheral stuff to the extent that I
do ... publishing ... essays ... web sites ... etc. . Their way of
thinking is completely different. So I have no idea what I am.
As for the western world - what am I there? I think the word
'printmaker' implies an artist creating a design and then producing
it in a graphic media. That is not me. What do they call those men
who work as studio employees, manipulating the etching presses, etc.?
Print technicians? Is that me? It sounds horrible!
> The other thing that strikes me about your prints is the
smoothness of colour. I have never be able to get that even and
smooth a coverage on a consistent basis. Mind you I prefer the
speckle texture, however I know that some day I am going to want that
and had better work on perfecting the technique.
It's mostly due to the 'nori' (paste). Using quite a lot of
paste, and no 'loose' water anywhere, either on the block, in the
brush, or in the paper, makes for a smooth colour. The baren
technique is also important - use a lot of 'tight' small circular
motions, with quite firm pressure, rather than wider loose circles.
> On one print I notice the colours seem to be opaque and yet
not, because they are printed over the black in some places and look
transparent or at least translucent allowing the black to show
All my colour pigments are completely transparent. The only opaque
pigment in my supply box is sumi ink. The black line is always
printed first, and the colours then go on top.
> Do you use white as a filler and thickening agent?
There is no white at all in any of my prints. Any areas that seem
white are simply 'bare' paper showing through where nothing has been
printed. Japanese painters use the stuff called 'gofun'
, a white powder made from shells, but woodblock printmakers
can't use it as it is completely opaque, and covers the sumi lines.
To produce lighter shades of a solid colour, we simply use more water
in the pigment. Plenty of paste on the block avoids a 'watery'
> Another thing I notice is that none of the colour bleeds
through to the back of the print. Is this because the paper is barely
dampened when printing?
I think the ideal is to have the colour sink in about three
quarters of the way into the paper. If so much pigment and pressure
is used that it actually starts coming out the back the resulting
print will have a 'muddy' appearance (and there will also be problems
with paper abrading from the baren ), but if the colour
doesn't sink in deeply enough, it will appear weak. The paper is
dampened to quite a high degree, and has a wonderful softness during
the printing process. It is sometimes difficult to hold it in the air
over the block. If the paper is too dry, it remains 'hard', and will
not accept pigment readily. The resulting coloured areas will be full
of 'white' speckles where the colours haven't made good penetration.
I always enjoy answering questions related to Japanese traditional
printmaking. If I don't know the answer myself, I'll call up one of
the old guys who does!