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Questions on Woodblock Printmaking...

'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 block.

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 a short introduction to his work in my newsletter (the Summer 1992 issue):

If you're ordering Japanese paper from somewhere, and intend to use it for printmaking, you should thus specify 'dosa-biki' (with size).

> 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 paste ...

> 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 woodblock printers?

When I used the terms 'sosaku hanga' and 'dento hanga' in that story 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 through.

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' impression.


> 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!

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