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The Romance of Woodblock Prints

Is it really possible to show you how beautiful woodblock prints can be - you there sitting at the other end of this long electronic connection, staring at a glass screen? I am going to try, but I wonder if I will be able to communicate to you just what is it that makes these small scraps of paper so enticing. If you were sitting here beside me in my workroom, I could hand you some prints directly and let you see for yourself just how beautiful they are, but with all the thousands of miles between us, how can I do that?

I got a hint about how I might do this, when I was browsing a shopping website the other day. The company was selling - not woodblock prints - but chocolate. In order to help potential customers understand what the goods were like, the web designers used some closeup photos of pieces of chocolate.

And by closeup, I mean closeup! Far larger than life-size, the images on the screen looked - you can guess what I'm going to say! - 'good enough to eat!' So I think I'm going to take a leaf from their book, get my camera out, and take you on a little journey through my print album 'Beauties of Four Seasons.' Ready? Let's begin!

We'll start here, with a photograph of a print I made a number of years ago. A company asked to use my print as a book illustration, and this is the image they prepared. They thought they had done an excellent job preparing the picture, but how disappointed I was when I saw the result!

What's wrong?

The problem is that they thought of the woodblock print as a 'picture'. When they made their reproduction, they adjusted their equipment to capture the basic lines and colours, and erased everything else. But a woodblock print is much more than just a 'picture'. Look at this!

We can clearly see the washi, the Japanese paper, as well as the design printed. It is a very common error among those people who prepare illustrations of prints for use in books, to try and make the paper disappear - to leave nothing but the lines of the image visible. But Japanese prints are not made like western prints - where the paper simply acts as a physical support for layers of opaque pigments. In a Japanese print, the pigment is pushed down into the body of the paper, and the colour and texture of the paper become part of the thing itself. To remove them, is to remove most of the beauty ...

Proper lighting is the key! Think back in time ... well more than a hundred years ... to the era in which these prints were originally designed. There was no electric light in the rooms, neither the rooms where these works were made, nor where they were viewed! If you are thinking to yourself "Ah, I see; natural light is best!" then you would be partly right. Soft natural light indeed makes these prints look beautiful. But that is only part of the story. A more important factor is the direction of the light. These days, in every room of our homes we have lights up on the ceiling, shining down on everything in the room. This is wonderful for helping us enjoy a modern bright and cheerful life, but it kills woodblock prints!

The light must strike the surface of the print horizontally! Only in this way does the texture of the paper become visible. Do you think that the people who made these prints knew this? Of course they did! They lived in light such as this! Their daily illumination came - not from lights in the ceiling - but through the soft paper of the shoji screens, or the soft light of an andon lantern.

This is the way - the only way! - to enjoy woodblock prints. Turn off all the overhead lights, place the print on a low table near a shoji screen, and enjoy ...

... enjoy so much more than the designer created! The designer simply brushed some lines onto a sheet of paper, and then walked away. It was the team of highly skilled professionals who then took over, who are responsible for this beauty we now see. To see woodblock prints this way, is to understand that they are made by not only the artist - the only man who's name we now remember - but by a team of extremely skilled craftsmen ... The carver, who took a sharp sharp knife and incised every line into a block of hard wood. The printer, who took his printing baren and vigorously pressed the paper onto these carved lines, leaving these deep impressions for us to feel, see, and enjoy. The paper maker, who stood hour after hour creating sheets of clean washi from his vat of carefully prepared mulberry fibres ... baren maker ... blacksmith ... block planer ... the list goes on and on ...

These days, it has become a 'digital world', where everybody reads books on a computer screen, and listens to music through headphones. Perhaps for words and music, the digital form is acceptable, but for woodblock prints - where the whole purpose of the exercise is to bring pleasure to the eye - these modern forms are no substitute for the real thing.

At the top of this page I mentioned seeing some advertisements for chocolate. Let me borrow one of those images to make my final point ...

Don't you want to taste it! Me too ... It wants to jump off the screen into your mouth!

On this page I have tried to take nice photos ... to show you something of what it is like to 'touch' the prints. Am I 'overselling' them like the chocolate company? I don't think so; these photos are exactly what the prints look like ... when you sit still, and take the trouble to look at them in the proper light. This is the true (but frequently hidden) beauty of traditional woodblock prints.

I hope you will enjoy browsing through the images on this website, and 'tasting' my chocolate ... The taste goes in, before the name goes on!

If you are interested in learning more about 'looking at' prints, and their beauty, please have a look at my 'David's Choice' eBook series ... where you can enjoy personal visits to my own print collection here at the Seseragi Studio in Tokyo!

This 'baren' will always take you back
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