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Second Series for the Mainichi Daily News

Woodblock Printmaking

(The Classical Technique)

Part One

In a previous set of columns running in this space earlier this year, I outlined a simple procedure for making woodblock prints with which beginners are able to obtain attractive results in a surprisingly short time, using only a few inexpensive tools. In the follow-up series starting today, I will move on from that simplified process, and give an overview of the traditional methods used to make the famous Ukiyo-e woodblock prints of Edo-era Japan, using as an example the production of a woodblock printed Christmas card. Before your eyes glaze over and you turn the page as you mumble, "Those old workers probably had a ten-year apprenticeship. What can I possibly do on my kitchen table?", I should repeat what I said in last spring's columns, that attractive, satisfying results are obtainable at even early stages of learning. If you wish to become president of the traditional printmaker's association, you are going to have to work at it for a while, but if your goal is simply the production of an attractive Christmas card, you can succeed on your first attempt.

Just what is it that distinguishes the 'classical' technique from the process I covered earlier? It is the presence of the outline, a recognizable image drawn in black which stands on its own even without colouring. In the early days of Ukiyo-e printmaking, no method was available for registering multiple colours, and prints were all monochrome. This was followed over the years by hand-tinting, then limited printing of one or two colours, and eventually by full-blown multi-colour work. This historical progression from monochrome prints to full-colour printing is reflected today in the way that prints are produced - drawing the 'black-line' image first, carving and printing it, and then using this 'finished' print as a guide for making woodblocks to colour the areas delineated by the black outlines. In some prints the black image is so strong that the colours seem almost an afterthought, while in others the lines become submerged in masses of multiple colour overprintings.

In the old days, all the different jobs were performed by different people. Designers never concerned themselves with carving, or vice versa, and each person was only responsible for one aspect of the production process. Those of us who make prints for pleasure nowadays of course enjoy doing everything ourselves. Perhaps we cannot attain quite the high level of achievement attained by those specialists of long ago, who did indeed have extended apprenticeships, but we can certainly get good enough to produce attractive work.

Perhaps like me, you are not particularly artistic, and yet find yourself attracted to woodblocks. For us, the 'division of labour' situation is made to order. Make your print using a design produced by somebody else, perhaps a friend willing to sketch for you, or perhaps even a long dead Ukiyo-e artist, who should have no reason to complain, as that's just the way it was done in his day!


In this series of columns, I will pass on enough information for you to succeed in making good prints, but even if I was writing a 500 page book, it wouldn't be enough to tell you everything you might possibly need to know about the printmaking process, so just as I did last spring, I must encourage you to contact me if you have any questions about what's going on, either before you start, or during your explorations. I tried to learn woodblock printmaking on my own in Canada, but gave up in frustration and came to Japan to get a first-hand look at how it is done. Don't you try and do it 'in solitary'! My number, 0428(22)2212, may not be the answer to all your printmaking problems, but it might help. Let's get started next week.


Part Two

Rather than try to provide detailed instructions for every step in making a woodblock print, I am instead going to describe the making of my New Year's card for the coming holiday season (my western friends think it's a Christmas card!). I usually get it finished in late December, but doing this column will give me a stimulus to get it done earlier this year. 'Watching' me go through this process, supplemented with the previous set of columns on printmaking that appeared in this space, should give you enough information to produce your own card.

As I pointed out last week, the design chosen should be able to stand on its own, without any colour. For my card this year, I will use a sketch I made from a Hiroshige print I found in a book illustration. Before the design can be carved and printed, it must first be somehow applied to the surface of the wood, and must also appear there in reverse, as the printing process will produce a mirror image of the carved block on the final paper. A simple, yet effective way of doing this is to draw, trace or photocopy the design onto a certain type of thin paper (minogami), and then paste this face down on the wood. The glue makes the paper almost transparent, and the design, which is seen from the back in reverse, is readily visible for the knife. This paper carrying the design is known as the 'hanshita', and is the foundation of the printmaking process.

I used a photocopier to scale the image to the size I wanted for the Christmas card, tacked a sheet of the mino paper on top, and then traced the outlines. Thin delicate lines are difficult for a beginner to carve, so your first print should perhaps use heavier bold outlines. Although not absolutely necessary, the inclusion of a border line around the print boundary helps to visualize what you are doing and also makes the printing a bit easier. I included the two marks that will be carved to guide the paper during printing (see previous columns for more details). When the hanshita is ready, it is pasted face down on the waiting woodblock.

The choice of what type of wood to use depends on a couple of things. For a design involving delicate lines, a wood able to hold fine detail is necessary (usually 'yamazakura', mountain cherry). This is expensive, and due to its hardness, is somewhat difficult for a beginner to carve. If the lines of the hanshita are drawn more broadly, a softer wood can be used (typically 'ho', magnolia). This cuts very easily and smoothly, and is very easy to print, producing a smooth impression. The most economical choice is plywood (which I never use), but as this does not hold any detail at all, it is only useful for colour blocks, which are typically wider, flat areas.

I paste the hanshita down with a household glue, being careful not to distort the sheet as it is being fixed in position. After the hanshita is in place on the block, some of the fibers can be carefully rubbed off the back of the paper with a damp finger, making the image even clearer. The block is then set aside for the glue to dry before starting to carve the design. Next week we'll look at some of the tools needed for that important step. See you then.

Part Three

Just like carving a sculpture in stone (It's easy! Just chip away everything that doesn't look like a statue!), the woodblock carving procedure is a 'waste removal' process. The hanshita is in place on the surface of the wood, and the carving simply removes 'everything that doesn't look like a woodblock print' - all the 'white' areas of the design. This leaves the wood untouched where the black lines of the drawing have 'protected' it, and it is these areas which come into contact with the paper during the printing stage, thus reproducing the original design. For a complex design, this carving can take weeks of work, but once it's done, many hundreds of copies of the original drawing can then be produced quickly and easily. Of course, a simple design can be carved in a much shorter time.

Carving tools are made with the same basic technology as the famous Japanese swords - laminated from different types of steel. The cutting part is made from a steel formulated specifically to hold a keen edge, but as this type of metal is quite brittle and easily broken, it must be backed up with a steel of different carbon content, which is more springy and flexible. The carving is a three stage process, with a different tool being used for each stage. The work starts with the 'toh', a simple beveled, pointed knife. It is grasped in the fist, point down, pressed into the wood to a depth of between one and two millimeters, and then guided along the edge of all the lines of the design. Like many Japanese woodworking tools, it is drawn towards the body, not pushed away. During use, it must be held at an angle to ensure that the sides of the raised portions of the final block will be nicely beveled. Both sides of each line in the design must be carefully cut.

When this step is complete, the carver turns to the round chisels ('marunomi'), and scoops out waste wood from any wide 'white' areas. An expert carver can bring this tool right up to the carved lines, saving a lot of time in the next step, but until some proficiency is developed, it is best to keep at least 5mm away. For a 'busy' design, with no wide clear areas, this tool is not needed. If the waste areas are large, a wooden mallet is used to drive the chisel along.

The last part of the carving is the removal of that waste adjoining the design lines, and bounded by the 'toh' and 'marunomi' carving. This is done with the small flat chisels known as 'aisuki'. I have a series of these, ranging from about 3mm down to 0.Xmm (for very delicate designs). A mallet is never used with these little tools, which are pushed along the lines with a gentle prying motion, to lever up the waste wood. To avoid chipping the design lines, the toh must sometimes be used again, to go over those places where the previous cut seems not quite deep enough. (Refer to the 'Carving Sequence' illustration in the earlier series of columns)

When the aisuki work is done, the accuracy of the carving can be checked by placing a sheet of carbon paper face up on the block, covering it with a sheet of blank paper, and rubbing with the printing tool (baren). Perhaps some lines should be thinner, or some more waste remains to be removed. The carving and checking continues until this 'key block' is complete. If the final print is to be either monochrome or hand-tinted, then one can now commence printing, but if the print is to be multi-coloured, then this first completed block will be used as a guide to make the colour blocks. But that's next week's story ....

Part Four

For each different colour appearing in the final print, a separate woodblock is needed. For my New Year's card design I will need four: the sky (grey overcast), the water (deep blue), the mountain (a lighter grey), and the wooden house walls (brown). The roofs, jetty, and boat tops will be left without printing, and the natural white colour of the paper will look like snow. Four blocks means four new hanshita must be prepared, and for these I will use prints made from the freshly carved key block (the black line design).

Using the same thin mino paper I used for the original hanshita, and a watery sumi ink, I make a number of prints from the key block. Unlike 'normal' printing, where the paper is placed in careful contact with the carved paper guides, the paper for these hanshita prints is placed in such a way that it covers the entire surface of the key block, including the paper guides. The position of those guides must appear on the hanshita, thus allowing matching guides to be carved on the colour blocks.

I now place four of these printed sheets on the table in front of me, and make my decisions about what colour is to appear where. On one sheet I 'colour in' the sky area, using a fluorescent orange highlighter (any writing tool that produces a vivid, clear colour is OK. The actual colour is irrelevant. The only purpose is to mark the areas for guidance during carving.) On another sheet, the area for the sea is marked in. The process continues until I have one hanshita ready for each final colour. It is sometimes useful to put the group of them together, hold them up to the light, and check for uncoloured areas, signifying missed spots (in this print, those uncoloured areas will represent snow).

When all is ready, these sheets are now pasted down on fresh woodblocks (face down, as always). I will use two blocks, using both sides. This pasting must be done very carefully, as any distortion or stretching of the sheet will produce a colour block that will not match the key block, and making a clear print will become impossible. The fluorescent marker shows through the back of the paper, and the areas to be cut are clearly visible. Cutting proceeds in exactly the same fashion as the key block carving described last week; first outlines with the toh, then wide waste areas with the marunomi, and finally clean-up with the aisuki. Colour block carving is far faster and easier than key block carving, as there are usually no fine delicate places, but simply wide flat areas. It took me a few days to carve my key block, but only a couple of hours to do all four colour blocks.

Of course, the paper guides must also be carved, following the marks printed on each hanshita. This will allow the printing paper to be placed in the right spot to allow the colour to fall just nicely between the black lines of the design. When carving is basically complete, I use carbon paper as described previously to check for errors or omitted places.

Next week we'll discuss some of the many types of pigments available for woodblock printing, and select something suitable for this print.

Part Five

There are a great many different types of pigments available that are suitable for use with woodblocks. Basically any type of coloured substance soluble in water can be used. Tube watercolour paints, preparations made from various plant parts (petals, roots, etc.), and pigments for Japanese traditional painting (ganryo) are all commonly utilized. Back in the early days of colour woodblock printing, many botanical pigments were used, and the soft 'dullness' of the prints remaining in our museums testifies to the rapidity with which such pigments fade over time. As printing became more developed, a wider range of mineral pigments came into use, and the prints of Hiroshige and Hokusai show this most dramatically in the deep blues used in sea and sky. When the Meiji era developments in commerce introduced European dyes to Japan, printmakers went berserk, and lost all sense of taste and discrimination in their rush to make use of this whole new world of colours. The resultant purple and green garish horrors are still frequently come across in used bookstores, and have given generations a completely false view of Japanese printer's abilities.

Most modern printmakers, including those making copies of old works, now use the painter's pigments known as 'ganryo', which produce natural soft tones, are widely available, easily mixed, and resistant to fading. They are made from various mineral earths and naturally occuring substances. Some of those in past use were highly poisonous (one of the yellows I used to use is a 50/50 mixture of sulphur and arsenic), but as these particular formulations are no longer available to the general buyer, such concerns are a thing of the past. The pigments you find in art supply stores, when used with common sense (wash your hands, don't inhale dust, etc.), are completely safe.

The pigments come in powder form, sometimes quite lumpy. They are placed in a small mortar, covered with water, and ground until smooth. Some of them (vermillion, indigo, the red known as 'beni') must first be dissolved in a bit of alcohol before adding the water, and thus most printers keep a bottle of 'sake' ready at hand (purely for professional use, of course!). To help fix the deeper colours and avoid 'dusting' from the surface of the finished print, a bit of gelatin is also added to the bowl (many printers use gum arabic), and the printer usually keeps a saucepan full of dried crusty glue, which he heats up as needed. Gelatin is also readily available in liquid form from art stores.

There are two basic approaches for the beginner to take with these pigments. A wide variety of colours and tints is available 'off the shelf', and one can simply pick the colours needed for any particular print design. The experienced printmaker however, keeps a much narrower range of colours on hand, and mixes his desired tints from primaries (remember back to elementary school days - yellow plus blue equals ...). Even though my customers are sometimes complimentary about the colours in my prints, I am still very much a beginner at this, and am continually astonished by the skill of the professional printers at creating their colours.

In any case, with the colours mixed and standing ready in their bowls, it's time to turn to the printing process and the tools needed. Until next week ....

Part Six

The collection of equipment is standing ready for the printing: five carved blocks (one for black outlines and four for colours), three bowls of pigment with applicators (blue for sea, brown for buildings, and black for outlines as well as sky and mountain gray tones), horsehair brushes for pigments, a cup of rice paste with applicator, a water bowl with brush, and holding center stage, the baren - the tool used to rub the paper onto the woodblocks. This is a circular pad formed from thousands of twisted slivers of bamboo sheath, and covered by another sheath. It takes the place of the printing press typical in western methods, and is capable of being used in many ways to produce an amazing variety of effects.

I described in a previous column the actual process of moistening the paper before printing. I prepare a stack of moistened paper, 10 sheets for a test/sample run (when I come to print my actual cards, the stack will balloon to about 200 sheets, and printing will take days of work). The paper is stored face down inside moistened newsprint and placed where I can draw the sheets out one by one for printing. Printing the black outlines is done first, as these will be the guide for all that follows. There is no problem of colours later covering up the design outlines, as the pigments are used in quite a dilute form, and the black will show clearly through. Although it would seem that smearing watery pigments on a piece of wood, covering it with a piece of wet paper, and then rubbing the paper with heavy pressure, would result in nothing but a soggy mess, the actual result is quite different. The pigment on the surface of the wood ends up being pressed deeply into the paper, sometimes actually coming out the back side. One well known modern print artist actually frames his prints with the back side showing, considering them more attractive that way.

The procedure for printing my card is quite simple. The block is moistened with the water brush. Some pigment is swabbed onto the block surface with the applicator, and this is followed by a dab of paste. These are then mixed together with the brush and smoothed out over the entire printing surface. A sheet of paper is withdrawn from the newsprint, placed in the carved guide marks, and dropped in place on the wood. The baren is then rubbed over the back of the sheet until all the pigment has been transferred. Slip the paper back into its hiding place, and repeat the process for the next sheet. Finish the entire stack before changing to the next colour, which is printed in the same fashion.

I described this procedure in a bit more detail in the earlier columns, as well as adding some 'trouble-shooting' information. By far and away the most important aspect of the printing job is management of water, how much is in the paper, on the block, in the pigment bowl, in the paste, in the brush, and in the air. Printing is far easier in the autumn and winter, when the air is dry, as it is far easier to add water when needed than to take it away when things are too damp. In the humid warm months, when printing with many colours, the paper sometimes becomes moldy before the job is finished. This is a problem that the beginner is not likely to encounter often ...

Next week we'll make the last stop on our whirlwind tour of the printmaking process. Sigh .... so many things to cover .....

Part Seven

It is difficult for me to see the woodblock making procedure through your eyes. Does all that I have described seem impossibly complicated and difficult? Can you really imagine yourself making such a thing? I don't know what words to choose to try and convince you that it actually quite possible for a beginner to create simple, beautiful prints. You have my money-back guarantee (just how much did this newspaper cost you, anyway?). Should you decide to give it a try, you will be astonished at the way that the beautiful multi-coloured images gradually grow in front of your eyes when you are printing. I never tire of this, no matter how many times I see it happen, and this is obviously the attraction of woodblock printmaking for me.

A couple of times or so each month, visitors come out to my workshop here in Hamura. Typically they are people who have had some experience studying one form of art or another in school 'back home', but some of them have no previous training at all. They wish to make use of the opportunity while they are in Japan to become at least a bit familiar with the woodblock process, and somehow they hear about me, and make their way out here. I take great pleasure in introducing them (you?) to this work. There is no question but that in its traditional forms, it is dying out here in Japan, and the more people who become interested in it, the better chance there will be of preserving the traditions.

So, how about it? How about you? I wonder, have you ever seen a woodblock print? Really seen one? In the Edo era, when colour woodblock prints were born, there were no electric lights on the ceiling, and all illumination came through shoji screens, or from paper lamps standing on the floor. Today, we have lost the environment in which prints are best viewed. When a woodblock print is placed on a low table in front of the diffused light from a shoji screen, the image glows in the soft light, and seems to be somehow alive. Turn on the overhead lights, and in their harsh vertical radiance, it dies. We may as well be looking at a photocopy. Remove the print from the type of environment in which it was created, and in which it is best appreciated, and it ceases to have any meaning. One day, when I am 'rich and famous', I'm going to build a place where people can see what woodblocks are all about, really see them. Not a museum, with all the mustyness of long dead things, but a workshop where living breathing people work with their hands, a place steeped in the traditions, and a place where those traditions can be kept alive. And there won't be an overhead light in the place!


I guess there is not much more for me to say. I've had fun with this 'mission impossible', trying to cover as much of this fascinating field as possible in the short space available. I must repeat what I said at the beginning - give me a call and come on out and see how it works. Or what is even better, get some of the simple cheap tools, get a slab of wood, and get going! Christmas 1992 is going to be here before you know it!

This 'baren' will always take you back
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