Turning Japanese #1

The art of Japanese woodblock printing holds much fascination, not only for its alluring oriental idiosyncrasies, mystical charm and visual impact, but for those of us who are generally interested in printmaking, there is also the attraction of the process, technique and conventions in this very hands-on approach.
Torii Kiyomitsu 1764

Torii Kiyomitsu 1764

For those who don’t know, woodblock printing is a relief process that that uses flat blocks of hardwood as the print surface – the areas not to print are carved away from the block. It is basically the same process as  lino-cutting:

I was recently shown the process by a friend (thanks Nick!) and got the chance to print a few of his own blocks:

Although the cutting technique is the same as lino-cutting, and both are relief print processes, there the similarity ends. Using a water based ink made from rice flour and a pigment (we used gouache for this) the inking up and pressure stages are both dependant upon hand application, control and experience and luck!

These prints were made from two blocks overprinted. As each is inked by hand, you can mix colours on the block – this can be a very creative stage in itself. My prints were a little light in the pressure, but I am quite happy with the print textures that come through:

The ink itself, as it is made by hand can also play a major part in the final print -adding more pigment will result in a flatter, more opaque print, demonstrated by my attempt at a flat black!

Alternatively, less pigment will create more transparent, ethereal effects.

The Japanese are also renown for their use of washi paper, made from the bark of the mulberry tree. There are a number of different types, each of which can also have an effect on the print.

To summarise then, once you have cut the blocks, this print process has a number of stages, each of which has a number of areas that can directly impact upon each print:

Since then I have been preparing my own blocks and aim to attempt the  Japanese process from start to finish.

Nick also loaned me some tools – they are easily available from arts and crafts stores, and like all specialist tools, these can range from a few pounds to several hundreds! These were at the lower end of the scale, but came with a handy sharpening stone and were suitably ‘authentic’ looking:

The inside of the box lid is full of information and instructions that are simple to understand:

Like lino cutting tools, each cuts a particular groove. I was eager to try them out!

Another difference to the process is that the prints are made by hand rather than in a press. This is done by laying moistened paper over the inked block and applying pressure to the paper using a baren – a small, smooth,  palm sized disc. This one is made of plastic wrapped in a banana leaf but I believe flat stones were used originally.

I will share my efforts in subsequent posts…

Meanwhile, here are some links that I have found interesting and useful:



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