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WHEN all the blocks are cut, cleared and ready, printing may be commenced. Elaborate although the preparation of the blocks sounds, this is only preliminary to the real business, that of printing, and this being done by hand, one's knuckles taking the place of a press, it will be seen that it is an operation of some delicacy, demanding strict attention to detail. The printing should be done on a table, the height of which enables the printer to use his strength and weight, without stooping unduly.
The most important item is the paper, for on it will appear what all this labour has been directed towards. The best paper for the purpose is Japanese, made from the bast of the mulberry, because it is tough, the fibres being longer than those of any European paper. But it is expensive and difficult to obtain nowadays. A fair substitute may be found in the duplicating paper used for typewriting, the absorbent blotter-like kind. The paper should be cut to the right size with sharp, clean corners. Half as many sheets of blotting paper somewhat larger than the printing sheets will be wanted, also two boards. As the latter are apt to warp after damping, sheets of thick glass, plates of zinc, or slates may be used.
Lay a sheet of blotter on one board and well damp it with a wide brush. On this place three sheets of printing paper, the printing face downwards; on this place another damped blotter, then three more printing sheets, and so on. Over all place the other board, with a weight on top. The moisture from the blotting paper will be sufficient to damp the priming sheets, the process occupying an hour perhaps.
If Japanese printing paper is used, this being absorbent, must be sized before being cut up for printing. To prepare the size, take five sheets of the thinnest table gelatine (sold in packets), and folding them up, place them in a small saucepan, into which pour a pint of water. Place the saucepan in another, somewhat larger, in which is a little water, and set on to heat until the gelatine has dissolved, then add alum in powder, say a teaspoonful. The alum hardens the size and has a good effect on the colour. If a scum rises to the surface strain the fluid, or wait until the scum disappears, which it will do in a few minutes. While the size is heating the sizing requisites should be prepared. On the printing table place a drawing board with a block beneath so that it is inclined. On the right of this should stand the saucepan containing the warm liquid size. Place a dry sheet of Japanese paper on the board, smooth or printing surface uppermost, and with a wide brush, say three inches across, dip into the liquid size and brush carefully across the paper.
Now pick up an ordinary pin in either hand, raise the damp sheet by its top corners (which should be left unsized), and pin it to the projecting table ledge, so that it hangs without folds. It is important to avoid kinks in the paper while brushing on the size or while hanging up, as such marks can never be got out. Leave the sheets hanging until dry.
While the printing sheets are clamping between the blotting papers, the printing materials should be arranged on the table as shown in Fig 1. The colours and wet materials are on the right, the dry on the left.
For colours one may use ordinary water-colours in tubes, or better still, in powder form. Powder colours are cheaper, and being less finely ground than the tube colours, they 'cover' better. They show, too, the actual hue of the pigment, whereas directly the powder is mixed by the manufacturer with glycerine for water-colour, or oils and varnish for oil paint, the tone darkens, so that one cannot tell what the colour really is until it is diluted. Some of the pleasure of colour printing lies in handling these brilliant-hued pigments in their respective bottles; one realizes clearly the variations, say the depth of French blue against the brightness of cobalt, and the blueness of both compared with the greenish tint of cerulean.
A palette knife is essential, and a quite efficient one may be made from a broken flat ruler, thinned and shaped with a chisel and rubbed smooth with glass paper. A sponge is required to wipe the block clean. Two brushes at least will be wanted, a wide and a narrow. Four pieces of blotting paper folded into pads about an inch square, and damped, should be placed under the block, one at each corner; these keep the block steady while printing is proceeding.
The colour, if in powder, should be mixed with a little water, on a plate, with the wooden palette knife. With the brush take up, first colour, and then paste ready on another plate. Brush briskly across the colour patches, in two directions to distribute the colour well, then brush lightly so that an even surface of colour is produced. If a light tone is required, the brush should take up more paste and less colour. Directly the block has been coloured, printing must commence, because the moisture is all the time being absorbed, especially by the wood block. One must print at top speed to secure the best results.
Before commencing to print, all the damping sheets of blotting paper, except the top and bottom ones, should be removed, leaving the printing sheets face downwards as before. In proving or testing the blocks by a first printing, it is well to begin with the line or key block. One can then watch the colour patches as they are printed, to note if they coincide or 'register' with the line. As a rule, however, it is better to print the line later, after the larger areas of colour have been printed, that is, if these adjoin. Colour patches which do not adjoin should not be printed before the line, because it is not possible to tell while printing whether they are registering correctly.
Remove the top board from the printing sheets and place it on the left as shown in Fig. 1, with a block beneath, so that the board is inclined. On it place the top sheet of blotting paper. Note that in Fig. 1 the printing sheets are near and opposite the block to be printed, for convenience of picking up. After colouring the block as already described, the printing sheet should be picked up between the fore and middle fingers of both hands, and the right-hand bottom corner fitted into the right-angled register mark on the block, the thumb being used to keep it in position. Then the bottom edge of the paper is brought against the left-hand register mark, and also held in position.
The fingers of both hands are then removed smartly, and the paper should fall in position on the block, being prevented from shifting by the pressure of the thumbs. This procedure may sound lengthy and complicated, but it is the work only of a moment, and a little practice with a spare sheet will make the printer adept. The printing paper should not be waved about, but brought into position on the block with as little disturbance of its flatness as possible. Success in printing depends largely on keeping the paper flat, and its flatness is consequent on its being kept at the same degree of dampness, which is somewhat difficult to attain, as every printing tends to damp some part of the surface, while the remainder inevitably gets drier as the sheet is exposed.
Directly the sheet is on the block, place the transparent paper on it and rub with the pad, lightly in the case of the line block, except in places where the line widens out into a patch.
Any faulty impressions should be consigned to the bottom of the batch so that they will come at the top when another block is commenced. By this means one is more likely to secure some perfect impressions out of the batch.
The line block must not be printed too wet. The brush, although it should be soaked in clean water to prevent hairs from moulting out, should have most of the moisture removed by shaking and wiping with a rag before use. Only as much water as is necessary to convert the colour to a paste should be used, it being remembered that water is poison to good printing. Too wet paper, colour or brushes are certain causes of failure.
When all the sheets have been passed over the line block they should be turned over and again placed between the boards, in readiness for the next printing.
One of the charms of hand colour printing consists in gradating the tints in a way almost impossible to a machine printer. A sky, for instance, may gradate its blue from above, down to almost white. This is done by dipping one end only of the wide brush into the colour, and the whole width of it into the paste. By brushing across the block a beautiful gradation is obtained, such as we see in the Japanese colour prints. When Japanese printers acquired Prussian blue from the west, they were struck by its depth of tone, and delighted in making gradations of sea and sky, from the full strength of the colour up to white.
If during the printing, in spite of care, the printing sheets become hopelessly cockled they should be redamped, placed between strawboards and pressed for a few minutes. The key block, especially, needs to be printed with perfectly flat paper and not too damp. Cockled paper inevitably picks up ink or colour from some part of the block not intended to show.
When all the blocks have been printed, and while the printing sheets are still damp, they should be placed singly between sheets of absorbent cardboard (strawboard will do very well), and the pile put under heavy weights or in a screw press for, say, twenty-four hours, when they will be found quite dry and perfectly flat.
Lastly, the blocks deserve care. When in use they should rest on the paper pads already mentioned, so that the surface need never touch the table, which should be wiped clean before use, as fragments of paper and other rubbish may cause trouble in the printing. After printing, the blocks should be dried, wrapped in paper and placed on a shelf. If a block warps, wet the hollow side. Some printers have their blocks 'housed' into ledges of hard wood (Fig. 3). These keep the blocks from warping, and from contact with harmful particles as tintacks, etc.
The foregoing has been written in view of the needs of teachers using colour printing as a school craft. But as a form of artistic reproduction, colour printing is one of the interesting art movements of the present day. It arose mainly through the enterprise and skill of Mr. F. Morley Fletcher, who, as already mentioned, some thirty years ago, while working in conjunction with Mr. J. D. Batten to discover a method of artistic reproductive work in colour, unearthed the Japanese methods and tools, and applied his new-found knowledge in producing some charming colour prints, unlike anything previously seen in Europe. Practically all the artists printing in colour from wood blocks have learned this craft directly under Mr. Fletcher or indirectly through his book, which should be read by those wishing to go further with the craft.
Wood is certainly far superior to linoleum in many ways, but the cherry wood requires more handling, more knowledge of wood working tools, than perhaps is possible for young children to acquire. Those, however, who wish to take the craft seriously as a means of artistic expression should certainly use wood.
Another development of the process is that used by Mr. W. Giles, who uses zinc plates instead of wood, and etches out his spaces with acid. Specimens of the plates with a description of the method may be seen in the Department of Engravings, Victoria and Albert Museum.