Yoshida - Japanese Woodblock Printing : Chapter I

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Japanese Wood-block Printing

Hiroshi Yoshida




At the outset let us consider for a moment the position which Japanese wood-block colour prints occupy among the prints of the world. The etching and wood-block prints of the West are produced primarily by one impression. The former is essentially in one colour, though occasionally a brush is used on the print to create a different tone. The latter also is of one impression, though of late years some artists have come to use several processes in the printing, or to apply colour with the brush to the necessary parts of the print. This last-mentioned method was also practised in Japan in the primitive stage of the art of colour printing, when the printer was unable to manage colour blocks.

We know that the wood-block prints which Branguin came to produce a quarter of a century ago were turned out with the assistance of a Japanese cutter and printer who was in London in 1910 with the Japan-British Exhibition held at Shepherd's Bush, and has remained there ever since. These colour prints, therefore, may be said to be a variation of Japanese prints, based on the Japanese traditional method. Such being the case, it is but natural that this great master artist should be able to express his great power in the drawing in his wood-block colour prints, though his vigour and strength are not so evident in the colour and printing.

On the whole, the etching and wood-block prints of a single impression may be said to prevail in Europe and America. The Japanese artist, on the contrary, in producing wood-block colour prints thinks nothing of repeating the printing scores of times, prints produced by more than one hundred impressions not being very rare. Naturally, great difficulty attends such a process, which requires a great number of printings to complete a single picture. As one may well suppose, the Japanese process involves endless care, skill and patience. Yet the work is done without much ado, usually leaving but little trace of the great difficulties which had to be surmounted in the making of the print. The prints so produced look as if they had been done with the utmost ease and the simplest technique. The secret of it is based on the technique, the foundation of which had been firmly laid by the artists of the Edo Period (1602 -1867). Of course, the subjects dealt with in the prints of the Edo Period were peculiar to that period and highly popular then. The fashion in the style of prints, and the subjects favoured by the artists, change with the times. Yet the technique so highly developed then still serves us as a foundation upon which to build the structures of the present age.

Of course, I am not denying that credit is due to the one colour or one impression print. Far from it. Such has its merits; it shows the artist's power directly expressed. But it also has its shortcomings. Some of the prints of the West with more than one colour possess meritorious qualities, while others do not. There are cases where the colour is excellent, but the drawing leaves much to be desired, and vice versa. This unevenness is mainly due to the difficulty of the technique involved. In the Japanese prints, however, both drawing and colour can be nearly perfect on account of the great development attained in the method. It goes without saying that it is not the aim of this book to deal with the one colour process. We shall confine ourselves to the making of the prints which require a great number of blocks and a great number of impressions.

It is well for us to realize at the very beginning that the art of block printing is not easy to master. The wood-blocks themselves, the cutting of them and printing from them, which are indispensable in the making of Japanese colour prints, are a very inconvenient and highly complicated medium with which to deal. Why, then, does this kind of print occupy such an important position in the world of block-printing? It must be on account of the excellence of the prints so produced.

The art of the printing of ideographs existed in Japan more than eleven hundred years ago, as shown by the printed darani (Sanskrit, Dharani) charms in Chinese characters contained in the one million stupas made in 770 A. D. at the command of the Empress Shotoku, many of which, both stupa and darani, are still preserved. The modern block-printing of drawings in sheet form came into existence some two hundred and fifty years ago, and the use of colour blocks came into vogue about fifty years later.

We all admire the world-renowned works of such masters as Utamaro, Harunobu, Kiyochika, Sharaku and Hiroshige, of the Edo Period. We admire their prints as we do the etchings of Rembrandt and Whistler. They were all great masters and we admire their works, though there was a difference in the mediums they used. In the West prints were made mainly by the use of metal or stone, but in the Far East the artists relied on wood-blocks. It is impossible for us to decide their relative greatness. But this much we may say: what were produced by Rembrandt and Whistler and other great artists of the West may be considered as flowers that bloomed in the art-field of the Occident, while the works of Utamaro, Harunobu, Kiyochika, Sharaku and Hiroshige may be looked upon as flowers that bloomed in the art-field of the Orient. They are both beautiful, and each has its own charm.



Before proceeding further let us consider some of the outstanding characteristics of the Japanese wood-block colour prints.

(1) Artistic value that comes from the use of the hands. In producing Japanese prints wood-blocks are used, and these blocks are cut and printed by hand. Of course, not all prints made from blocks cut by hand and printed by hand can be either artistic or good. At the same time it may be conceded that prints made from blocks cut and printed by hand can be more artistic than those that are produced mechanically, or by cutting blocks by hand but printing them by machine.

In producing a lithograph the artist first draws, and his drawing as such may have artistic value. But after the drawing is transferred to the surface of the stone, the printing is mechanically done. Take the case of an engraving; the art of it is in the engraving, the rest being done mechanically. The etching is slightly different. Here the artist does the printing as well as the drawing, but the aid of the chemical action of the acid is evoked. Now, in making Japanese prints, the artist does the work by hand from beginning to end.

(2) The wood-block print shows the artist's true value: his skill as well as his shortcomings, his successes as well as his failures in the work. A line may be bad, but it cannot be concealed in the print as it may be possible to do in the etching. Whatever is cut on the block shows; nothing can be disguised. In this sense it may be said to express the artist most faithfully.

(3) The Japanese print uses many blocks and requires a great many impressions. There is no method in the West which requires nearly as many printings as are called for in the Japanese process, as we shall see later.

(4) Clarity is the life of wood-block printing. To be sure, there are methods known as ita-bokashi (where the block is cut down gradually in order to produce a soft edge in printing), in which clearness is sacrificed. This method is called into aid only when absolutely necessary, yet it still remains true that block printing is by its nature essentially based on clear-cut blocks and clean printing.

(5) The print is capable of a deep tone, accompanied by an indescribably exquisite quality in the colour. Beautiful colour full of feeling may be shown in Japanese prints. When a colour is applied on top of the same colour for the second time, as is commonly done, it deepens the tone and when the second impression overlaps on another colour, it produces a different effect.

(6) The superiority of the paper enhances the artistic value of the print. Japanese paper, while retaining enough pigment on the surface, allows much to sink into the paper, penetrating almost to the back, which gives intensity of feeling to the colour and of power to the print itself. The merit of the Japanese paper used will be evident when Japanese prints are compared with other prints done on paper which does not absorb but holds pigment on the surface. In this connection we may observe that oil painting has a depth of colour because of the thickness of the paint on the surface, while water colour painting is lacking in that depth. The colour in the Japanese woodblock print gives the feeling of depth. This is mainly because the print is as if it had been dyed with good colour, due to the pigment's being absorbed by the paper.

(7) The paper used for Japanese prints has an excellent surface, extremely pleasing to the eye, as well as to the touch. The paper has an inexpressibly pleasing quality. This same quality, so much to be desired, is not possessed by other kinds of paper. Of course, all the pre-eminence given to Japanese prints is not due to the paper alone, but it cannot be denied that the paper does possess unique qualities and that the artist has made wonderful use of this medium by skilfully taking advantage of all its excellent peculiarities.

(8) Wood-blocks add charm to the print. It may be noted that in Japan the face of the plank is used for the printing surface, and not the end of the grain as in blocks for Western engraving. Because of its natural grain, wood may be considered a difficult medium for prints. However, by careful forethought and skill, the grain can be utilized to good effect. By a proper use the wood grain may be made to produce a better tone than a flat, grainless surface, imbuing the print with a deeper feeling than would be otherwise given. Of course, the flat, uniform effect may be obtained by printing from linoleum, but the result is cheap and inartistic. The print so made may be likened to the ordinary coloured pane of glass for a window, which differs radically from the beautiful stained-glass window, the latter being richer by far and artistic beyond comparison.

(9) The colour of Japanese prints improves with time. The print gets better and better as the days pass by. This is unlike other pictorial art which is at its best at the moment when the picture is finished. When the print is finished, while the paper is still wet, the print looks good. But when the paper dries, the general effect of the print is often disappointing to the artist. However, the colour improves in a few days or in the course of a few months; this is extremely reassuring to the artist. The improvement is not due to any change which may occur in the colour of the paper, or to the fading of certain colours in the print. The improvement is greater with hosho paper than with torinoko paper. The improvement is more marked in some colours than in others; especially do yoko (carmine) and indigo show a tendency to clarify, thereby improving the tone.

I have often heard it said that the pigments which produced such beautiful colours in the prints of the Edo Period are no longer obtainable. But I believe this is not true. I have investigated the matter, and am convinced that we have today a greater variety of pigments than the artist of earlier times had at his command. Furthermore, some colours do improve with age, though none of them will require years for such improvement. In trying to find out what was the cause of the improvement, I have tried various experiments: I had some prints hung in the air for greater exposure, others I kept in the basement to keep them moist, and I tried other methods which I do not need to mention here. But they were not especially improved by these experiments. To be sure some improvement was discernible in some prints, but these prints also improved while they were kept in the stack. Finally I came to the conclusion that the cause of improvement was not in the exposure to the air, but in something else. On one occasion I used paper which contained a small amount of pulp. When I had finished printing and the paper was dry, I was greatly disappointed; it was a failure and I ascribed the failure mainly to the existence of pulp in the paper. I thought this stack of prints was not good enough to be shown to the public; so I put it away in a closet, and as a matter of fact, I quite forgot about it. Several months later I happened to see these prints by chance and observed that they were not so bad after all. I was constrained to change my mind finally and decide to send them out to the public. The improvement is more marked when printed on pure Japanese hosho, unmixed with pulp. I discovered that the colour of the prints improved when printed on Japanese paper with water colour pigments, but not with ink.

I have not been able to arrive at any definite conclusion as yet as to the real cause of the improvement, but I hope someone will carry out the Investigation to the end. However, I have made one or two observations in this connection. One is that the paper, which was maltreated or tormented in the repeated printings, in spite of all the care taken, resumes its original condition in time, and the colours seem to improve when the paper returns to its original state. Another is that the gradual disappearance of the sizing, or dosa, either glue or alum or both, from the paper seems to have a favourable effect. I know for a fact that the sizing does disappear in time, for sized paper may be all right for use for a year or so, but after a longer time the paper has to be resized to be in a proper condition for printing, showing that the sizing does disappear. And I know also that when hosho paper comes fresh from the paper-maker, the pleasing feeling which its surface gives is almost irresistible. Equally remarkable is the loss of that pleasing feeling, which one cannot help noticing, when paper comes back after having been sized prior to using it.

In the course of my experiments in printing I tried silk, first mounting it on paper. The colours did not improve as was the case when I used paper. So it was disappointing. In this connection it may be observed that perhaps the usual appreciation of silk as a medium for painting is because of its texture and the pleasant sense it gives to the touch, rather than because of the quality that gives pleasure to the sight. This induces me to believe that the improvement is due mainly to the excellent quality of Japanese paper used.

The water-colour painting is at its best the moment it is finished, and the best one can do is to preserve it in that condition. But it is different with Japanese prints, as we have already observed. The precious element in Japanese wood-block colours, of which the production is so complicated and difficult, seems to be in their improvement with age, while others deteriorate. Secondly, the colours themselves as they appear on the print are pleasing to the eye, even before they are improved. These two aspects have a great deal do with the high appreciation evinced for Japanese wood-block colour prints. The colours from the same pigment bowl look much better when printed than when applied with a brush.

If these prints did not possess any special artistic qualities, painting by hand might be considered better than the prints. However, these prints do have artistic qualities which are peculiar to wood-block work. The number produced should not affect the artistic value of the product; this is determined by the quality, justified by the process involved and the aim attained. Suppose there were one hundred prints made, and these were all destroyed by chance, save one. Of course, then the market value of the single print would be multiplied. But would its artistic value be raised in any way, because all the others had been destroyed? No, the artistic value of that print would not be altered by the external circumstances; it would remain the same whether there were many or few.

We are not concerned so much now with the pictorial value of the print, nor do I care to argue at length the artistic value of the print. What concerns me now is the wood-block colour prints themselves, and how to make them. The kind of pictures to be made will be left to each individual's taste. If an artist likes to follow the style of Hiroshige, he may do so, though his choice does not interest me, for the subjects treated and the manner employed are no longer closely connected with our present life and activity. We no longer have to walk along the Tokaido line, wear sandals, and carry mushroom umbrellas, as pictured in the prints by Hiroshige. But if an artist should be interested in making such a picture, he may do so as far as the subjects are concerned, but he should not attempt to treat them in the spirit of the Edo Period, which has already passed. What we are concerned with in this book is how to make wood-block colour prints of the present day, and good ones at that.



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