Yoshida - Japanese Woodblock Printing : Chapter II : Part I

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Japanese Wood-block Printing

Hiroshi Yoshida



Print Artist

It goes without saying that it is absolutely necessary for a print-artist to be able to draw and paint well. These two qualifications of the ordinary painter - to draw well and be able to use colours - are absolutely necessary. In addition he must be able to analyze, cut the blocks and print.

Not every painter can become a good print-artist. Nor, though good at analysis, cutting, and printing, yet without the ability to draw and paint, can one be an efficient print-artist. Analysis includes as well the ability to compose.

In trying to make a print the artist is often likely to allow his thoughts to wander. Even after all the blocks are made, he may not be sure of himself. Having no definite idea in mind, he is liable to try various colours on the blocks, or paste one colour on the dress of one figure and another colour on that of another, and thus try to get a chance result which will satisfy his artistic yearning. But that is not the right way to work. Such an artist may be likened to the skipper who sails out of a harbour without any fixed destination in mind. The ship proceeds over the sea this way or that, as willed by the wind and tide, and then when he comes in sight of land, the skipper points to it and says that that is his destination. That is absurd.

First of all, the artist when he starts working on a print should have a definite end in view, with explicit ideas in mind as to every detail of the picture he wishes to produce in print. He should have a definite objective, a fixed destination, before starting from the harbour. The method of working, the order of procedure, etc., are nothing more than the instruments which guide the ship toward the mark in the face of storms and other difficulties.

In the Edo Period, prints were essentially reproductions of paintings. But to-day it is different: they constitute an independent branch of art. Nowadays what we aim at is the production of prints which are independent of imitations or reproductions of painting. In the Edo Period, a picture drawn by an artist was handed over to the cutter, who cut it, and then the blocks so made were handed over to the printer that he might print from them. Under such circumstances, though there was a publisher who managed the affair, it was not possible to get an exact reproduction of the original painting. Therefore the finished work was not exactly a reproduction either. Many failed in the attempt. But therein may be found the true significance of the art. The printing of modern times, however, is an art in itself, the artist using wood-blocks and printing therefrom by hand. It is an independent art just as are water colour and oil painting.

The art of print-making is different from that of ordinary painting. To begin with, the print-artist must be able to cut the wood-blocks. The painter has no such work to do. The print-artist must be able to print from blocks. The painter applies pigments to the surface of the canvas, and the print-artist applies pigments to the surface of the blocks and lets the paper absorb them he transfers the pigment from the blocks to the paper. Here one may find a certain resemblance, though faint, to the work of the painter, but it is fundamentally different.

The outstanding feature of print-making is analysis. The ability to analyze is the most essential part of the print-artist's work. In order to do this well, he must first have a complete picture in his mind, analyze it, and produce the necessary blocks for the colours, etc. Nothing like it is to be found in the painter's work.

In starting to make a print, naturally the subject is to be decided first. The subject to be decided upon depends on the medium to be used. Some subjects are more suitable for oil or water colour, others for etching, and still others for wood-block colour prints.

The etching is usually of one colour; and the subject to be chosen should be decided accordingly. Some of the prints are of one colour only, and this type has been highly developed in Europe. But we are now dealing with the wood-block colour prints of Japan which require many colours. So what we are concerned with is different from the wood-block prints of Europe. It is also different from oil painting, because cutting and printing are also involved in the process.

However, for our present purpose, it is impossible to decide upon any particular subject, for different artists have different requirements. One may think a certain subject highly suitable for a print, while another may differ in his opinion. Thus the art of one person will naturally be different from that of another. Again, one artist may be able to do justice to a certain subject, while this may remain beyond the ability of another.

Regarding colour, its treatment also is different from that of the oil painter's. The artist in oil may be able to get his desired colour effect by repeated applications, working until he obtains the effect which satisfies him. But the print-artist thinks of his finished product the colours of which may not be true to nature, but will be satisfying to his artistic ideals.


Original Sketch (Genga)

First, a sketch must be made in such a way that it can be worked into a colour print. The artist makes his sketches from nature; one on silk, another on paper; some with oil, others with water colours. But the sketch must be made especially for the print, and not be a mere copy of nature; it must be worked out so as to be suitable for cutting and printing, and for the production of a satisfactory print.

Some artists strive to make the original drawing a finished painting, without taking into consideration that it is to be developed into a print. This method leaves much to be desired; therefore, should not be attempted. Even if tried, the result will be different from your expectation and unsatisfactory. The medium used is different and it is natural that the result should be different.

The original drawing is merely provisional. It is not to be reproduced, nor copied. Some phases can better be rendered by cutting, while others it is impossible even to indicate. If the print-artist were to try to get in his print the same gradation in blue as that seen in one of Whistler's night scenes on the Thames or the gradation found in his "Symphony in White" - and this I believe is not impossible - it would be futile to make the attempt in an original painting for a print.

Some phases may be simplified, and others may be made more complicated. If, on the one hand, the artist were to follow the weakest points in colour printing, the result would be a complete failure. On the other hand, if he were to pursue and take advantage of the strongest points in colour prints, the result would be a complete success. Some artists can begin working with a very rough sketch, while others may require a finished drawing, but neither is to be final. Such a sketch serves merely as an indicator.

Since it is not to be reproduced, and since the wood-block printing is the final object in view, the print or finished product, is original, and not the sketch or painting which served merely as an indicator. Therein may be found the value of the print.

The print-artist must bear in mind the peculiarities incident to the cutting of the blocks even as he gazes on nature and tries to compose for his print. This makes his sketch different from that of the painter. Not only so, but the peculiarities of printing also must be borne in mind when making the sketch.

Reproduction of a painting is not the aim. If it were, there would be no use for the print, for painting would serve the purpose better. But the print shows something that it is not possible to produce by any other means than by printing.

In olden times, the artist drew his original picture on paper with thin black sumi, corrected it with red wherever necessary, or patched it with other pieces of paper to complete the drawing, and finally traced the essential lines on a sheet of paper. After that the colours were merely indicated on the drawing by writing the word "red" or "blue," or by giving a brush-stroke of colours, the rest to be finished by the cutter and the printer. This shows how non-essential a complete sketch was even then. Let him who requires a complete picture to work with make one, but this is by no means essential.

Figure 1

A sketch made from nature with the intention of developing it into a wood-block print, resulting in "Rapids".

The lines used in this sketch to express the movement of the water, especially the whirls, are peculiarly suitable for a print. In other words, the peculiarities of printing were borne in mind when this sketch was made.


Outline Drawing (Sen-gaki)

Having completed the original picture, the artist proceeds to make a sen-gaki, or outline drawing. This is for use in making the key block. This drawing is extremely important, for it becomes the key to the different colours used in the print. It should contain all the most essential lines in the picture.

Sometimes I do away with the tracing on paper, and draw the outline directly on minogami for the block. The direct application often produces excellent lines. Sometimes errors are made in so doing, but one can always correct such by pasting paper over them. Before I actually make a drawing, I sometimes consult members of my family, by merely describing to them in words what sort of a picture I have in mind.

The drawing is generally made on thin minogami paper treated with dosa (the kind of sizing described later) with a Japanese brush, any kind of a pencil or a pen. It is important that the lines should be clear and definite. Ink is to be avoided, for it blurs when the paper is pasted face down on the block to be cut. When taking a pen, sumi should be used.

Figure 2

An original sketch made in the studio for "The Calm Wind"

While merely provisional, it should show the results of a careful consideration of everything connected with the development into a finished print - even the position of the signature and seal, which are the very last things to be added to a print.


When the drawing is ready, the artist must not be hasty in pasting this sen-gaki on the block and proceeding to cut lines. One should hang it on the wall for a number of days and contemplate it, thinking about the later processes which must eventually follow. If one is too hasty, and it is found necessary to alter or add something afterward, it will be extremely difficult to make the change. It is very essential that one should give all the thought possible just here, before pasting the sen-gaki on the block for cutting. I usually keep it hung up for many days and think about the colour blocks and the different modes of printing to be employed.

Though his thought is indicated only by lines, the artist should be able to think ahead, to the end of the printing. If he does that, the print is more likely than not to be satisfactory when finished.

If two or more colours meet, an extension of one of the lines which is not to remain in the print afterward is generally necessary in the outline drawing for guidance to secure the exact fitting together of the different colours to be applied. Suppose there are to be some glowing clouds in the sunset sky, and a part of them is hidden behind a mountain. When a separate block is made for the clouds and another for the mountain, it is difficult to know afterward the exact position of the clouds in relation to the mountain and just where the line of the cloud touches the slope of the mountain. So the line of the cloud must be extended to cross the line of the mountain slope, thus indicating the exact location which the artist wished to give the clouds. In this case the unnecessary part of the line known as muda-bori, or "unnecessary cutting," which was extended into the mountain should be taken away after the trial printing is made, and the exact position fixed by the register marks.




Added by: Khima-Inez on May 22, 2010 8:58 PM

Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
For making this book available on the net and opening up a brand new world of understanding for the researching graphic designer.


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