Yoshida - Japanese Woodblock Printing : Chapter II : Part III

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Japanese Wood-block Printing

Hiroshi Yoshida




Impressions from the key block are known as kyogo. They are extremely important, for from them different colour blocks are made.

For the drawing one may use paper other than minogami, if one chooses, but for kyogo minogami is indispensable. The paper must first be treated with dosa and "killed." That is, the paper must be rubbed with a baren (a sort of pad used in printing to be described and explained later) as in printing from the blocks. This hard rubbing on the paper "kills" the fibre, making the paper less susceptible to shrinkage and expansion, and in reality rendering it "lifeless." The greatest of care is needed in the printing of kyogo. In doing this the paper so prepared must be perfectly fiat, and free from any wrinkle or warping. It must be dropped flat on the block and breath blown over it in order to let it rest on the block with the least force. And then it must be rubbed with the baren, but in such a way as not to stretch the paper in the least. The printing from this is very important, for it is to be used in making blocks for colours. So perfect must be the impressions that however many there may be, the parts of the drawing must all coincide exactly. This I know from experience.

The lack of dosa even brings unsatisfactory results. If a sheet of paper lacks dosa, it will shrink when the pigment is put on to indicate the colour, and the colour block made from it will be smaller than it should be, and will not agree with the others. No emphasis can be too great to stress the fact that a kyogo must be made right and handled very carefully so as to keep it perfectly flat.

Care must be taken not to wet the block too much in printing kyogo from the key block, for this will moisten the paper too much and when the paper dries the result will be a shrunken kyogo. Just enough pigment to get a sharp black impression, and no more. Printing ink is good; I have used it with good results for kyogo. Every precaution must be taken to prevent the shrinkage and expansion of the paper in order to obtain correct results. A few more impressions than the number of the colours to be used in the print must be taken. If ten colour blocks are anticipated, fifteen may be necessary.

The impression must contain not only the drawing but also the kento consisting of kagi and hikitsuke, or right-angle and horizontal register marks. These register marks are absolutely necessary for every colour block, so that the distance between the picture in the print and the register marks may be the same in every block made, thus assuring an exact register.

Figure 11

This shows the very first kyogo for "A Junk", which will be dealt with later under the sub-topic "Order of Printing". It shows the horizon and lights and their reflection on the water which are known as muda-bori, and will be cut away after the trial printing is made.

The register marks, consisting of kagi and hikitsuke, have been shown here, placed where they are, for the sake of convenience in showing them in proper relation to the drawing, though these marks are generally placed on the opposite side on the kyogo in Japan.


In making very small blocks the kyogo may not be so very difficult, for an exact register can be comparatively easily obtained. But in making the ordinary or larger sized prints, they assume great importance. Yet on account of their existing only in an intermediary state, there is a tendency to overlook their importance.


Colour Distribution

All the necessary colours should first be indicated as a whole. And then the picture must be classified according to the colours required. The various portions of the picture requiring the same colour are to be cut on one block. A kyogo is used for every colour required, in order to indicate the parts to be used for colour. If the print calls for twenty different colours, twenty blocks are necessary, though devices may be used to decrease the number of blocks.

For instance, in a landscape a block each may be required for the sky, the hills, the houses, the trees, the ground, etc. For the sky, for instance, a kyogo will be used merely to indicate the part to be cut. However, it is not at all necessary for this to be coloured blue as it would appear in the finished print. I have found it convenient to use red to indicate the portion of the block which is to be cut. Any other colour may be used, if one so chooses. It is not well to colour the whole surface for that will moisten the paper too much and cause it to contract when it dries. Therefore lines are generally drawn across the area, or merely the edges coloured, to indicate for what it is to be cut. Yoko (carmine) I have found to be the best for this purpose.

The blocks must necessarily be of uniform size, however small the utilized portion. But the number of blocks may be diminished by combining different colour blocks into one. For instance, the sky at the top may be somewhat separated from a mass of water at the bottom. Then both sky and water may be cut on one block and used separately for two different colours. Large vacant spaces may be utilized for cutting small details of the drawing, thus minimizing the number of blocks, and thereby economizing in the cost of blocks, labour of printing, etc. Although two or three inches of space are generally required between objects to be printed in different colours, in some places the space may be less, provided the brush can be used with pigment without soiling other parts. Thus a print requiring twenty colours may be worked out with blocks of less than half that number. Of course, it depends upon the quality of the prints. At any rate, it is possible to diminish the number of blocks to great advantage.

Figure 12

An example of iro-wake, or colour distribution

This is for the colour block containing the sail and the body of the boat. The diagonal lines drawn across the sail mean that the entire sail is required for the block.


Sometimes the kyogo, when the drawing is in masses instead of lines, are printed in red. This is because it is easier to indicate with sumi any further details required in the masses. This necessity must be realized when examining the sen-gaki drawing at the very beginning, before it is pasted on the block to be cut for the key block.

These markings are merely to be a guide to the artist in cutting the colour blocks. The necessary work connected with marking the kyogo for different colour blocks is called iro-wake (colour distribution) and each kyogo with the colour indicated is known as iro-sashi. The artist should visualize the finished prints from these iro-sashi. He must consider how one colour comes in contact with another, and how a second colour overlaps another, etc.

This process involving iro-wake, or determining what and how colours are to be used, may be termed analysis, which is very important. Indeed, the very life of the print may be said to be determined by this analysis. The artist must have a finished print in view from the very beginning, and that finished product visualized should be completely analyzed in terms of colour blocks. The colour on the print may be simple or complex according to the decision in the analysis.

Sometimes the same block may be used for printing different colours at the same time. For instance, a portion of the block may be covered with one colour and the rest with another colour, and both be printed at the same time. Or the same block may be used over again with another colour, thus producing different tone. In shading or blending one colour into another this process is used. Using the same block in different lengths or widths in printing over and over again produces an infinite number of tints. Thus one block can be used for more than one colour. Such being the case, with six boards, having both sides cut - that is with twelve blocks - almost an infinite number of colours can be produced on the print. Occasionally I have used fifteen blocks, rarely as many as twenty, and with these I have been able to print a great number of times, and have found them quite sufficient for practically all purposes. Suppose all the blocks are cut and ready. Then the artist may proceed to print from them. But as he goes on printing from one colour block and another, he may find, almost at the end, the need of an additional block to obtain a satisfactory result. It may be supplied, though this is like preparing a rope after the burglar is caught. In order to save himself from this embarrassment, the artist should consider well at the beginning. By examination of iro-sashi, one's ability as a wood block print-artist can be judged. I generally prepare beforehand what I call a nezumi-ban, or "grey block," though it is not used for grey alone. I use it to give a soft tone to the whole surface of the print.

This analysis of colour is the most essential part of the artist's work, as we have already observed. Therein may be found the inimitable qualities of the art so peculiarly charming. Different colours are mixed and harmonized, varying effects being obtained by using the brush in different ways when spreading the pigments over the block. Without understanding the whole analysis that goes into the making of any print, an exact reproduction of it is impossible.

In the Edo Period, the artist merely indicated colours. For instance, if a figure were to be dealt with, the names of different colours would be written on different parts of the dress without actually showing what shade of colour. The intensity or the shade of colour and other details were all left for the printer to supply. The printer might not be a good painter; then the product would show a lack of knowledge of colour. In some cases the importance of quality and intensity of colour in the construction of prints seems to have been overlooked.

It is usually stated that there are three essential factors that go into the making of a print. They are the artist, the cutter, and the printer. The colour print has been explained to be the combined and harmonious work of these three factors. But experience has taught me to modify this statement and say that there is still another essential element, i.e., colour analysis. I sometimes think that the original painting can be dispensed with, if the colour analysis can be correctly made by the artist without it. If the analysis is faulty, the result will be beyond help. Not even any number of "grey blocks" will save it.

What I wish to say at this stage is that a successful print should be not merely the combined work of three persons specializing each in his own branch, but essentially the work of one person: the print-artist. The print artist to my mind must be able to analyze colours, cut blocks and print. The three most essential parts in print-making are the colour analysis, the cutting and the printing. First of all, the print-artist should be, not merely an artist who paints, but one who can visualize the print and analyze it in terms of colour before it is made. Furthermore, he must be able to cut the blocks to bring out even those qualities which it is not possible to express in drawing, and to print from the blocks, bringing out the best in them and adding something more than is visibly expressed in the blocks.

In the Edo Period this colour analysis was simple, since the sort of print produced then was not complicated. But now we are living in a different age, seeking a new expression, new life. The difference is based on the matter of this colour analysis, or the degree of importance placed on it.

If a print like an ordinary design is to be aimed at, it may be sufficient merely to cover the whole surface with a pleasing composition of lines and colours But for a higher aim this will not be sufficient; it will require a great deal more, a greater amount of forethought.

If a finished print is placed before us, we may be able to analyze its colours, though in some instances we may be able to do this only to a certain extent. Although other people may not be able to analyze the colours in some of my prints, I am able to do so, having composed them myself. But the analysis we are speaking of is the analysis of colours in an imaginary print that an artist forms in his mind. Therein lies the difficulty, and its importance is still greater.


Colour Blocks (Iro-ban)

According to the analysis, different colours will be indicated on the kyogo, and these sheets will be carefully pasted on the blocks, one on either side. Special care should be exercised in the pasting of the kyogo on the blocks, for the least carelessness will produce disastrous results and spoil the register. Even greater care is required for this work than for that of the key block, for the outline prints produced may be accepted as such merely and work be done on them. Yet here it is different. Here there must be an exact register of all the colour blocks when printed, however many there may be. One must not forget also about the register marks, the kagi and hikitsuke. These marks were printed on the kyogo, and now they are to be cut on each block. In the Edo Period a boy apprentice might acquire considerable skill and the ability to cut during seven years, but he was not allowed to paste on the block the kyogo with the colours indicated. That was done by the master cutter himself, as in the case of outline drawing; so important was the process considered.

The pasting of the iro-sashi is the same as the pasting of the sen-gaki for the key block of which we have spoken. But the difficulty is greater with the colour blocks. The reason for this is because there are to be many of them and they must all be exactly the same in order to obtain an exact register all through the course of printing the different colours.

Too thin sizing (dosa) is detrimental to the work. Experience has taught me this. I once watched a cutter working with a thinly sized paper. While the right half of the paper was resting temporarily on the block, prior to its being rubbed down to the surface of the board, it absorbed water and thus expanded before it was pasted on the block. This difficulty, however, may be overcome by using someone to hold the end of the right half of the paper while the left half is being rubbed down. After the whole sheet is pasted on the block, the cutter must immediately proceed with the peeling off of the back of the paper in the same way as is done in cutting the key block.

Once I saw a boy drop a thinly sized iro-sashi on the block before he was able to make the necessary adjustment. So the sheet was raised from the block and replaced. But meanwhile the paper had absorbed moisture and the consequent expansion measured nearly one-eighth of an inch. If the paper is allowed to dry before it is replaced, it will contract. Thus the work involved is extremely difficult.

The cutting of the colour blocks does not require as strict accuracy as in the case of the key block. There is a slight margin; the breadth of the line of the drawing allows a little play. Generally about seven-tenths of the width of the outline is allowed into the colour zone. That is, the colour may extend partly into the outline. The colour in the adjacent zone will also extend to five- or seven-tenths of the width of the outline, and thus the colours may overlap in the middle part of the line. Yet this does not matter as the outline is generally printed in dark, black or some other heavy colour. Such is the case when the colour is bound by the outline. But if not, great care must be exercised in order to insure exact registering and clear definition of colours. It is necessary to leave certain places uncut so that the paper may be held up and not allowed to be soiled by the coloured low surface in the printing. Generally two or three inches of space will suffice in the printing, but this depends largely upon the manner of printing required for that particular part. Sometimes merely a chip is made by the chisel and left to stick out for the paper to rest on. The vacant space in the block is to be used for cutting other necessary parts of the design, but we are speaking now of a case where there is nothing to be cut in the space.

The necessary depth required in the clearing will be readily seen when it comes. to printing the block. Apropos of the clearing, the chisel is used in right angles to the cut made along the line, and when there is not enough space for the use of ai-suki then the clearing should be done by moving the chisel along the line. When the space to be cleared is large a broad chisel may be used with a mallet. But before doing that it is advisable to cut a furrow with a U-shaped chisel all along the boundary a short distance from the line. The space bound by the furrow may be cleared with a broad chisel, and the narrow strips between the furrow and the cut made with the knife along the line may be cleared with an ai-suki using it in right angles to the line, and levering it when it comes to about one-sixteenth of an inch of the cut. This process of clearing is known as sarai.


Trial Printing (Shizuri)

When the set of blocks required for a print is all cut and finished, the paper left on the board must be washed of or may be moistened and peeled off the block. Then the trial printing is in order. It is necessary to print five or ten sheets before everything can be adjusted. The necessary sheets of paper must be properly moistened first before proceeding with the printing. First the print will be made from the outline, and to this the impressions of the different colour blocks added one after the other until all the blocks are used and the final stage reached. The process is like that of a painter painting a picture; only in this case the print-artist uses colour blocks instead of the brush.

This is the time for the artist to visualize the analysis which he made of the imaginary picture at the beginning. He will be able to see for himself how right or wrong he was in his analysis. Artists who are sure of their colour analysis may proceed directly with the final printing, dispensing with the trial printing. But this intermediary process is generally wise and often necessary. Any shortcomings in the blocks may be somehow rectified, but it will be well-nigh impossible to correct an error in the analysis. Again the defect may easily be found, but it is difficult to find the cause of that defect, and this must be ascertained in order that a repetition may be avoided. Close examination is necessary to detect the appearance of an undesirable grain in the wood, to see whether the blocks give an exact register, to find out whether there is any omission in the cutting, etc., or whether an extra block is necessary. Any such deficiency must be supplied. Some blocks may be bad; then they must be recut. But one should not jump at conclusions from the result of a single impression, for some defects may be remedied, while others may not. Out of five or ten trial proofs, a satisfactory one may be obtained and this will be used as the standard for the rest of the prints. This trial proof enables the artist to see whether what he has in mind can be realized or not.

There are many things to be taken into account, and a number to be guarded against, in trying to obtain a satisfactory print. The following points must be borne in mind:

  • Ascertain if the kyogo is correct.
  • Detect any shrinkage or expansion of the kyogo.
  • Note if the cutting has been well done.
  • Note all omission of colour even in small spots.
  • Judge quality of blocks.
  • Secure exact register.
  • Care that paper does not sag and touch pigments causing blots.
  • Consider the manner of printing.
  • Note sizing on paper.


Final Printing

After going through these processes we come now to printing, a very important part in print-making. In printing, the paper must be suitably moistened. In order to keep the paper of uniform moisture and obtain satisfactory results, it is necessary to print at least fifty or one hundred sheets in succession.

Care must be taken to keep the paper moistened to the right degree. There is hardly any danger when only a few colours are used, but when the artist has to use fifty or sixty different colours, the paper is liable to rot. Caution must be taken against this.

Hosho is the best paper, and torinoko too may be used. Hodomura is used in Europe for the etching, and it may be used in the print with fair results.

The reason for moistening the sheets of paper is to make them absorb colour, and to keep them of uniform expansion in the course of printing. A little moisture facilitates the absorption. In rubbing the paper with the baren from the back the colour must go into the paper; there is no other place for it to go. One cannot print on blotting paper, for it is too absorbent, nor on hard paper, which does not easily absorb pigment, for then the pigment will only spread on the paper. But dosa (sizing) gives the paper the right surface; it is absolutely necessary. Moisture is necessary because of dosa, and dosa is necessary in order to harden the surface of the paper, both front and back. Otherwise it cannot be rubbed, as it must be in the printing, and the paper will stick to the block and be damaged.

The lower right-hand corner of the paper with face down must be cut at right angles in order to give an exact fitting to the register mark. In order to get such a corner, the right-hand side and the lower edge of the paper with face down must be trimmed in straight lines, forming a perfect right-angled corner at the right-hand lower edge. I mean with the face of the paper down, for in that way the printing has to be done. The right-angled corner is very important and must be kept in perfect condition. And the straight lower edge is also necessary to adjust that edge to the horizontal mark when printing.


Implements and Materials

The essential implements for printing consist of the brush and the baren (a sort of pad used in rubbing the back of the paper).

The tools are very simple, though there is a variety of each. With these simple tools great masterpieces are made. In order to produce such it is necessary to master the art, to get the knack of using these implements.

The artist when about to print sits down in front of a low table as shown in this diagram. Often the weight of the whole body is necessary in printing, and in order to give strength the whole arm should be moved, not merely the hand. A pile of paper properly moistened should be placed face down on the shelf in a box in front. The block should be placed on a low work-table with the cut surface up and each corner of the block cushioned with cloth or a piece of folded damp paper.

Pigment is placed on the block with a tokibo, which is kept dipped in the bowl of pigment, and spread over the block with a big brush by rubbing it over the block to insure a uniform application. Or the pigment may be applied first to the brush with a tokibo and then rubbed over the block with the brush.

A small quantity of paste made of rice is also placed on the block with a stick and then the brush is used to spread the colour and paste together at the same time. The paste must not be mixed in the pigment before being placed on the block.

In case of a colour block, after the pigment and paste are spread over the block by moving the brush in every direction, the brush should be drawn across the grain of the wood as the last finishing touch to make the colour even. But when shading is to be made towards the end of the grain the brush should be used differently. Then the brush should be moved along with the grain. If the stroke of the colour brush is with the grain of the wood, it has a tendency to sweep off the pigment and leave the lines of the brush strokes on the block. If brushed across the grain it will produce better results.

If the baren is rubbed lengthwise, or horizontally, everything will be running in the same direction; that is, the fibre of the bamboo sheath on the baren, the grain of the wood of the block, and the fibre of the paper, will all be running in the same direction, together with the motion of the baren. The shrinkage of the wood is in the width; so with the paper. If the paper is rubbed crosswise, it will be rubbing against the fibre, and the paper is liable to peel. Both ends of the block are usually rubbed lightly across the grain.

The baren must be slightly oiled in order to have it move smoothly with pressure on the back of the paper.

Each block should be finished to the end before beginning to print from the next block.

The paper must be placed face down when in the pile so that it may be pulled out and placed on the block with ease.

Care must be exercised not to allow the paper to touch the hollow part of the block, for that will soil the print.

Even if an error should be made, the sheet should be kept in its original place in the pile so that the order of the prints may not be disturbed.

In the course of printing, because of the shrinkage or expansion of the block or paper, it may become necessary to change the position of the register marks. To move these toward the picture is called dasu, and in the opposite direction hiku. In order to move the register marks inward, a thin piece of cherry-wood is driven into a cut made by driving the kento-nomi into the block, and the top cut off and planed. A simpler method for beginners would be to paste a piece of paper on top, instead of driving a piece of wood into the block. In order to move it outwards, the mark is recut. Without going into detail, suffice it to say that beginners often do just the reverse.

The shrinkage and expansion may not be uniform. Hence all sorts of devices may be necessary. The kagi (right-angled register mark) and the hikitsuke (horizontal mark in front) may have to be moved inward or outward, either separately or together.

While trying to adjust these difficulties, the top sheets of paper on the pile must not be allowed to dry. In order to prevent this it is necessary to cover up the paper while one is not printing.



When the printing is all done, it is necessary to dry the prints as soon as possible. In drying, the best method is to place a newspaper between each print. Within an hour nearly fifty percent of the moisture will be taken away. Then the prints should be placed between cardboards, one cardboard between each print, and a weight placed on the pile. This allows the cardboard to absorb the remaining moisture, and at the same time to keep the paper smooth and flat. Generally the prints are kept three or four days between cardboards. If prints were exposed to the air to dry soon after the printing, they would become wrinkled and it would be necessary to remoisten them to get them flat.


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