Yoshida - Japanese Woodblock Printing : Chapter IV : Part I

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Japanese Wood-block Printing

Hiroshi Yoshida



Analysis and Printing Analysis

As Revealing the Ability of the Artist

To know merely the number of colours required for the print is not enough in making an analysis. There should be some blocks for blending and multiplying the colours. This will lead to an endless number of blocks, so the number must be minimized as far as possible. This is done not merely for economy, but also to make the use of the blocks practical and efficient.

The greater the ability of the artist, the greater will be his efficiency in the use of the blocks. To minimize the number of blocks without sacrificing the quality of the print is not an easy matter.

One side of the board may be cut in such a way as to print one colour from one part and another from another part. The other side may be cut with another detail of the drawing. These may be printed two, three or more times, some impressions overlapping, while others do not, thus creating variation and giving depth. Such a use of these two blocks cut on both sides of the board gives the print the same appearance as if many blocks had been used in the printing.

Many blocks may be used more than once for colours of different tones, thus producing multitudinous effects with a few blocks. In this way with the efficient use of only five or six boards cut on both sides, it is possible to produce the effect of a print having been printed from fifty or even one hundred blocks.

The efficient use of the blocks is not possible without an extensive knowledge of print-making. The good print means good analysis, and vice versa.

This analysis is not merely a guide for the cutting, but it shows the correct conception in the mind of the artist of the colour composition for the proposed print.

It is not possible to be truly realistic in prints, because of the shortcomings of this medium. A print may be made only of black and white, which is the simplest colour composition. A print may be made of black and red, if one so desires. There should be no objection to making the trees black and the hills red, if the artist can express something worthy by that means. These facts should be taken into consideration in making the analysis of colours.

Some prints may be made with the same number of colour blocks as the actual colours of the objects introduced into the picture. But when a gradation of colour is required, many more blocks will be necessary. Even in expressing white, many blocks will be required, if it is to be expressed under varying circumstances. Suppose a group of people, all dressed in white, is the subject to be treated. The natural white of the paper is not sufficient, for different textures, light and shade, etc. present different tones of white. That of satin is different from that of cotton. That of a plastered wall is different from that of marble, etc. Whistler's "Symphony in White" will illustrate this point. These differences are obtained by colours and by the mode of printing. The number of blocks may be determined according to the different objects in the print, such as the sky, house, figures, ground, etc. Or they may be classified according to the natural colour, such as the blue of the sky going together with the blue of the dress worn by the figures; the brown of the house going together with that of the ground. But this is not all. Besides these individual needs, sometimes another block is required for obtaining a mere tone, such as a dark tone for the interior of the house in the front part of the picture, another tone for the middle distance, and still another for the far distance.

The quality of the block should be carefully examined first, and then, different blocks should be selected for the particular objects for which they are best suited or can best be utilized. It will be noted that some are soft and others hard, some with a close parallel grain and others with a whirling grain and of these each must be utilized to the best advantage.

The analysis of the picture in terms of colours is based upon the ideals of the artist. Such being the case, colours that are not true to nature may be used in order to obtain a certain effect which the artist desires to produce.

The wood-block colour print is often made in the West without using a key-block, though this is very rarely done in Japan. According to this Western process the main block is first cut and the impression from it is used as a kyogo to make the second colour block. The impression obtained from the second colour block over that of the first is used as a kyogo to make the third colour block. So the fourth, fifth and other necessary blocks are prepared and used to complete the print. This process appears a sensible one inasmuch as each block is prepared after seeing the actual result obtained, but it involves a tremendous amount of work. Especially when twelve or more colour blocks are required, does the preparation of so many kyogo entail no end of trouble and labour. It would be well-nigh impossible to make large prints by this process, and besides the artist would soon tire and restrict himself to the fewest possible number of colour blocks. However, if he once realizes the efficacy of the key-drawing, kyogo and analysis, the artist should soon be able to analyze the imaginary picture in his mind. This analytic and synthetic ability constitutes a very important element in the qualifications of the print-artist. According to the general practice in Japan the analysis is all done at the beginning. The fundamental principle involved in this process is the same as that used in building up a print by adding one block after another in accordance with the result obtained from each additional imprint. The principle is the same, yet the ability of the artist using one or the other of these two processes may differ greatly.


Importance of Grey Blocks

The nezumi-ban (grey-blocks) used may not necessarily be grey, though they are so more often than not. Nor are they required to be of any one shade, but may be given in different shades. Sometimes two or three nezumi-ban may be used. They do not cover the entire picture, but the required parts only: and when more than one nezumi-ban is used, they often overlap in places. That is, certain parts may receive two or three impressions one on top of the other, while certain other parts receive only one, according to the effect desired by the artist. The nezumi-ban often instils life into the print; the real ability of the artist may be said to be found in the effective use of it.

When properly used, it gives depth to the colour. When applied over a number of different colours, it multiplies the tones and tints already applied. It gives the print an appearance of having received many repeated impressions, though there may have been only one nezumi-ban in the entire process.

Take for instance a potted chrysanthemum in bloom placed in front of a wooden panel. There is a certain tone, or shade, in the petals of the yellow flowers. Likewise there are shaded parts in the green leaves. The wooden panel in the background shows the grain in a deeper tone. All these may be supplied by one impression of a nezumi-ban. If the wood grain and certain shades of the leaves require a still darker tone, another nezumi-ban may be printed on covering those parts. In some cases still another impression may be used to great advantage. Some of my Indian prints required, four or five nezumi-ban to produce the required effect.

The ability of the artist - his artistic judgment, originality, resourcefulness - will all be revealed in the use of the nezumi-ban, it seems to me. The artist being guided by his artistic instinct or inspiration when he uses the nezumi-ban will often find it in difficult even for himself to analyze the picture afterwards, as in the case of my print entitled "A Window in Fatehpursikri" (No. 148).

The analysis required in print-making is not of the picture already made, but of the picture in the artist's mind. The analysis to be made later of the prints included in this book is the reverse of the ordinary process, it being the analysis of what has been done, instead of what is to be done.


Printing Process Involved

If one is to start printing with say fifty or one hundred sheets, preparation of the paper should be made the day before. It is taken for granted that the tests of the blocks have been made and all found in order, and that trials have been made.

The sheets of paper should be piled face down. Then the right-side edge and the lower edge should be trimmed, thus creating a perfect right-angled corner at the lower right hand. The cut should be clean; no particles or scraps should be left adhering to the edge, as these particles are liable to get onto the blocks and prints and cause a great deal of trouble.

For dampening the paper, water should be applied with a broad hake (Japanese paste brush) to every alternate sheet of paper, thus giving sufficient moisture to each sheet. Then a wooden board is placed on top of the pile of paper and upon this a weight, and everything left in this condition for one or two hours to allow the moisture to permeate all the paper.

Sometimes it is better to wet the paper the second time in order to give the right amount of moisture. In that case the alternate sheets which were not directly dampened before should be the ones to be wet this time. Such extra moistening is necessary depending upon the quality of the paper or the kind of print to be made. But the paper should not be wringing wet. The weight should again be placed on top of the pile to allow the moisture to permeate.

Then the pile should be rearranged by slightly sliding each sheet, placing a certain number in one direction and another set on top of this in a different direction. Thus the pile will be spread out on a few sheets of wet paper and finally the whole must be covered by a sheet of thick paper, on top of which more water should be applied with a brush and then all covered with a sheet of wet flannel and left in this condition over night. This will equalize the moisture in the paper. Such a process is known as otosu (let down) or hawasu (let crawl), suggested by the way the paper is arranged, namely one sheet receding slightly from another.

This will allow the paper to expand, for it is necessary to keep paper in this condition until the final impression is given to the prints.

When all the key-block printing can be done in one-half day, this moistening may be done in the morning, and the pile left until noon. Then the paper should be repiled, and placed face down on the shelf in the box in front of the printing stand.

In printing, if the first ten or fifteen sheets should not be entirely satisfactory, this is not surprising. Various defects will naturally be found and these should be corrected. Finally a satisfactory one may be obtained, and efforts will be made to print the remaining sheets in the same way. This first part of the printing is called kentomi, or testing judgment, and it usually reveals various adjustments necessary in order to secure a perfect register and right colours and tones.

When printed, the sheet is taken off the block and placed right side up on the mekuri-ita on the left. One after another the prints are placed on top of each other as the printing goes on.

The same length of time is allowed for taking each impression so that each sheet of paper may be equally exposed to the air in the process. In this way the moisture retained in each sheet is uniform. So it is, that visitors to the printing studio often spoil the print.

Every night, at the end of the day's work, the paper is allowed to "crawl," in order to get it in the condition first obtained. So it is necessary for the pile of paper to be covered up to prevent it from drying, if one has to leave the work even for a short time.

The process or order in printing is different from that in painting. In the latter the artist may begin painting the picture from one place and continue working immediately around it. But it is not so in the former. If the upper part of the drawing is printed, the lower part should be printed next. If small portions are printed now a larger portion should be printed next, so that the sheet may be printed more or less evenly.

One thing must be borne in mind regarding colours. The pigment when used in printing contains water, therefore the colour when dry will be different. The artist must know the value of the colour when dry. Generally speaking the colour is slightly darker when it is wet.

In arithmetic, 5 plus 5 is 10, but it is not so with colours in printing. If one should apply a colour valued 5 on top of another of the same value the result would not be 10, but about 7, as a part of the colour sinks into the paper and does not add to the intensity. Not only so, but when it dries about ten percent of the value is lost. All this must be borne in mind in making calculations as to colour. In this respect also print-making is different from painting. The painter can judge the effect or result as he goes along, adding the pigment when needed.

The weather, too, is a great factor in printing. If it rains the moisture must be reduced. To effect this dry newspapers may be inserted between each sheet. If dry weather should continue, or when only small designs are printed without giving sufficient moisture to the paper by printing large designs, moisture must be added. Otherwise the paper shrinks and becomes stiff and the pigment does not stick well. In that case newspapers, cut the same size as the print, should be uniformly moistened and then inserted between each print.

A general order should be observed in printing. There are all sorts of blocks, and though the same-sized boards are used, on some blocks only a small portion is cut to be used for one colour impression, while on others a larger portion is cut. Of course, on some blocks the entire surface is cut.

Usually the blocks with middle-sized designs are to be printed first, followed by those with small and large designs. Whether the one with full-sized design is to be printed first or not is a question. After printing blocks with small-sized designs the paper may become dry and necessitate the addition of moisture. Then is the time to print from a block with a full-sized design. Or if the printing of a block with a full-sized design gives the paper too much moisture, some of that moisture should be taken out before another impression is taken. Some prints require a frequent use of blocks with a large-sized design. In that case it becomes necessary to take away the surplus moisture of paper by inserting newspapers. In all cases the artist's judgment is the only guide.

Many failures in print-making are caused by the use of blocks with large sized designs: caution must be taken in printing them. Care should be used also in printing blocks with small cuts, for if too much strength is exerted, the paper becomes indented and when a large cut is printed over them later these marks will show. The pigment then does not stick to the parts so indented, and a reverse effect is obtained.

Another danger in printing many blocks with large cut areas lies in indenting the surface of the paper with the projections of the baren. Such printings done while the paper is soft with much moisture are liable to leave indented lines which do not show until the next printing is done. Then there is no remedy.

Another danger into which one falls by using many blocks with large cut areas is rotting - rotting of dosa, rotting of paste, etc. This occurs when many printings are done repeatedly on the same area, or when the prints grow musty in summer, or get mildewed during the rainy season in the spring.

The rotting is caused by the paste put into the paper originally as well as that put into the pigment in printing, and also by the dosa. The rotting produces grey or yellow spots, and causes some colours to disappear and others to be discoloured with yellow.

The great trouble is that these marks or defects do not show themselves while one is at work. If it does something might be done to remedy or avoid them, but they appear later if the work continues for ten days or a fortnight. In order to prevent rotting, a small quantity of formalin may be mixed in the water - about two ounces to a gallon or so of water - and this be used in moistening the paper the day before the printing. I do not know any bad effect from formalin, nevertheless it is necessary to give the paper the right treatment - medicine alone does not cure sickness; proper care is necessary. This rotting, however, is not likely to appear in printing small - sized blocks requiring only ten or a dozen impressions. It is likely to appear only in printing large blocks, which require many impressions, say fifty or so.

The back of the paper may get kinky by the repeated use of the baren in printing. This is mainly due to the lack of dosa on the paper. The proper way to supply dosa to the back at such a time is to dry the paper first and then apply the dosa and after drying it once more moisten it until it is sufficiently damp. But a simpler way would be to draw a piece of flannel or cotton saturated with dosa over the back of each sheet of paper. But by this method no strong effects result.

The moisture cannot be seen with the eye; one must feel it as he handles the paper. Careful examination should be made to see whether the top or the bottom sheets may not be too moist because of the thick wet paper and flannel that have been placed on the top and bottom over night. By experience the artist will learn to judge the dryness of the paper by the sound when rubbing the back with the baren.

As the pigment is applied only to the picture it is natural that the margin, or border outside may become too dry. In that case, water is applied to the dry margin by sliding the sheets of paper diagonally and applying water from both sides with a Japanese brush, two sides at a time.

When sheets of paper stick together and do not allow any air between them, rot is liable to occur. So paper is "crawled," or arranged with one receding from the other, in order to permit air between the sheets.


Management in Printing

A complete failure in making a print often occurs during the printing, due mainly to mismanagement.

Each sheet of paper has its place in the pile, and should not be changed. The sequence of sheets in the pile is very essential. Each sheet should be considered as numbered. In handling these sheets, in moistening them, in drying them, in "crawling" them for the night, or in taking them up, the order of the paper must not be changed. The importance of this is often overlooked by beginners.

The order is so important that it is well to keep even the spoiled sheets in their places. One is likely to place the spoiled sheets on top of the pile to use later in making trials, but this is not advisable. The order is so important that each sheet, though spoiled, should be left where it belongs.

The reason for this is primarily because of the shrinkage and expansion of the blocks and paper, and also because the change of register marks, the beginning of the ketsu-ochi, and various other matters depend on the order of the printing sheets. While a certain number of prints are being made, the block expands by degrees. So sometimes different register marks have to be made when a certain number of sheets have been printed.

The colour, too, changes gradually. Long standing will cause the colour to grow darker, due to evaporation and to the grinding away of the pigment. Strictly speaking, in order to get the best results possible, it is well to print even the imperfect numbers that have to be cast away at the end so that the order of the paper may not be disturbed.

Ketsu-ochi (the blur or soil which the print gets by touching the pigment on the chiseled surface) should be prevented by suitable devices at the beginning.

When sufficient care is given ketsu-ochi seldom occurs. In spite of all it sometimes does. First it may not show, but later on, say after fifty printings or so, it may appear. It may be prevented by the way in which the prints are removed from the block, but even if the same method is followed the defect may appear in the midst of the work. The blots may occur on a certain number only, and if the order of the sheets is changed, there is no means of knowing when the blot occurs and when it ends. All this tends to show the advisability of not changing the order of the paper.

The first several prints are called kentomi, and while these are being printed the register marks should be fixed and the necessary adjustments made. Should the order of the papers be changed the defects may be spread unnecessarily over several sheets.

Sometimes I am asked, "Which is the best print, the first or the last?" Such a question is generally based upon the condition of the block alone, whether the impression is best when the block is fresh or somewhat worn out. A perfect print is not produced so simply. First the artist struggles to obtain the effect he has in view. When he obtains it, he tries to repeat it. Such being the case, the answer to the above question would be theoretically, "The last print made is the best."

Some artists try to vary the colour of the print. That is. they try to print a certain number of sheets with one set of colours, and a certain number with another set, or they try to vary the shades or depth of colour. Though sometimes such attempts have been made, success is out of the question. A standard print is aimed at, and once obtained it should be repeated. That is the aim with which the prints are made, and such being the case, it is not easy to get perfect prints. It is not at all rare that I print one hundred and fifty sheets in order to get one hundred satisfactory prints.

Though failure is not anticipated in any case, some prints are known to be very difficult to make, and a certain number of failures is inevitable. In making such difficult prints, I have used or prepared for use double the number of sheets desired. In some cases I have printed one hundred sheets, and out of that number forty or fifty have been selected as satisfactory.

Such a failure cannot be attributed merely to the lack of skill on the part of the artist. In wood-block colour printing the combination of elements necessary to produce results is difficult, therefore, some failures are inevitable.

In wood-block colour printing there is no such thing as producing only five or ten prints. They must be printed in much greater numbers. When once the work begins generally several days are necessary to complete it. Continuous work is necessary for these several days; and all sorts of hindrances have to be overcome during that period.

An old cutter of the traditional type is reported to have said something to the effect that it is the printer's work to print correctly. This is neither right, nor just, for the block may not be cut correctly. The cutter must cut the blocks correctly, and then, if in spite of all the block becomes distorted, it is the work of the printer to produce correct prints from it.

Sometimes the block may be "raw" when cut. In that case it will shrink by the time it is to be printed. Then the artist should devise means to make the block expand to the necessary extent before printing from it. Such shrinkage cannot be helped. But the artist should be careful that the drawing is not distorted in cutting, for that is likely to be caused by the incorrect pasting of the drawing on the block.

The shrinkage and expansion of the blocks and the amount of moisture in the paper should be controlled. Thus any defects that may occur in the blocks may be rectified. The block may be just right when it is shrunk, or when it is expanded, according to the condition of the paper.

The moisture in the paper should be kept uniform; and in the same condition as when it was first applied. What moisture evaporates will be supplied by the pigment which sticks to the paper in printing. Thus the moisture in the paper should be as nearly uniform as possible. This is difficult, as the weather materially affects it. When it is fine, the moisture evaporates quickly, while on a rainy day the air is moist, and the evaporation is too slight to balance what the pigments supply.

In the midst of work, if one is required to stop for any reason, a telephone call, or a meal, or the like, the paper should be covered up to keep the same moisture. The work should not be stopped unless these necessary precautions are taken.

Sunshine on paper dries it altogether too quickly. On a windy day the paper will dry much more rapidly than one would expect. If a stove is used for heating the room, this heat should be taken into consideration.

When the work is to be continued on the following day, necessary provision must be made to prevent the paper from drying up, as I have mentioned before. On a wide wooden board a large wet paper is spread and on the top of that the half finished prints are arranged one slightly receding from the next. Then the whole must be covered with wet paper and with wet cloth, and left that way in order to keep the moisture uniform in the paper.

The larger the blocks, the more complicated the work, and the greater the precautions necessary. Such blocks are very troublesome to manage.

The working room should be kept clean. If a particle from the trimming of the paper should get into the pile, it will surely do great damage. It may get into the pigment, and play havoc there. If it sticks to the paper, it will create a blank line or spot. A fluffy bit of cotton will also materially damage the work if it gets into the wrong place, and a particle of tobacco will create a yellow spot. One cannot be too cautious.



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