Yoshida - Japanese Woodblock Printing : Chapter IV : Part II

Return to the Table of Contents / eBook version of this text

Japanese Wood-block Printing

Hiroshi Yoshida



Artist at Work

The attitude of the artist as he sits in front of the block with the baren in hand to print must be full of tension. It must be similar to the musician sitting at the piano at a concert. He must be alert. He must be conscious of the fact that the least carelessness will cause damage to the whole work. There are many things to be taken into consideration while he is at his work.

When about one-third of the printing is done, or when about ten blocks have been used in a print which may require thirty - the print looks excellent and the artist will be pleased with it. It has unprinted parts showing the mellow white of the natural paper, with the colour under good conditions, for it looks best when the paper is moist. The artist will congratulate himself on his success which seems assured. But when he goes on further in his work and reaches the stage when some twenty blocks have been used,.he will be disappointed in the print. It will seem as if he has made a failure of it. He is likely to become despondent. The whole surface is covered with colour, yet the colours need improvement. But one should not become desperate. The last third of the work, which is very important, requires much patience and care in order to produce a satisfactory print.

Once the process is completed, it is not possible to rid the print of the flaws it may have. In painting in oil, one may keep adding more arid more pigment where needed, but not so in printing. When the print is finished, it is finished forever. To add another colour to the finished print will involve difficulties almost unsurmountable. Thus the paper would have to be re-wet; and the order may have been changed causing more trouble. To make a failure of it, means the wasting of all the arduous work that has been put into it.

The work should be done with care, the artist giving his constant attention to it, and keeping at it in a whole-hearted manner and in no slipshod fashion.

The greater the number of the blocks used in the production of a print does not necessarily mean a corresponding greater success. Though there are some prints that have required as many as five hundred impressions, they were not a success merely on account of the great number of printings made. Some prints may have great artistic value though produced with only one impression. Such is the case in etching. Yet Japan has a process, which has been perfected after many years - a process in which one can successfully use as many colours as one may desire. Using so many colours makes it all the more necessary to do the work whole-heartedly.

The stack of moistened paper is piled on the shelf in the box facing the artist, the paper face down with the right-angled corner at the right in front. This corner is caught by the right hand between the thumb and the middle finger and near the left end with the left. hand between the first and middle fingers. The corner is brought to the register mark, pressed down firmly with the thumb so as not to damage the corner. This is very important. With the left hand the paper is adjusted to the horizontal cut on the left part of the block, the other end of the paper being held up free of the block. Then the paper is let fall into place beginning with the nearest edge. Care should be taken that no air-pockets are made under the paper. The left hand must hold the paper so as to prevent it from falling prematurely on the block. The paper should be held firmly with tips of the thumbs at both registers even after it is down.

This is important, for paper is light and liable to move. And even when it is printed off the register mark, the impression may not show this until other impressions are taken. After two or three other impressions of colour blocks are taken, then for the first time, the artist will be able to detect whether the paper moved while he was printing the key-block.

When the baren is rubbed on the paper on the block an impression is obtained. Then the paper is caught by the left-hand side corner with the left hand and pulled off the block and placed on the stand on the left-hand side, the print being turned right side up. In this process care must be used not to drag the corner of the print over the block, for that might soil the print. Or sometimes the print is lifted by holding its upper edge. The cut of the block determines the manner of lifting the print.

If one is unable to manage the handling of the print with one hand, he may remove the print with both hands. But this is not advisable and the artist should train himself not to use both hands for the right hand has other work to do while the left is engaged in removing the paper from the block.

The print when taken off the block may be placed on the stand sidewise or upside down, or sometimes every other print is placed upside down in order to equalize moisture in the paper. In whatever position it may be found, the artist should be able to judge the result of his work.

The work should proceed with uniform continuity. When the work begins on the second sheet and proceeds to the third and fourth, the intervals allowed between each impression should be the same. When the pile is finished, the prints should be kept in order and placed on the shelf face down as before.

In the course of printing, sometimes it becomes necessary to change the position of the register marks as we have already observed. But this should not take too much time. If it does, the prints should be covered up to prevent them from drying.


Use of Baren and Brush

(1) The Baren. The origin of the name baren is not clear, as I have already stated in the previous chapter where I stressed the importance of this peculiar printing pad. As I have described the baren fully elsewhere, suffice it to reiterate here that it is the soul of the printer.

Without going into details, let me remind my readers that the baren consists of three parts: the coil or disk of cord technically known as baren; the ategawa made by pasting many sheets of paper one on top of another, and the kawa, or bamboo-sheath with which the ategawa containing the baren is wrapped. It should be remembered that since the fibre of the bamboo-sheath with which the cord is made is stiff, the cord is by no means smooth; and has numerous projections. These corners or projections on the cord do useful work in printing. The baren gives a stronger pressure on the paper to be printed because of these projections, which serve to push the colour through the paper. The paper must be flexible enough to resume its former flatness even after being pressed. The baren becomes coarser - the corners or projections become more pronounced - as the strand used in the cord is increased. The four-strand cord is made by doubling the ordinary cord of two strands. By doubling the four-strand cord, an eight-strand cord is obtained; and by doubling that a sixteen-strand cord is obtained which is very much coarser than the four-strand cord.

The baren with a four-strand cord is commonly used for the outline block; and usually a worn-out one at that. Or one made of paper cord, instead of bamboo-sheath cord is used. The most commonly used baren for colour blocks are the ones with eight strands.

A part of the bamboo-sheath cover is used to make a handle for the baren. This handle is held by four fingers, and in pressing it against the paper naturally the strength is placed on the lower, or fatty part, of the palm. Consequently only a part of the baren is used. So it is necessary to turn the baren within the cover in order to use the baren uniformly. When the corners of the cord are pretty well worn out and the baren becomes smooth, then the coil is undone and recoiled to expose more angular corners, and so it can be used again. By careful use, a baren may last for several years. It is exceedingly durable. Someone once tried metal wire, but the life of the baren so made was very short, owing to the fact that wire does not rebound. The bamboo sheath has proved to be much more durable than metal wire for the purpose.

When marks of the baren are required on the print as in my "Parrot," a sixteen-strand baren is usually used.

The baren made of four-strand cord contains about twenty-one or twenty-two coils, the diameter of the disk measuring about five inches or so.

The baren is sold unwrapped. The artist who prints has to get a baren, ategawa and bamboo-sheath and wrap the baren to suit himself. The life of the wrapping sheath is not very long; often it wears out in a single day. So the printer has to rewrap the baren many times in the course of his work. It requires art to do this, an art so inseparable from the ability of the printer, that one may be able to judge his ability as a printer by his skill in wrapping the baren.

A small quantity of camellia oil is put on the bamboo-sheath on the baren and rubbed on a piece of cotton.

When the tsubushi-ban (block cut all over) is printed, the bamboo-sheath wrapping comes to grief in one day. When badly wrapped, the life of the baren is especially short.

From olden times, there have been some secrets handed down concerning the use of the baren. But the details must be divined by the artist who prints. In printing, the baren is pressed with the fatty part of the palm. This means that the strength for rubbing the baren should come not from the hand but from the shoulder, the strength of the whole body passing through the shoulder. Mere manipulation of the hand is not sufficient.

The pieces of bamboo-sheath left over from wrapping the baren may be used for stirring the pigment and applying it to the block. In making this, the piece of sheath is wound around a piece of stick notched toward the end. It is tied firmly over the notch and the bamboo-sheath cut at the required length. The softened sheath may be shredded, by taking off all the soft parts of the bamboo-sheath, and leaving only the fibre to form a suitable brush.

Other kinds of baren may be made according to one's need. Once I used one made with cardboard for a pad, not for rubbing but merely for tapping the paper on the back to get a certain effect for the background of my print, "Portrait of a Boy" (No. 98). The baren may be made with entwined rice straw, like those sold in very cheap sets in some shops. The ones made of rice straw are suitable for printing the charms issued by different temples and shrines.

In printing the outline drawing, the first few impressions are liable to be unsatisfactory, but after that if the right amount of pigment is applied satisfactory results will be obtained.

By drawing the brush across the grain more pigment will be left on the board, and because of the paste contained in it the porous surface of the wood will be filled. The thick pigment held between the paper and the block is driven into the paper by the pressure applied to the back by means of the baren. When the pigment is well absorbed by the paper in printing, it may be detected from the back without looking at the printed surface. Usually the colour penetrates about one-half the thickness of the paper; this is discernible while one is working with the baren.

In rubbing the baren on the paper, start at the lower right-hand corner with a short zigzag motion gradually moving to the farthest edge. Start again from the bottom with a short zigzag motion, working towards the farther corner. The rubbing will naturally go over one spot many times, but that does not matter; no difference will be seen in the end, for the amount of pigment on the block is limited and all of it is to be taken up by the paper by rubbing it from the back. The strokes should not be very long. Do not move the baren from the right to the left end at once, but work gradually towards the end. When the surface of the beta-ban is uniformly rubbed, to insure good printing an extra light rubbing at both ends along the edge across the grain of the wood should not be omitted.

Where there are some indented places in the block, that is, where the area to be printed is cut up and not in a mass, the strength applied on the baren may be less than on the beta-ban to get the same impression.

Care must be used not to push the paper to one side in printing. The baren should be used flat on the paper, and pressed with the lower portion of the palm. In order to hold the paper in position, one presses the baren lightly on the lower right-hand corner before proceeding to rub the other parts. If pushed to one side, the imprint will not fit when the other colour blocks are used.

Some artists prefer rubbing the baren from left to right. This is done because the register marks hold the paper from sliding to the right. The rubbing should be in one general direction.

It is best to practice printing on the beta-ban which produces a flat tone all over the block. To get colour uniformly all over the block is difficult, but if one is skilled in printing the flat tone successfully he will be able to do the others easily. Printing other kinds of blocks is incomparably easier than this. Every print-artist should have something to practice on in order to develop his skill, and he can not choose anything better than flat tone printing.

It is natural therefore that in the Edo Period this flat tone printing should have been emphasized above everything else. Experts warned the printer against goma-zuri (spotted granular effect). They insisted that the impression of the beta-ban should be uniform. In olden times they did not study the best ways of utilizing the goma effect, but simply tried not to produce it.

The paste gives thickness to the colour, and for a similar reason gofun (white) is sometimes used. But as this has a tendency to dull the colour, it should be used only when such an effect is desired. It is difficult, however, to get the desired intensity of colour from one impression; in trying to do so the paper will be tormented and the print is likely to be damaged in consequence. In such cases it has been found advisable to print the same colour twice, not in immediate succession, but in two rounds; then a good colour and a good effect are obtained without damaging the paper.

The starch paste may have been used originally as a means of preventing the paper from slipping on the block during the printing. The paste certainly helps to give a clean unified impression, but it is not used to make the pigment adhere to the paper. It is not strong enough to stick deep ultramarine and mineral pigments to the paper, so glue or gum Arabic is preferable in such cases.

That it takes a great deal of physical strength for the rubbing in order to get all the pigment on the block transferred to the paper may be easily realized by looking at the front surface of the print during the printing. However, if one tries to get all the pigment on the paper by rubbing it violently, the paper will stick to the block and become difficult to remove. This spoils the paper. Though the art of getting a satisfactory effect with one rubbing may be mastered in time, one should not hasten to obtain the desired result; time should be allowed for this. If necessary print the same block twice, and thus overcome the difficulty.

Sufficient pigment should be put on the block, but if too much is used there will be a tendency for it to overflow and give a blunt definition to the print. If, on the other hand, too little pigment is used, then the grain of the wood will be brought out on the print. The best condition to bring out the grain of the wood when required, is to use as little pigment as possible, as much paste as possible, and then finish colouring the block by stroking the block with the brush parallel with the grain of the wood, and rubbing the baren in the direction of the grain.

The best way to obliterate the impression of the grain of the wood is to grind the surface of the wood with nagura (fine whetstone) and tokusa (dried pewterwort). Of course, in choosing boards for different colour blocks care should be exercised to get the right quality of wood. In spite of this care, it may become necessary to obliterate the grain by artificial means. Sometimes it becomes necessary to use an extra board of different grain on top of the first in order to do this. Though the grain may seem to be troublesome, by printing another block a certain pleasing result may often be obtained, a result which appears to have been obtained not from the grain, but from something else.

When I worked on "Yozakura in Rain" (No.185) I chose for it a board with a masame ita (parallel grain). But in the course of my work the vertical lines began to show themselves on the print. Of course, they could have been erased by grinding the surface of the block with nagura, but I did not do so. The lines helped to express the feeling of rain, and though in this instance such an effect was not planned, it could have been planned beforehand.

(2) The Brush for Pigments. We have already observed that it is common for beginners to use small brushes; those who have been at the work for a considerable length of time have a tendency to choose larger ones. Even for small subjects, a large brush is better. A small brush has to be charged with fresh pigment often. This may cause unevenness of colour. The large brush is able to unify the colour all over the print. It may be used two or three times without adding a new supply of colour, and has a tendency to give an even effect. A brush improves with use.


Blots (Ketsu-Ochi)

A regular sequence of motion establishes itself as one goes on printing, creating a sort of channel for the course to be taken by the baren.

The baren may press the paper on the cut-down part where there is pigment, or it may strike the high, uncut place where there is no pigment. In the former case, the print will be soiled, and this is called ketsu-ochi. In the latter case, the print will receive an indented mark, a sort of blind printing. This, too, should be avoided.

The design on the block to be printed is hidden from view as soon as the paper is put on the block. Therefore, it is natural that the first two or three sheets should have ketsu-ochi, further cases of which should be avoided as soon as one or two are found. If the ketsu-ochi occurs in the latter part of the work, it means carelessness on the part of the artist in printing.

Since the printing is not done by pressing the whole surface of the block at once, as in a press, but by rubbing the surface with a baren in disk form, it is necessary that the blank places should be cut low; the more the place recedes in the design, the greater the depth should be. This, not only on account of the baren, but on account of the paper. The paper warps and sags, as the colour is applied to one part of it, and ketsu-ochi are liable to occur more frequently.

A blot may occur in the drawing itself, or outside the picture. There are blots which are inevitable: they occur when the register marks are too near the drawing. These may be termed excusable blots, as the quality of the work would have to be sacrificed in order to avoid them.

For beginners it is sometimes difficult to detect the blot, or soil, but this becomes more evident later. From experience, however, one may learn to judge from the quality of the block where the soil is liable to appear. The artist will know where to look for it and be able to avoid it with care.

The ketsu-ochi is likely to be found where the design comes to an abrupt ending, where there is neither support nor any design which may serve as a support. For about two and a half or three inches the paper sometimes seems to be able to hold itself from dropping, but not always. Again, one may think that no unnecessary pigment should be put on the sunken places, but this cannot be helped, for the design of the block must be well coloured to insure a good impression.

Often in printing a colour block of the foreground of a design with a narrow sky in a horizontal position, the paper falls on the edge and gets soiled. In that case the artist should devise means to avoid the blot by placing a match-box or something of the sort on the printing-stand for the support of the paper.

While, on the one hand, the blocks should be cut in such a way as to prevent the ketsu-ochi, on the other hand, the artist should print them in such a way as not to allow the print to be soiled.

The ketsu-ochi may not occur while one is rubbing the print with the baren, but may appear when the print is being taken away from the block. How and when the blot occurs should be found out. If it is caused by dragging the print over the block, a different place should be taken hold of in removing the paper from the block.

Without carefully ascertaining the cause of the ketsu-ochi, all the paper may be taken off the block in the same manner, causing all the prints to be soiled. This often occurs when the artist is inexperienced in printing.

If the soil shows on the drawing itself, it is advisable to swab it away with a wet cloth. If it is on the margin outside the picture it may be removed by means of boracic acid.

The following are the causes of ketsu-ochi:

  • (a) When the unnecessary parts of the block are not sufficiently taken away by cutting deeper.
  • (b) When the places which should be taken away are left uncut.
  • (c) When the condition of the paper is bad or when it sags.
  • (d) When the force of the baren reaches too far in printing, touching places it should not.
  • (e) When the print is dragged in removing it from the block.
  • (f) When extra pigment collects in cut-down places on the block when these are charged several times with colour.

Blurs should be very carefully avoided. To be sure, there may be other defects in prints, such as not enough colour due to insufficient pressure, etc., but a blot immediately catches one's eye, because it is something which should not be there. If the blot is fresh, it may be wiped off, but if another colour is printed over it, it is beyond repair.


Shrinkage and Expansion of Blocks and Paper

The block shrinks and expands as well as the paper. The nearer the centre of the tree the greater is the warping. In order to expand the shrunk surface it is necessary to wet that surface with water. In connection with the blocks, it must always be borne in mind that the paper also shrinks or expands and the balance between the two should be kept constant as far as possible.

To reverse the warping, wet the concave surface and heat the same. If both surfaces need to be expanded, then dip the block into a warm bath, and leave it over night if necessary. When the boards for the blocks are carefully selected and if they have been well seasoned, we may assume that the blocks will fit exactly, one upon the other. However, it is difficult to get the blocks in exactly the same condition.

The wood naturally does not expand if left alone; it shrinks as it dries. If there is any expansion in the print, it is due to the shrinkage of the paper, or the pasting of the shrunk kyogo on the block before cutting it.

Though blocks do expand by receiving more and more moisture as the printing proceeds, the extent of the real expansion is very slight when the board is thick. When it is thin, it will warp very quickly.

The colour blocks may register exactly one day, but on the following day they may not. This difference depends on the difference in the shrinkage or expansion of the paper.

This enables us to realize that the outline drawing should be printed the same day while the same conditions prevail. Otherwise the colour blocks which are made from it will have to be printed under conditions similar to those in which the outline drawing was printed. Such is almost impossible to secure.

Shrinkage in paper about a foot wide may be about two mm. due entirely to the paper. It shrinks not lengthwise, but only crosswise. I am speaking now of the usual sized paper, or one-half the large hosho, made of paper-mulberry fibre, not containing pulp.

The direction of the fibre in the paper should first be ascertained so that the paper may be used in such a way as to have the fibre in the paper run in the same direction as the grain of the wood. Otherwise the management of the shrinkage and expansion will become hopelessly complicated.

So far I have been speaking of the worst cases imaginable in order that the readers may be well prepared for the worst. Needless to say that when the conditions are good, everything will go on smoothly and good results will be obtained.

When a full sheet of hosho is used, the conditions will be quite different. It is necessary for the artist to master first all the details under ordinary circumstances before attempting the double sized print. Then he will be able to devise means to surmount all the difficulties with which he may be confronted.

The full sized hosho is known as masa-ban, and it measures 1 ft. 8 in. x 1 ft. 2 1/4 in. Half a sheet of hosho, the most popular size in use, is called minoban. This is a very convenient size: convenient not only in handling the paper in printing, but in getting cherry-wood board for the blocks. Larger sized boards will be rather difficult to obtain.

The moisture that comes from printing and also from humidity in the air must constantly be watched. From the beginning to the end the moisture must be carefully considered, and other things must be constantly adapted to suit. As we have already noted, moisture causes not only expansion but rot and stain as well.

When a strong baren is used, and when too much moisture is contained in the paper, markings of the baren are often left on the surface of the paper unnoticed. But when the next impression is taken the markings will remain blank, because of the depression. This also occurs if extra strong pressure is given to the paper when very wet. The annoying part of this is that these lines, which are just like those obtained in blind printing, do not show them while the artist is making them but reveal themselves when he is printing the next block.

It may be better, if possible, not to "kill" the paper entirely. The reason why prints become better with age may be because the paper gradually resumes its original condition. If that is so, it may be better to leave a little "life" in the paper so that it may more easily recover its vitality.

Having been printed on the wet paper which is expanded, it is natural that the finished picture, when it dries, will be somewhat smaller than the original drawing.

The degree of shrinkage differs with the quality of paper used. Hosho, which is generally used, shrinks very little, but an inferior-grade of paper will shrink much more. In spite of this some grades of inferior paper can be used and a good colour obtained, though on the whole paper of a superior quality naturally produces a better picture.

Shrinkage in the finished product will by no means prove detrimental, except when a certain fixed size is required to fill a given space. In that case the original outline drawing should be made so as to allow for shrinkage.



Add your input / Ask your question ...

Enter the characters you see in the picture above, then use the Submit button. (Press the Preview button to get a different image.)


Back to the Opening Page