Yoshida - Japanese Woodblock Printing : Chapter IV : Part III

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Japanese Wood-block Printing

Hiroshi Yoshida



Colours and Variety of Printing

To build up a print, it is usual to begin with light colours, proceeding to darker ones, and finishing with the darkest.

Another method is to begin with a colour of medium prominence, using it as the standard and then adding to it lighter and darker colours alternately.

Some artists may use simple colours first and proceed to add other colours to obtain a complicated effect. There are three primary colours: red, yellow and blue. Then there are three secondary colours: purple, orange and green. The use of these six colours, and the order in which they are to be applied should be left to the artist himself. The prismatic spectrum is considered to give seven colours, indigo being added to the above list. This is because blue appears much broader than any of the others. But the six colours may, I think, better be considered as constituting the set. Broadly speaking, the colour scheme may be said to be simple, when it is made up from this set.

The colour in the print differs according to the number of times the baren is applied on the back. It is natural, therefore, that different artists should produce different effects. But a uniform result is aimed at in the production of prints. The artist who prints should follow the exact path of the baren and repeat the exact number of rubbings. This is generally done by intoning a certain song or verse in a sing-song way as one manipulates the baren. Otherwise it will be difficult to repeat the exact number of movements of the baren in the exact time and manner. If in America the following lines may answer the purpose:

"Eeny, meeny, miny, mo,
Catch a tiger by the toe,
If he hollers let him go,
Eeny, meeny, miny, mo."


If in the Loochoo Islands the following may serve:

"Taga fitcharu fiya kuruku
Donchino miwa uwa fitcharu fi."


I learned this by ear when I travelled through the Loochoo Islands and it may not be in correct form, but the phonetic rhyme will answer our purpose.

Or one more poetically inclined may repeat the last two stanzas of one of Kipling's poems:

"And only the Master shall praise them,
And only the Master shall blame;
And no one shall work for money,
And no one shall work for fame.

"But each for the joy of the working,
And each in his separate star,
Shall paint the thing as he sees it
For the God of things as they are."

Figure 22


The rectangle indicates on the paper the block of mino-gami size

The heavy line indicates the middle of the baren where strong pressure is applied in printing.

The dotted line shows where the baren is moved lightly.

The arrow indicates the direction of the movement of the baren.

It is difficult to print tsubushi of the mino-gami size, but this is the best for practice as it constitutes the foundation of all styles of printing. It requires a great deal of strength and the work may he facilitated by holding the left front of the printing stand (not the block) firmly with the left hand while printing.

First the paper is secured on the block by pressing it lightly with the baren. Then apply the baren near the right-angle register mark and press it in a short zigzag motion, beginning at the bottom and gradually moving forward as indicated by the heavy line in the drawing. When the baren reaches the top, it is brought down to the bottom again and with a light circular motion worked up to the top again and then moved down to the bottom of the middle part of the block to work on a fresh area, as indicated by the heavy and dotted lines. In this manner the whole surface may be covered in three upward moves. During the work the result of the printing may be judged from the back as the paper absorbs the pigment.

In printing tsubushi of a medium size block, some artists begin working from the left to right, but this may be considered exceptional.


The artist when printing should be able to place his brush in exactly the same place, even without looking. The brush must not turn, or fall to the side, else the order of the colour in blending may go wrong, thus spoiling the whole work.

The position of the baren, too, should be fixed: it should rest always on a piece of oiled cotton. This will enable the artist to print with a certain rhythmic movement.

There are various kinds of impressions made from one colour block. The more important among them are the following: tsubushi-zuri, goma-zuri, barensuji, and mura-zuri.

(1) Tsubushi-zuri. A flat tone, known also as beta-zuri. Since we have spoken of this before, it will not be necessary for us to dwell upon it here. A deeper tone may be secured by repeating the impression twice or three times on the same block in the same way. Generally speaking the flat tone requires more paste and pigment on the block than do others. A baren made of an eight-strand cord is suitable, and the printing requires careful rubbing.

(2) Goma-zuri. Goma means sesame and suggests black particles on white. It is obtained by a soft rubbing of the baren. This is better produced while the surface of the paper is yet fresh. In getting the goma effect, paste is not absolutely necessary, though it may be needed to prevent the paper from slipping. A baren made of a four-strand cord, or a worn-out baren, or a paper-cord baren - the weakest kind of a baren - is the best for this purpose. An extravagant use of pigment is required to produce a certain goma effect, and a scanty use of it produces another effect. Use according to the need. Do not place too much pressure on the baren. When the surface of the paper is too smooth, it is difficult to produce goma. In manufacturing it, paper is dried on a board, and some kinds of paper are marked with the grain of the wood. In goma printing the marks of the wood grain are often brought out, though unintentionally.

Goma-zuri printed twice produces a very interesting effect. Or this style may be used in combination with tsubushi. Another interesting effect may be achieved by pressing the baren with force at one end and gradually decreasing the force toward the other end. This produces a sort of a blending in goma.

There may be large or small goma. These can be produced by the kind of baren used and the amount of strength applied in printing. The coarsest kind of goma may be obtained by merely dropping the paper on the block. Slightly finer effects may be obtained by lightly pressing the paper with a flat baren. Various grades of goma may be mixed in order to produce an interesting background, as that in my print entitled "Portrait of a Boy" (No. 98).

When the paper becomes hard and dry, fine goma can be produced. This occurs even when trying to produce tsubushi. Of course, an unintentional result will hardly ever be satisfactory. The effect I have secured may be treated as a variety of goma.

Figure 25

Baren-suji; baren of sixteen-strand cord

(3) Baren-suji. This is a kind of printing in which lines produced by the baren are shown. The baren is so made as to easily produce baren-suji. In fact, it is in the nature of the pad to produce these lines on account of the angular projections of the cord contained in it, and these projections are essential in driving the pigment into the paper. But in olden times the printers were required not to show such lines in the print; it required long and laborious practice to eliminate these lines which were considered defects in the printing. But if such lines can be used to advantage, there is no reason why we should not make use of them.

The fact is that the beta, or flat tone, is the result of numerous baren-suji, so numerous that one cannot be distinguished from the other.

In order to produce baren-suji, it is better to use a small quantity of pigment on the block, and the printing should not be given too much strength, nor too many strokes.

For ordinary purposes it is best to work with the baren of eight-strand cord, having the fibre of its bamboo-sheath covering running in the same direction as that of the paper. But in case baren-suji are desired the baren of sixteen-strand cord should be used in the direction of the grain, or across it, or with a circular motion. If the paper is rubbed across the fibre, it is liable to peel, especially when too wet. This difficulty is overcome when the paper is hard. Thus it is necessary to take advantage of the time when the paper is dry to print baren-suji.

Paste makes the lines clearer, sticks pigments better, and gives depth to the tone, but excessive use of it warps the paper. Its use should be left to the option of the artist, for it is not absolutely necessary.

Different qualities in lines and colour are produced by different grades of baren. Care should be used to choose, the right grade for the purpose in view.

The baren with a sixteen-strand cord is rough and coarse; one with an eight-strand cord is more delicate. But one with a four-strand cord is hardly angular enough to be used for producing baren lines. It must also be bourne in mind that when the baren is fresh, the lines are more distinct, leaving white spaces between the lines. When the baren is old, the lines will be somewhat blurred.

Baren-suji are peculiar to prints. They were used on my "Parrot" prints (Nos. 69, 70, 71) to give a certain effect. By the rough effect on the background achieved by using baren-suji, the fluffy, feathery effect of the plumage is emphasized. Of course, in painting the aim is achieved by means of contrast, and in prints baren-suji can be used to advantage to get same effect as in the above-mentioned examples.

Baren-suji will be easier to make and clearer if they are put in at the beginning of the printing, before the paper is compressed with many impressions. But they will be obliterated when other colours are printed over them. When worked in toward the end, the lines are likely to be disturbed, yet will remain comparatively clear. So, according to the purpose desired the artist should use the baren-suji either at the beginning or at the end. For a print of night scenes, it is printed at the beginning to be submerged by other colours, such as in "A Junk" (at night) inserted in this volume. (See Plate F facing page 92.)

A different manipulation of the baren produces a different quality in the marks. If the baren is used with a circular motion, circular marks will be left on the print; if it is rubbed horizontally, horizontal lines will be the result. Horizontal lines often help produce the effect of moving water such as is seen in my "Sailing Boats." In that instance the blue lines were worked in with baren by horizontal rubbing and they gradually vanish in the distance. Suji can be produced only where there is enough space, for if the space is too small, there will be no room to move the baren.

(4) Mura-zuri or uneven printing. For beta, goma and baren-suji the pigment is applied over the entire surface of the block, but in the case of mura-zuri the pigment is applied to the block unevenly. That is, it is applied with a brush after the surface of the block is wiped with a wet cloth. The pigment on the brush should be rather scanty to get good results. The brush may be whirled at one place and drawn horizontally at another, in order to obtain the desired effect. This cannot be repeated exactly, of course, as each time the brush works somewhat differently.

Tataki (beating) may be considered one form of mura-zuri. For this the pigment is applied to the block by tapping the surface of the block with the brush. This style comes in very handy sometimes. For instance, there may be a lot of cherry buds; it will be better to have some of them darker than others. Such a result may be obtained by tataki. Unlike baren-suji, mura may be produced anywhere, even in a small space.

Fuki-tori (meaning to wipe away) is another form of mura. A certain part of the block is wiped off with a cloth after the pigment has been applied. Even the parts where the pigment has been wiped off show a different result from that in printing without first giving any colour. This fuki-tori produces a pleasing effect. Gradation in all forms may be obtained by wiping the block with a wet cloth. The blending or shading may be done not only in a straight line, but also in a curve, or in a curve and a straight line combined. Any motion of which the human hand is capable may be employed. This may be a sort of mura-zuri, but since it constitutes an important style of its own we shall treat it more fully under the sub-topic of "Gradation and Blending."

Examples of tsubushi, zokin-zuri, circular baren-suji, and mura-zuri by goma method are found in this book. Of these tsubushi is the most essential; tsubushi is that variety in which all the pigment smeared on the surface of the block is absorbed by the paper. All other varieties of printing are secondary. It must be observed that it is not necessary to use all these kinds of printing in any one print; perhaps one or two will be quite sufficient. Even a new variety may be devised by the artist in order to produce the effect he desires.

Whatever the variety desired, the device in printing should come from the artist, and not from the professional printer, who is merely a printer. The artist desires to express certain moods or effects, and he wishes to attain that end by devising all sorts of methods in printing. Thus the methods may be endlessly numerous.

These methods are not used merely to show technical skill in printing, but because of the artist's requirements. I have watched very carefully professional printers at work, especially when they have made failures. And many of these failures I have made use of by waiting until the proper occasion. They should not be printed merely for the sake of printing, but for the perfection of the prints.

Figure 24

Zokin-zuri; baren of four-strand cord

(5) Zokin-zuri. In this method of printing old rags are used in applying pigment to the block, and in printing from this one secures a sort of goma effect, though somewhat different. We have already observed that the goma is best produced while the paper is yet fresh, but zokin-zuri may be utilized at any time and a very similar result obtained.

(6) Kara-zuri (blind printing). This is an interesting technique. It can be made good use of in some prints. Whenever necessary a block is cut especially for this purpose and the baren is applied as in printing, though no pigment is used. The baren should be manipulated with great strength so as to indent the drawing on the paper. The blank indentation so made will remain untouched by the pigments, though the impressions of different colour blocks may be given to it later. Even without the use of a special block, blank indented lines or spots will be made. There is a certain pleasing quality in the lines so created, and it is easy to get the desired effect when dealing with lines and dots, but is difficult when the cut is large. Moreover, it is impossible to get exactly what one wishes or to repeat the process precisely.

(7) Bokashi (gradations or blending). There is a wide variety in gradations, but at least the following seven must be mentioned:

(a) Gradual gradation. In order to get the gradation required, the block is rubbed first with a wet cloth on the end where the colour is to disappear in the gradation; then a moistened brush is dipped in pigment at one end and is rubbed against the block back and forth and sideways a few times so that the pigment in the brush may be diluted with the water left by the cloth. This is repeated for each print.

When the shaded area is to be broad, often thick pigment is applied to one end and thin pigment to the middle part. This will save the movement of the brush toward the end where there is no pigment.

(b) Short abrupt shading at the end of a narrow tint. Water is first applied to the block with a cloth and then the pigment with either maru-bake (brush covered with pigment) or kata-bake (brush with pigment at one end).

(c) Short abrupt shading at the end of a long flat tone. Maru-bake is used. First wet the block with a rag; then rub the desired area back and forth with the pigment contained in the maru-bake. The slight natural irregularity caused by this motion, aided by water on the block, will produce the gradation.

(d) Obokashi, a gradation in a wide area. Gradual shading over an area of one foot or so involves difficult work. First wet one end of the block with a rag, and apply pigment with a broad brush, as broad as the area to be covered with gradations. It is necessary to print several times, each time narrowing the space to be shaded. Thus the gradation of a long area may be obtained.

(e) Curved gradation. The brush containing the pigment should be applied to the block, twisting it or curving the motion as required. The principle applied is similar to other forms of bokashi.

(f) Curved and straight gradation combined. A similar principle prevails here also; the straight and curved motions are combined when applying the pigment to the block.

(g) Gradual blending of two colours. In producing this blending, a broad brush is used saturated with different pigments, one at each end, which will blend into each other when the brush is moved on the block. Sometimes two brushes are used, each with a different colour. If there is to be a vacant space between the two colours, water should be applied there.

To be sure, there are other kinds of bokashi: a variation may be created by the use of the baren; the blending spots may be obtained by wiping the pigment off the block in certain spots; or a piece of cloth may be used with water to create shading in any form desired.

A piece of cloth folded with a piece of wooden board inside is generally kept on a tile on the work-stand. And while engaged in this kind of work the placing of the rag is very important. If it should be turned around, the colour might be applied to the wrong place.

It is the same with the brush; carelessness will bring similar disastrous results.

In creating gradations, it is easier to work with plenty of pigment. Therefore, if the block has many small holes, such as represent shimmering lights on the water, the pigment is likely to fill the holes. The block should be tapped with the brush and then the finishing strokes given before printing so as to clear the holes.

The rag is used for applying colour to the middle of the block in order to get a blended effect. For this the rag is revolved around the spot, leaving the pigment in the middle. Sometimes the rag is flapped on the surface and then a small amount of pigment is applied to the middle with a brush as in the case of obtaining red cheeks. But these devices often fail to produce satisfactory results.

The blending, as well as the baren-suji, show the effects obtained by printing from the blocks that are not cut for that purpose. They produce splendid results if well utilized, but bring complete failure when badly used.



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