Yoshida - Japanese Woodblock Printing : Chapter IV : Part IV

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Japanese Wood-block Printing

Hiroshi Yoshida



Efficient Use of Blocks

Blocks should be cut in such a way as to enable the utmost use of them. For instance, if the artist desires the outline drawing to be printed in two different colours, ordinarily it calls for two blocks. But these two may be cut on one board. It can be easily managed if the two parts are somewhat removed from each other. Ordinarily the space required between two parts is about one or two inches. With that much space between them they can be printed without much difficulty. Sometimes closer ones can be managed by covering with tinfoil on paper the part which the pigment brush touches in spite of one's utmost care.

If it can be managed, it is desirable to have only one outline block, even if it is to be printed in two or more colours, because to have more than one will cause great difficulty on account of the shrinkage and expansion of the block and paper while at work. As I have already stated, the same block may be used two or three times in order to give greater depth to the colour. Or one colour may be printed from the whole block, and a different colour from a part of it. Furthermore, the block may be printed in different colours so that they may overlap. Such overlapping is known as kake-awase. In this case one must be especially careful of the colours used so that the result of the overlapping may be what the artist desires.

Such a use as that just referred to is not confined to the outline block. A similar use may be made of colour blocks. Again, if a certain colour is required for a small area in the upper part of the picture, another colour for a small area in the middle part, and still another colour for a detail in the lower part of the picture, these three may be combined in one block and each printed separately.

Just a word further regarding kake-awase. If there are a large number of figures in varicoloured dresses, first blue may be printed; then some of the figures may be printed in red, and, some in brown, leaving out some and overlapping the different colours on others. Thus six different colours may be obtained by only three impressions. If a part can be shaded, the variation becomes much greater.

In such cases, twelve or fourteen blocks will be sufficient to produce a fairly complicated colour combination in printing.


Special Prints (Betsu-Zuri)

The term betsu-zuri means special prints, and signifies different pictures from the same set of blocks. With a slight variation in one set of blocks, different pictures may be produced. However, it is not possible with every set of blocks. The scheme must be premeditated and prearranged in order to do this; every detail must be planned at the beginning.

In this connection, let us consider first that important matter called analysis. Instead of analyzing a print in terms of colour the picture may be analyzed in terms of objects - a block for the sky; a block for the faces of the figures; a block for the reflection of the boat in the water, etc. In that case this set of blocks may be used for different colours, and it will be possible to produce with them a misty scene, a night scene or an evening scene merely by the use of different colours. Such a use also shows a special utilization of the block.

Take the case of my "Sailing Boats" in the Seto Naikai Series. With one set of blocks, with slight modifications, the following six different prints were made: "Sailing Boats - Morning," "Sailing Boats - Forenoon," "Sailing Boat - Afternoon," "Sailing Boats - Mist," "Sailing Boats - Evening" and "Sailing Boats - Night." The forenoon one is the main print and the five other prints are special prints, or betsu-zuri. This was made possible by omitting, adding or substituting a few blocks and by printing the blocks differently, with different colours, or by giving sabi, etc.

Besides the number of blocks needed for the analysis, there should be a few extra blocks for giving the necessary tones to the print - for instance, a block that covers everything in the foreground to give greater value to the tone, another for the middle distance to keep things subdued in tone. These are necessary to give depth and quality to the print.

All this must be planned at the beginning before the work starts. It is impossible~to print the scenery of four seasons from one set of blocks without its first being planned. If such is planned at the beginning, it may with great care be possible. Sometimes when an artist fails with a print, he turns it into a night scene. Such can hardly be a success. A set of blocks intended for an evening scene can hardly be anything but that, however hard one may try to alter it. For the night scene the outline print, to begin with, is different from that used for the morning scene. A great many uses may be made of different blocks, but only by well thought-out planning from the beginning.

The ability of the artist may be seen in the splendid effect produced by the smallest possible number of blocks. The number of blocks must be decided upon when the artist makes the analysis in terms of colour blocks. Generally speaking, the greater the utilization of blocks, the greater is the ability of the artist.

I have found it necessary to use nezumi-ban ("grey block") for covering a large area. By the use of two or three "grey-blocks," the print will be given an almost endless variety of tone. While clear-cut definition is the forte of wood-block prints, it is possible to express in the print an indefinite softness and dreamy vagueness without weakening it. It also helps to give a plastic effect to objects, doing away with the flatness of the surface.

It can be used effectively to bring out the quality of sunshine and shade. It gives charm and depth to other colours, investing with various effects the different colours already in the print. The "grey-block" is often so made that it does not confine itself to the outline: it goes over and beyond the outline regardless of objects and produces pleasing effects. By the use of these "grey-blocks," I have been able to accomplish what had generally been considered impossible in wood-block prints: namely, a soft cadence of colours and tones.

"Cherry and Castle" (Frontispiece) is an example in point. For that print I used two "grey-blocks," one of which I printed twice.

Sometimes the use of the "grey block," being submerged by other colours, is not discernible on the finished print. Yet the effect and the feeling are different when it is there.

Without the use of it, the print remains merely an aggregation of colours without anything to bind them together. There may be a yellow space but it does not turn, into a piece of yellow cloth without the "grey block." There may be pink spots, but they do not turn into cherry blossoms without it. Thus it tends to bring out the texture of the objects portrayed, and the print is flat without it.

In the traditional style of printing, "grey blocks" were used occasionally for such purposes as bringing out the wrinkles in a dress. But this use is very local and limited, and not at all free.

In such an example as the "Symphony in White" by Whistler, it is impossible to attain the aim achieved without the use of the "grey block" in the print. Had he been in Japan and learned to make wood-block prints, I think he would have produced many wonderful specimens for us to admire. Undoubtedly he would have succeeded especially well in revealing subtle gradations in soft colours.


Sunlight and Snow

The sunlight, the glamour of it, has not been expressed in the traditional style of painting in Japan. Neither was it attempted in the print. The colour itself has no sheen of its own. It is rather an immature method to suggest sheen by using a medium such as lacquer, which has its own sheen. But the painter can suggest dazzling sunlight by using other colours, and so he should be able to apply that system to the making of prints.

Though glaring sunlight has not been expressed in the old-style Japanese prints, I maintain that it can be expressed in wood-block prints. Sunlight shows different effects on different coloured objects. But generally speaking it can be suggested by an appropriate use of bright yellow.

Gofun (white) is a body colour. Some people detest using it in prints, but it can be of use. In making a snow scene, for instance, the snowflakes should be shown by the natural colour of the paper, and not by the use of white. But if an. artist wishes to use white for that purpose, let him use it. In such a case, the best effect may be obtained by applying plenty of white on the block and pressing lightly over it so that white may be on top of the other colours, as snowflakes would be on top of the things upon which they fall.

But generally speaking that is indicative of inferior work. And the sense of perceiving something else erased by white does not give a pleasant feeling to the observer. Yet white is effective when one uses it on white paper, not on colours.

It may be mixed with body colours or with transparent colours, making them opaque, and when mixed with white the pigment sticks well to the paper. Every painter knows that it is used mixed with colour for drawing decorative designs, such as designs for ladies' dresses, for it helps to equalize the effect. It also gives thickness to the colour on the print. Even one application of the pigment often gives the effect of many. White should be used by those who appreciate the effect of it in colours.


Gold, Silver and Mica

These mediums, though sometimes desirable, cannot be printed from blocks. They must be applied to the surface of the paper. If the block is to be used, then glue, paste, gum arabic, or some other kind of sizing should be spread on the block first and transferred to the paper by means of printing, and then gold, silver or mica in powder form can be applied to the surface. But this is extremely difficult, for such gold and silver and mica stick to other parts as well. And in order to have the paper in the condition in which it will not stick, it must be dried. If it is dry, the block with glue does not fit into the outline drawing, for everything was printed while the paper was moist. So in order to have the glue applied exactly, a separate block must be cut solely for that purpose. Even then the transfer of glue to the paper is extremely difficult; the glue may sink into the paper by the pressure without leaving a sufficient quantity on the surface. If it is not pressed, then the glue does not stick to the paper smoothly, but leaves a sort of goma-zuri effect, and the gold and silver will stick in granular fashion. If this was aimed at, it is all right, but if not, this method would not work. Here it becomes necessary to use stencils for the purpose of gold, silver and mica application.

Gold and silver are applied after the prints are otherwise finished. The paper is first dried, and a stencil is cut according to the dried print. And this stencil is used in applying glue to the required space in the print. When the glue is applied with the brush, the stencil is removed and gold leaf or dust is scattered or sifted over the paper and lightly pressed down with a piece of cotton. Afterward the surplus gold has to be brushed away from the dry surface of the paper. One must remember that the work is not easy; to have the gold fall exactly on the line of the drawing is almost hopelessly difficult. It may go over the line, but if it is only slightly over, the result is not very detrimental to the print; but if there should be a blank space left between the drawing and the gold, however slight, it looks bad. Furthermore, it is extremely difficult to give it a clear cut edge such as it should have.

The background is the suitable place on which to try gold and silver. Application of it to small places in the drawing in the design involves great difficulties without commensurate compensation. Here, too, without registering marks, it will be impossible to be accurate. Gold and silver may be used in leaf or in powder form. Mica of course is in powder.

The surplus powder is likely to stick to undesirable places, even though the paper may be dry, for it is porous and has absorbed paste though it is now dry.

Instead of glue, the white of an egg may be used for applying gold, silver and mica.



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