Yoshida - Japanese Woodblock Printing : Chapter V : Part I

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Japanese Wood-block Printing

Hiroshi Yoshida




Let us consider now some of the failures which may result even after we have done everything possible to avoid them. The register marks have been corrected, the colour blocks and pigments all adjusted, and the print which may serve as the standard having been obtained, everything may be considered to be in perfect working order. Under these conditions the work may be proceeding. In spite of all this, failures do occur.

Unexpected failures must always be watched for, and caution must be taken against any possible mishap. Everything may be arranged not to leave any ketsu-ochi (blots), but still the pigment may collect into a pool somewhere and may soil the print. Everything may proceed well until the paper gets warped or sagged and causes ketsu-ochi. The paper must be constantly watched - the moisture of the paper, the condition of the weather when the work is continued to the next day, etc.

If the work continues too long before the print is finished, then specks of rot or stain may begin to appear. And when they do appear, it is too late to remedy them. Precautions are necessary, and one must ever be watchful.

Sometimes minor stains which may prove very serious in the end are overlooked, and passed for some time without being noticed. Some may be corrected; others it may be impossible to remedy.

Care must be taken with regard to the peeling of back of the paper by scraping it with a baren. If small particles from the trimming of the paper should stick to the surface, they will spoil the print. The artist must be on the look out for the white lines caused by too much pressure on the baren, when the paper is too wet, and also for stray loose hairs from the brush.

When many tsubushi-ban are to be printed, they should not be printed all in succession. Otherwise the paper will be badly damaged.

No one can tell what may happen to the prints at any time quite unexpectedly. When we discover bad spots or lines in the prints, say on the last day of the printing, imagine our great disappointment! The artist cannot be too careful.


Good Judgement

It is difficult to make right judgments at the time of the trial printing.

But after printing the first few prints in the hon-zuri, if one watches carefully, a correct judgment may be formed.

For instance, the register mark may get wrong. It may be on account of the shrinkage or the expansion of the block after the outline drawing has been printed. Or it may be that the paper has shrunk or expanded. To judge correctly all these phenomena and to devise means to correct them is very important.

Any fault that may be discovered in the blocks should not be laid at once to the cutting. Upon correct judgment depends the life of the print. If a mistake is made in judgment, the end will be disastrous.

The expansion of the paper is liable to be mistaken for the shrinkage of the block. And there is the shrinkage of the key print to be taken into consideration. All this makes a correct judgment difficult as well as highly essential.

The shrinkage and expansion of the block lengthwise are almost nil. If there is any, it is generally the result of carelessness in pasting the drawing on the board for the cutting.

Sometimes the board may be considered to have been shrunk lengthwise, but it may not really be so. It may actually be the wrong use of the register marks; if so, this can be readily corrected by changing the register marks according to the method already described.

Errors may occur singly, and then it is necessary to make a careful investigation to ascertain the cause. When the colour impressions are taken, they may show a perfect registering as far as the colours are concerned, but not as to the outline. In that case the impression of the key block must have been wrongly taken. Thus it is most essential to get at the real cause of the errors.

Often it is difficult to distinguish the grain of the wood from the baren marks. However, the former appears regularly in a given place, while the latter is not fixed in any one place.

White lines may be caused by a foreign material such as bits of paper from the trimming or stray hairs from the brush, or possibly something else.

There are many defects, such as small blots, which can easily be overcome if one only discovers them in time. If unnoticed, the defect will appear on all of the prints.

We are likely to overlook even so clearly visible a cause as dirt in the pigment, or a lump of pigment on the block. Such can easily be removed, but may remain without our knowing it. Sometimes the brush produces bad lines due to the manner in which it is used in charging the block. Bad lines are sometimes caused by the brush, which should be rubbed against shark skin in order to even the hair. But if the bad lines continue to occur notwithstanding, the cause must be sought elsewhere.

The grain of the wood may be ground off with nagura. Or it may disappear when the freshness of the block wears off. This must be correctly judged. Kanna-mura, unevenness in the planing of the board, may be found on the block. This is difficult to correct; it can be remedied to a certain extent by levelling the surface with a whetstone. Nagura is generally used on the better surface to make it even with the worse surface.

The knowledge of these facts will help the artist to form good judgments when confronted by defects. If misjudged, the failure will be serious as the defects may be too great for repair. If the trouble lies in the baren, however much one may apply nagura to the block, the print, far from being improved, will get worse.

Instead of the tsubushi the artist may find goma. If he arrives at the conclusion that this has been caused by the undue hardness of the paper, he will have to do something to overcome it.

When the defect appears gradually and disappears without attention, it is generally due to the condition of the moisture in the paper or to the nokori-enogu on the block.

To detect the cause of the trouble is essential; and this must be quickly done. Otherwise these defects may spoil five, ten or even twenty or thirty sheets of prints before the trouble can be remedied. This may be borne with patience, perhaps, but when the whole pile of prints is spoiled, it is indeed unbearable. Such a tragedy is not impossible, especially when the dosa is poor, or when the quality of the paper is below standard.

A glance at an object is better than hearing a hundred times about it. If these errors were shown in a print, the readers would understand them at a glance. But to include such examples is not within the scope of this book. They will be left for the readers to study, find out and take necessary steps to remedy.


Large Blocks

Large blocks are exceedingly difficult to work with; I have made failures in such attempts. I had to struggle hard in managing large prints and in so doing I have learned a great deal. The experience was worth while not only as an aid in making large-sized prints, but also in perfecting small-sized ones.

So far I have not found any record concerning large art prints. I know of no attempt, except one of a single impression for kites and another of many impressions to reproduce a painting.

Once I was told that there were a number of very large cherry-wood boards on the market. This gave me an idea; I purchased them and at once set out to make large-sized prints. Though I have had some experience with ordinary-sized prints, I was not aware of the great difficulties which I had to encounter. The increased size brought with it many unexpected troubles.

The first year I tried two prints: "Fuji in the First Rays of the Sun" and "Kumoi Cherry Trees." These measured about 1.8 ft. by 2.3 ft. I went about the work in the usual way, and when everything was ready for printing "Kumoi Cherry Trees," and I had come to the colour blocks, I found a great shrinkage in the blocks, or something else, almost one-half an inch. I pondered over the cause of the trouble. The wood I knew was well seasoned. So I thought the shrinkage must have come before the cutting. Finally I came to the conclusion that the paper I had used for the kyogo was not of good quality. Minogami was not large enough, and I had to use thin hosho (which was very much thicker than minogami), which I concluded must have been the cause of the trouble.

In printing the outlines I tried to overcome this difficulty first by expanding the paper, wetting it with as much water as it could absorb, and then allowing it to dry in order to shrink it as much as possible. Yet the shrink-age was not enough. Then I tried to expand the colour blocks by warping them. Yet they did not expand sufficiently. There was nothing more left to do but to print by means of bokashi (gradations) in such a way as not to reveal the gap caused by the shrunken kyogo, printing it three or four times, from both ends instead of once over all. Though the finished print does not show it, I had to struggle a great deal with it.

The following year I tried again, determined to avoid the cause of the trouble. After a diligent search of three days all over Tokyo, I finally found an excellent paper for the kyogo. It was paper with very little shrinkage or expansion called Tosa-toshi, or honkusa, made in Tosa province in a considerably larger size than minogami and generally used for the mounting of kakemono, or hanging scrolls. Everything went on all right and the result was an exact fit, thereby revealing the correctness of my judgment, though it took a year to verify it.

In my first year's experience, I had to use a great deal of pigment on the irosashi to indicate the colour on account of the nature of the drawing. In doing so the kyogo of hosho paper was expanded considerably with moisture. But when it was dry, and when the paper was pasted on the block to be cut, it shrank very much, as we all know that paper once moistened does when it dries.

For the printing sheet also I found hodomura excellent. The first year I had to use torinoko, which was too thin, making it difficult to manipulate. The paper was too large to be handled alone when printing. The first year I had two persons for the printing, but the baren used by two printers simultaneously fought each other on the block and the result was far from satisfactory. Even in placing the paper on the block charged with pigment, it was not possible for two printers to move in unison. Consequently, air-pockets were created now and then, thus spoiling the print. Finally, a support was devised to enable one person to manage it. Then for the first time the result was satisfactory.

"Numazaki Pasture" (No. 103) and "Hodakayama after Rain" (No. 102) were the two prints I made the second year. "A Sea of Cloud" (No. 104) and "Rapids" (No. 105) were the results of my attempts the third year. These four prints were much larger than those made the first year.

Skilled printers were put to work. When a large block was placed in position for printing tsubushi, the printers were appalled. It requires a great deal of strength in printing, yet strength alone is not sufficient: even a champion wrestler may not be able to print such large blocks. It requires a knack. I found that an able printer could not take more than five impressions at a time. If he were allowed to recuperate, the intervals would spoil the paper: therefore the work must be carried on continuously. So I engaged two more printers for the work, shifting them after every five sheets.

Another difficulty was that when the printing paper had been given many impressions from the colour-blocks, it warped and sagged and there was danger of air-pockets being created. This I had to avoid by all means. In order to overcome this fault, I had to flatten it again, by suspending the work of the printers for one whole day for that purpose. Then while the paper was flat I had them print the beta-ban, or flat tone.

The fourth year I tried two more large prints, which were slightly smaller than the ones tried the first year. I had learned a great deal by experience, so I proceeded very cautiously. Everything went on nicely without my being hampered by any trouble.

By managing to surmount various difficulties in connection with these large prints, I learned many lessons which have proved to be of great service in making the minogami size (ordinary-sized prints). Economically the result of the large prints has not been commensurate with the trouble involved.

The year following, the fourth of my trial work with the large-sized prints, I tried prints of very small size, about that of a postcard. I wanted to experiment to find out whether certain effects possible in large prints could be produced in the small ones. Everything proceeded smoothly, assuring me that the principle learned in making large prints - the importance of the quality of paper for kyogo and the fact that it must not be too thick - was applicable also to the making of smaller ones.



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