Yoshida - Japanese Woodblock Printing : Chapter V : Part III

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Japanese Wood-block Printing

Hiroshi Yoshida



General Management

An amateur may try quick work. He may draw in the morning and cut the block and print in the afternoon. That may be possible with a small block for a limited number of printings. However, if an artist is to make colour prints on a large scale, there are seasons to be chosen for each particular part of the work. Sketches may be made in spring and the drawing completed and the key block cut in summer. This is the time most unfavourable for printing, for the heat of summer will tend to spoil the work.

It is best to leave the block cut with the outline drawing for a fortnight or a month, exposing it to the air in order to restore it to its natural state. When the outline drawing is cut, a fresh surface of the block will be exposed, and shrinkage is the natural result. After giving it enough time to shrink, the printing may be proceeded with and the kyogo made.

April and May may not be very good seasons, nor June, especially during the rainy season which comes about this time in Japan. That is the worst period: the prints mildew and rot.

Winter is the best time for printing. Not only for printing, but for all kinds of work. But as an intervening space of time is necessary for each part of the work before one proceeds to the next, it is best to begin in the spring and then draw, cut the outline block, make kyogo, analyze the colours, etc., before the autumn. The best drying season in Japan is the autumn. Therefore, boards should be dried in the autumn of the previous year.

These conditions obtain in Japan, but the countries south of the equator may have the rainy season in a different period of the year and conditions will naturally differ.

The boards should be well selected. For sumi-ban (outline drawing), iroban (colour block), including tsubushi-ban (flat block), chu-ban (board cut with medium sized designs) and koiro-ban (board cut with small designs) suitable boards should be chosen.

One artist may do all the work connected with the colour printing. This is highly desirable. But the result may not be superior simply on account of the fact that it was produced by the artist himself. If he can neither cut nor print well, the work may be bad even if the artist has done the whole work himself.

When an equal or better result can be obtained, the cutting may be entrusted to a professional cutter, and the printing to a professional printer. In cutting the outline drawing a skilled cutter of several years' experience will be able to cut the lines much better than the ordinary artist. But there is another kind of cutting which cannot be entrusted to the specialist. That is the work by which the artist wishes to bring out certain feelings which he has in mind. That he has to cut himself, to express himself directly. For instance, to indicate the shimmering reflection of the sun in water, it is not possible to draw every necessary line or the dots to be cut, but the artist may be able to accomplish the desired effect by cutting the block himself, using the chisel as his fancy moves while working on the block. Such a quality of work cannot be left to the professional cutter. A few dots more or less would not matter in the result and the artist will be able to work out the effect he has in view with the chisel, though not with the brush. This class of work must be done by himself and cannot be left to any other person.

Take the case of the "Obatan Parrot" (No. 70). The branch for the perch, the tin can, or the contour of the bird can better be cut by a professional cutter than by an ordinary artist. This is so because he has only to reproduce the strokes of the brush as given in the drawing. But when it comes to the marks on the plumage, it is not so. Here it was not intended to have any brush strokes reproduced, but to show the peculiar quality of the plumage by cutting. So that had to be done by the artist himself. There a few strokes more or less would not matter.

A certain artist and critic in America allows the printing to be done by somebody else, insisting that the cutting should be done by the artist himself. That may be so in the kind of work produced in America, but not in the Japanese wood-block colour print.

There is a certain technique prevalent in Japan which the artist himself has to use. For instance, he feels that a certain mood can best be revealed by giving a certain turn and twist to the brush in applying the pigment to the block in printing as in painting. That ability is not expected of the printer; such work is better done by the artist.

Fundamentally the artist should do all the work required in wood block printing, if he is well versed and skilled in everything connected with it. But he may use a specialized cutter and printer provided he has sufficient knowledge and can use the cutter and printer merely as instruments to execute his wishes. Under such circumstances they may advantageously be employed and the result, in a way, may be said to be the artist's own work.

In architecture, the architect designs, and the contractor or builder builds, each knowing everything connected with his profession. But the details of the work have to be left for others to complete. The builder does not mix concrete, though he requires it to be of fixed proportions of sand, gravel and cement, nor does he rivet the steel beams, though he specifies this to be done in a certain way, nor does he actually lay the bricks, though he prescribes the particular way in which they are to be laid. Yet he may say in pointing to that building that he has built it.

In colour printing the relation of extra hands employed is very much more intimate than that which exists between the designer and the builder.

When I am not actually printing myself, I often sit by the printer, watch the result of each impression, direct that a certain colour should contain a few more drops of water, or less paste, etc. Often do I direct him to print the same colour on the same block twice in order to obtain the deeper tone I desire. I do actually mix pigment for him to use; and I may even direct that the baren should be used in a special way to achieve the end in view. If I go out of the room, he is likely to go astray, getting results I did not anticipate, much less desire. These prints are failures, judged from my viewpoint and I may or may not discard them according to my judgment. Nevertheless they may be called my work, for even in my own painting, the result sometimes comes out differently from what I intended.

I have been told that the great Whistler sat by the printer and destroyed what he considered to be failures by consigning them to the waste-paper basket. Later some of these crumpled cast-away prints may appear before the public. Yet they can hardly be called forgeries. The etching may be a failure, but it bears all the necessary marks, save his signature (butterfly), of a successful etching by that artist.

Of course the analysis must be done by the artist; no one else can do it. But he may allow the cutter to cut some of the lines and do the sarai (clearing work). Precision is necessary in this work and it is mechanically difficult.

The etcher uses acid; he allows acid to eat the metal away as the print artist uses the professional cutter to cut the block.

It may be observed here that all these blocks, though of wood, last much longer than the bronze plates used in etchings, in which a roller and a press are used. When about one hundred sheets have been printed, the bronze may be badly damaged and so must be set aside. Wooden blocks last much longer. The method of giving longer life to the blocks is by giving them a rest occasionally, allowing them to dry out at times. Much damage is done by the mineral or coarse body-colour pigments; but not much by the brush, or by the baren, as is commonly supposed. If transparent pigment is used the wood will be better preserved. When the block is used for a long time at a stretch, it becomes soft with moisture, and easily scratched, and hence damage is likely to occur while it is in that state.

The two prints - "Cherry and Castle" and "A Junk" - shown in this book were printed, to be sure, from wood-blocks, but were somewhat differently made from my other art prints on account of a large number having been required. Naturally under the circumstances different methods had to be utilized.

One striking difference was that a larger number of blocks was used than usual. This was because the blocks were not combined. By not combining them the life of the blocks can be prolonged.

In making art prints some of the blocks have to be used as many as five times, printing them with the same or different colours. Such being the case, if I were to print two hundred sheets of prints, some of the blocks would have to be utilized as many as one thousand times before the work was completed and would have to be replaced by fresh ones even in printing two hundred sheets.

Here it may be necessary to point out, as was suggested above, that there is a difference in the management of the blocks when the prints to be made have to be a mass production - as the illustrations used in this volume - or an art edition. As has been stated already, for the purpose of producing a large number of prints, it is better to avoid the repeated uses of the blocks. Furthermore, many duplicates of the blocks may be necessary upon the one hand, while, upon the other, many blocks that are necessary in making art prints may have to be omitted, as was the case with the colour prints shown in this book.



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