Two Women Sewing

Here is our third print of the year, a design by Onishi Chinnen, dating from the 1830's. We seem to be going back and forth in time during this year's set of surimono; I hope you are enjoying the ride!

During the ten years that I made my Hyakunin Isshu series of prints, it would occasionally happen that after sending out a print I would receive a phone call from one of the collectors. "Ummm, I'm sorry to have to say this, but I think that there is a problem with this month's print ... I would like to return it in exchange for another ..." Whenever this happened I asked them to send the print back to me, and when it arrived I would anxiously look it over to find the problem. Sometimes I would find that yes indeed, I had sent out a print with a blob of ink or some other problem, and in that case I quickly exchanged it and promised that I would be more careful when checking in the future. Sometimes though, it was the case that my eyes and their eyes saw the print in different ways - what they thought was a 'slip-up', leaving the rough natural edges on the paper for example, I thought was normal.

Now what about this month's print? When you opened the package and saw it, perhaps you were ready to phone me right away! Look at those carved lines down in the lower right hand corner; many of them are rough, ragged and torn. Is my woodblock worn out already? Look at the outlines in the face of the older woman; they are extremely light. Did I forget to put enough 'sumi' on my brush? Look how the dark black of the water container has spread out onto some of the nearby kimono lines ... This print is a crazy mess - there are mistakes everywhere!

Well, I hope you understand when I tell you that I worked very hard indeed to make those 'mistakes' just as they are! Unlike the previous two prints that I have made this year, in which I added colour blocks to an original design, this print is an almost exact reproduction of the original (I have slightly reduced it in size). Those torn lines, weak sumi, and 'careless' printing are all just as they were in the original.

You see, this print is not 'ukiyo-e'. The design has nothing in common with the standard ukiyo themes of actors, courtesans, and Edo famous places. The original of this print was made with the intention of reproducing as closely as possible, a quick brush-drawn sketch. Back in the Edo era, albums full of designs such as this were commonly made, sometimes to serve as 'te-hon' (sample books for aspiring artists), and of course also to be attractive images in their own right.

To make all those ragged lines, I used the 'kasure' (scratch) technique to try and catch the flavour of a partially dry brush dragging across the paper. After the basic shape of the line is carved, one then takes the knife and digs, cuts and scrapes away at the wood. It's hard on knife blades, and takes a long time, but when it's done, the finished print looks very much like it was actually drawn with a brush.

And as for the 'weak' sumi, I printed the key block of this print twice - once with an extremely dilute 'ao-zumi', and then again (but only partially) with a stronger 'bokuju'.

Some of my western printmaker friends see me doing this kind of work, and think that I am doing it all 'wrong'. In their eyes, a woodblock print should look like a woodblock print - not like a copy of a painting. They think that the wood grain should be visible, that the shape of the gouges that did the cutting should be discernible, that the texture of the wood should dictate what kind of image comes out on it. But in the traditional Japanese technique, woodblock printing is a reproductive medium, not an 'art' in itself.

As I progress through this year's album, there may perhaps be other times when you open the package and think "Eh! What is this?". Well, if you're not sure - then please phone me and check. Perhaps it will be a mistake, I can't promise perfection! - but perhaps it will be another 'special' way to carve or print; there are many woodblock printing techniques which I have not yet tried.

Last month, I used my tools to create a 'reproduction' of a Sukenobu design; this month, with the same tools, but used in a very different way, I have created a Chinnen print. This is one of the great strengths of the Japanese woodblock technique - that it can speak in so many different voices.

May 1999

David