Heron and Iris

Last month's print was a little bit too wide for this album, and this one is almost too high! Back when I started these Surimono Albums I spent many hours calculating a suitable dimension for them. There was no question that the album had to be in a square format - I knew that print designs would be in both horizontal and vertical formats, and there was no way that I wanted to mount any of them sideways, as I would have had to do if the Album was in a rectangular format. In the end, I decided on a size just about the same as an LP record (are there any among you who still remember those?). I find it a very pleasing dimension; prints in the most standard shikishiban size (like the first one in this year's set) fit into it very well, as do prints made in dimensions approximating the famous 'golden rectangle' (like most Japanese book page designs). But when I push the envelope in one direction or another, like I have done these past couple of months, the effect is not so pleasing.

I want to keep things interesting though, so I will continue to make prints of whatever size and shape, as long as they are stimulating designs. What I must do of course, in the case of prints which were originally much too large for these albums, is shrink them down. That is what I have done here; this design by Hiroshige was originally issued in what is known as the tanzaku-ban size - about 38cm high - but I reduced it to about 23cm. If any of you were considering putting these prints up on the wall in frames, this reduction in size considerably reduces the dramatic impact, but when they are held in the hand, or as you turn the leaves of this album, the scale gives a good feeling of intimacy, which is just what I want when I look at a woodblock print!


There are a number of gradations on this print, and as I was printing them I thought back to the years when I was working on the Hyakunin Isshu prints. Those prints had originally been designed back in the 1770s, and at that time the bokashi technique was in its infancy; no gradations were used in the original book at all. I 'broke the rules' a bit and did add some to a few of the prints in the series, but generally, throughout the ten years of work on those prints, I had very little opportunity to 'practice' making gradations. Now here in these Surimono Albums - month after month I find myself working on prints that contain numerous gradations!

Making a gradation on a woodblock print is a fairly straightforward process - moisten the wood in the area where the colour is to taper, apply the pigment in the 'deep' area, then brush it out smoothly in the effect desired. What makes it difficult is the requirement that each of the prints in the stack have an identical gradation. Modern printmakers don't really care so much about that, but to the traditional suri-shi, it is a very strict requirement. He may be free to test and experiment with various gradations during the proofing stage, but once the decision is made as to the desired appearance of the print, no deviation is permitted.

Why is it difficult to make them all the same? As one works, the pigment tends to 'creep' up into areas of the brush where it is not wanted, and the gradation becomes wider and wider. If one takes a break and washes the brush, then the succeeding prints tends to have a narrower gradation. It is much like trying to drive a car along an absolutely straight line; as you make small adjustments to the steering wheel the car moves ever so slightly from left to right. Some years back, my gradations varied in the same way as a beginner driver - veering wildly from one side of the road to the other. These days, I have somewhat more control, but I am still not driving in an absolutely straight line. I think though, that if you were to visit my workshop just on the day that I am drying the finished 200 prints, and were able to see them all stacked together, you might think that the variations between them are not so great ...

It's a very interesting paradox - working in a creative field, yet working as an absolutely mindless robot, trying to reproduce an exact image time after time. It seems there are advantages to being a stubborn person ... sometimes!


July 2001