Yamaguchi Gen’s printmaking method

This studio note is concerned with the working method of the sōsaku hanga printmaker, Yamaguchi Gen (1896-1976), as described by Gaston Petit and Amadio Arboleda.[1] Petit knew Yamaguchi as a friend, and he and Arboleda visited him in 1973, to record his procedure for their book. They had “forgotten that [he] did not favor the planned scientific approach, preferring more the inspiration of the moment—a kind of intuition or Zen-like zest,” but was methodical, once “in the mood for work.” An interesting aside is that his “workshop [was] rather small.”[2] I follow their account, with these modifications: (1) headings are given as numbered stages; (2) the text is abbreviated and organised as bullet points; (3) some comments are introduced; and (4) there are minor changes of terminology. Yamaguchi’s final print is Untitled 1973, 75 x 43 cm, ink and colour on torinoko paper.

Stage 1: elaborating the image

  • Preliminary sketches are made in reverse to the orientation intended on the final print.
  • A full size, final line drawing is made to the scale of the planned print.
  • Colour notes and other instructions are included in the final drawing.
  • The drawing is transferred to the block by tracing with carbon paper and soft pencil.

Stage 2: carving the board

  • Yamaguchi usually uses only one plywood board, which is carved on both sides, and works with only 4-5 tools: square, flat chisels, and a few U-gouges.
  • “Yamaguchi limits his selection of tools because he believes that it is the printing process that is important, not the making or carving of complicated boards.”[3]
  • Tools are sharpened in advance to minimise interruptions to the carving.
  • Yamaguchi uses an unconventional, simplified kentō registration that suits the scale of his work and the graphically simple design.
  • It is not stated at which stage the registration is added but it can be assumed that it is done before or, more likely, at the same time as the drawing is transferred to the board.
  • The eight colours used for the print illustrated are separated, four on each side of the one board, the image on each side turned at 180º to the other.
  • Four colour-area outlines are traced onto each side of the board, with enough space between them to allow them to be worked on separately, especially at the printing stage.
  • The outlines of each colour area are clarified with charcoal.
  • The first step in carving is to cut carefully along the line bounding each colour area with a narrow flat chisel (where other printmakers would normally use a knife).
  • Next, the area along the preliminary line is carefully cleared, using the same chisel.
  • Finally, a broad U-gouge is used to clear large areas of the board.

Stage 3: dampening the paper

  • Yamaguchi’s preferred paper is a heavy, sized torinoko.
  • A corner of each sheet is trimmed at a right angle for registration.
  • His dampening instrument is a mizu-bake brush, not a spray.
  • A stack of printing paper is made, sandwiched between heavy cardboard, newspaper and heavy plywood. The individual sheets of printing paper are not separated by newspaper.
  • The sequence is: (1) the cardboard is dampened on both sides, (2) it is overlain with newspaper, which is then dampened, (3) each sheet of paper is dampened as it is added to the stack, (4) the whole stack is covered by a sheet of heavy plywood and a weight.
  • This stack should be prepared at least 4-5 hours before printing and overnight, if possible, to ensure the thorough dampening of all sheets.
  • The inner structure of the paper should remain damp throughout the printing process.

Stage 4: the printing process

  • A sheet of cardboard protects the board’s underside while the other side is printed.
  • The organisation of the colour areas on each side of the board does not necessarily reflect the order of colour printing.
  • Colours are printed more or less in order of their tone, from darkest to lightest, and with respect to the sizes of the colour areas, mainly largest to smallest.
  • While the printing paper is being registered in place, a sheet of newspaper is laid on the board, to protect the printing paper.
  • The printing paper is placed in registration and fixed in place with clips, so that it can be lifted when required, without losing registration. The clips can be moved during printing, to keep them out of the way of the work.
  • The newspaper is removed.
  • The colour area of the board to be printed is dampened with the brush and wiped off with a cloth prior to printing.
  • Flour paste is dabbed with a spoon onto the area of the board to be printed. The paste produces an even, flat layer of colour, and the amount used depends on the desired effect.
  • The pigment is applied to the colour area with a tebake brush, mixing it with the paste, and spreading the mix evenly over the area to be printed.
  • The printing paper is laid carefully in place.
  • A protective sheet is laid over the printing paper and…
  • …the baren is used to print the colour.
  • The paper can be lifted to check progress and, if necessary, more colour can be added and/or the paper can be re-dampened, and the printing process repeated.
  • After each printing, the paper is placed face up, next to the printing table, covered with wet newspapers.
  • When each session (of one or more colours) is finished, for several sheets, the resulting stack is flipped over, ready to start again, going through the sheets in the same order.

Paul Griffiths 2017

——————————————

[1] Petit, Gaston, and Amadio Arboleda. 1977. Evolving Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints. Tokyo, New York and San Francisco: Kodansha International: 45-54, plates 4-11.

[2] Ibid.: 46, for all these quotes.

[3] Ibid.: 47.

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Glove and bottle, 2013

Glove and bottle, 2013 – still life painted monoprint, 3 versions

I participated in the OCA Printmaking 1 course through February 2013 to March 2015. This documentation presents the earliest work made for the course that merits long term recording. It combines work from two exercises concerned with producing painted monoprints based on a still life study, represented here by a drawing and watercolour of a water bottle and garden gloves; hence the original title: Water bottle and garden glove on the studio table.

For these prints, I was printing by hand, with a baren or brayer, from a painted plate, and was dissatisfied with ink pick-up from the plate. Through February I had been using Akua Kolor, then, after a hiatus through March, began to use Caligo Safewash inks in April, hoping that different inks would yield better results. The brief entry in notebook12 is only a comment on this situation, and there is no other documentation other than what was written up for the course. The present record is based on both sets of OCA documentation; which has involved changing the original numbering of the second and third prints in the present sequence. The comments at the end summarise my views on these problems as understood in May 2017.

primary documentation

  • OCA documentation: pm1-01-03 (print 1) and pm1-01-05 (prints 2, 3)
  • artworks record: 2013-04-03
  • notebook12: 04
  • sketchbook18: drawing dated 16.02.13
  • watercolour dated 17.02.13 (artwork record 2013-02-17)

preliminary drawing and watercolour

The sketchbook drawing (1) is framed to 25 x 20 cm, the printing plate size for print 1.

(1) sketchbook drawing

 

The same subject is repeated in watercolour on Saunders Waterford, Not, 300 gsm; framed to 28.5 x 23 cm, similar proportions as the drawing and printing plate. The watercolour is based on an outline pencil drawing (2, 3).

(2) watercolour in progress

 

(3) finished watercolour

 

Making print 1

  • made: 16-18.02.13, including preliminary drawing and watercolour
  • printing plate: 25 x 20 cm glass plate
  • ink: Akua Kolor relief ink with release agent and other media
  • paper: Moulin du Coq Ingres ivoire
  • monoprint painting brushes: various synthetic brushes
  • printing tools: baren, brayers

See (4) for the printing set-up. For registration, the printing plate – concealed in (4) but see (5) – is mounted on the cutting mat, aligned with its grid, and fixed in place with blu-tack. The printing paper is attached to the mat, aligned to its grid, and fixed with masking tape hinges on one side. The drawing, watercolour and original still-life assemblage are all available to view, and seven colours are pre-selected, based on the watercolour.

(4) set-up for print 1

 

The printing plate is first coated with release agent, which is rolled up on the mixing plage and transferred to the printing plate with the brayer, trying to achieve as thin and uniform a coating as possible.

Monoprint painting is a cumulative cycle of working on the printing plate, building up the still life image with a variety of brushes, then printing with the baren, returning to painting work on the printing plate, printing again… ad infinitum (5).

(5) print 1: early stage of painting and printing

 

In practice, I find it much easier to work from the watercolour than the drawing or still life assemblage. The paper is noticeably stained by the release agent. Going through the cycle noted above includes experimenting with extender and blending medium, to thin the ink and make it more transparent, and alternatively to thicken the ink with tack thickener. To get more pressure, the baren is exchanged for a soft brayer (6).

(6) print 1: printing with soft brayer

 

After about 2h30mins of this, a lot of effort is taking me virtually nowhere. A brayer and kitchen roll is used to remove as much of the painting as possible from the printing plate. Then a thin coat of release agent is reapplied to the plate, and the cycle of painting and printing is tried again. The problem comes in two stages: (a) getting ink onto the printing plate, as wanted; (b) transferring the ink from plate to paper. I get to a point where I feel this is going nowhere, and I’m tired and frustrated (7).

(7) print 1, as completed

 

Making prints 2 and 3

  • made: 03.04.2013
  • printing plate: 30 x 25 cm acrylic plate
  • ink: Caligo Safewash inks and oil
  • paper: machine-made kozo (print 2), Clairefontaine Ingres blanc (print 3)
  • monoprint painting brushes: old hog bristle brushes
  • printing tool: Speedball baren

The printing set-up is more economical than that used for print 1 (8). Registration is by the same method, and only the watercolour and original still life are available to view.

(8) set-up for prints 2, 3

 

Print 2 is printed on the smooth side of machine kozo. Eight colours are mixed on the inking plate, in small quantities with relatively large additions of oil. The painting is done on the printing plate quickly, aiming for a summarised understanding of image and colours (9).

(9) print 2: painting the plate

 

Images (10, 11) show the sheet of registered kozo immediately prior to printing and in an early stage of printing with the baren. Because more ink than expected comes through the kozo, there is a pause for a clean-up of the work area and inking plate, but not of the printing plate. The print was then completed (12).

(10) print 2: immediately prior to printing

 

(11) print 2: preliminary pressure on the kozo sheet

 

(12) print 2: completed print and plate

 

 

Print 3 is printed on the smooth side of Clairefontaine Ingres blanc. The sheet of kozo is replaced with the Ingres paper, registered in the same way (see 10). The image that was left on the plate at the end of making print 2 is left as it is, and further re-painting is done over this image, with the same colours and more oil (13).

(13) print 3: the re-painted plate

 

Printing is done with the Speedball baren, some localised re-painting is done after an inspection of the result, and printing is finished with the baren (14).

(14) print 3: completed print and plate

 

Prints 2 and 3 can now be compared (15).

(15) prints 2 and 3

 

Comments, May 2017

At the time, I was inclined to see the drawing and especially the watercolour are the most successful parts of this work, and felt disappointed with the monoprinting, especially at the conclusion of making print 1. Of all three prints, print 2 is the more successful, and it seems most useful in retrospect to examine why this is so, considering each technical aspect.

Painting on the plate: I had assumed that it would be necessary to simply the subject, in the move from a watercolour image to a printed image, and accepted this as part of the basis of moving from a drawn or watercolour-painted image to a painted-printed image. However, I encountered several, basically physical problems that, while they may have provoked some degree of image simplification, also created unwanted difficulties and frustrations. This was one reason why I changed from Akua Kolor to Caligo Safewash inks after print 1, but I don’t think this change made much difference, except that I found the use of Akua Kolor release agent as much of a nuisance as a benefit, as it tended to stain the printing paper and inhibited the subsequent application of ink to the plate with brushes.

Printing from the plate: It was equally or more difficult to get the ink to transfer from the plate to the paper. For print 1, I tried to apply more pressure, with a brayer rather than baren, but it didn’t make a significant difference to the result. The Speedball baren, used for prints 2 and 3, was more satisfactory. That’s a nice tool.

The printing papers: Two varieties of Ingres paper and a kozo paper were used. The Ingres papers were chosen as relatively thin Western papers with good surface textures that I hoped would assist in ink pick-up. In fact, there wasn’t much difference between these papers, while the kozo absorbed the ink deeper into the structure of the paper, as is to be expected of an East Asian paper, producing a clearer and more vibrant result.

Given how many factors are involved, it is difficult to isolate the problem. At the time, I felt inclined to distrust Akua Kolor and its dependence on a wide variety of agents, and felt that a combination of Caligo Safewash inks, the Speedball baren and the absorbent kozo paper was responsible for the relative success of print 2. Perhaps that is a good judgement but it can be tested only through further experience.

© Paul Griffiths, 6th May 2017

Review of Scenes of Last Tokyo, Ashmolean, Oxford

A review of ‘Scenes of Last Tokyo – Japanese Creative Prints from 1945’

Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, UK, 2 Feb – 5 June 2016, gallery 29, admission free


Anyone interested in printmaking and/or Japanese modern culture may want to see this small exhibition before it closes in early June. It’s well worth the journey and the time. This review is based on my visit in late April.

The exhibition consists of a display of fifteen woodblock relief prints made by nine Japanese artist-printmakers and published as a set in December 1945, soon after the end of World War II.[1] The prints were made and published as a deeply nostalgic and sad gesture, recording famous sites in Tokyo that were extensively damaged or entirely lost in the incendiary air raids on the city during 1945.[2] The publisher, Uemura Masurō, presented the set of prints with an English title, Scenes of Last Tokyo – Fifteen Scenes of Last Tokyo in Original Woodcut.[3]

The printmakers were members of the Sōsaku Hanga movement. In a British context, we remain unfamiliar with this important development in modern Japanese printmaking, as publications and exhibitions tend to be relentlessly focussed on the ukiyo-e prints that were produced mainly during the Edo period (1600-1868). Ukiyo-e prints were produced in a commercial, publisher-led collaboration with an artist, carver and printer, intended for mass-circulation to an urban middle class.[4] Their production was defunct by the late 19th century.

In a very different cultural-political world from that in which ukiyo-e art had flourished, two new printmaking movements developed in the early years of the 20th century. The Shin Hanga (New or Revival Prints) movement was based on a return to the older collaborative mode of production, and sought to meet the demands of Japanese and Western markets for refined, highly crafted prints of contemporary, mainly romantic and picturesque subject matter.

The more radical Sōsaku Hanga (Creative Prints) movement embraced the modernist Western aesthetic of the artist as an independent creative agent. Sōsaku hanga printmakers were often artists who had already trained as oil painters in a Western, quasi-modernist manner, yet who also felt a need to retain contact with their native traditions, including a sensibility based on traditional tools and media, especially the use of washi (handmade Japanese papers). For this writer, the arising paradoxes and poignancies are part of the interest of this movement.

On the one hand, and on the model of the modern Western artist-printmaker, each sōsaku hanga printmaker was usually responsible for the whole printmaking process, through conception, design, cutting and printing. They were, therefore, free to define their own intentions and methods, while also being more directly exposed to market conditions. On the other hand, they were committed to the materials and methods that they self-consciously inherited from pre-modern Japanese art: the use of washi, sumi (carbon-based ink) and natural, water-based printing colours, and cutting and printing by hand with distinctive Japanese tools.[5]

By 1945, Japanese publishers and artists were using a wide range of contemporary Western printmaking techniques, and Japanese artists were beginning to take an interest in abstract as well as figurative art. In time, both these aspects of modernity were to affect the sōsaku hanga printmakers. However, in late 1945, their Scenes of Last Tokyo seems to catch them at an emotive moment, in the face of national defeat and loss, when the founding characteristics of their movement were clearly defined and were in a state of evident tension with each other. These are the terms in which I want to explore this exhibition.

Gallery 29 is a small space used for temporary displays of East Asian art. The fifteen prints, all c. 24 x 18.5 cm,[6] are presented framed along the gallery walls. There is an introductory panel, which informs us that the print set was donated to the Ashmolean by Christopher Dyment in 2015, a panel that translates the original introductory Japanese text, and each print is accompanied by an informative label. There is no catalogue and (when I was there) no leaflet, no postcards in the museum shop, and a polite but strict interdiction on photography. All this, together with copyright law, has the usual impact on anyone who, like myself, has a substantial interest in such prints, but does not detract from the fundamental value of this rare showing of a whole (and historically important) set of sōsaku hanga prints. It does increase the importance of getting to the exhibition in person, if such work interests you.

The website of the Lavenberg Collection of Japanese Prints is an alternative and important source for reproductions of the whole set of prints (shown as a single image), some individual printmakers and prints, translations of the introductory Japanese text, and for a commentary on the Japanese text and the print set as a whole. In the following text, links to reproductions of individual prints are given as hyperlinks. The contributing printmakers are:[7]

  • Onchi Kōshirō (1891-1955): 3 prints
  • Hiratsuka Un’ichi (1895-1997): 2 prints
  • Yamaguchi Gen (1896-1976): 2 prints
  • Kawakami Sumio (1895-1972): 2 prints
  • Maeda Masao (1904-74): 1 print
  • Saitō Kiyoshi (1907-97): 1 print
  • Sekino Jun’ichirō (1914-88): 1 print
  • Azechi Umetarō (1902-99): 1 print
  • Maekewa Senpan (1888-1960): 1 print

With respect to the use of papers and printing inks, it is not easy to come to firm conclusions when looking at framed prints. But it seems safe to observe that all prints are on lightweight, off-white or light ivory washi, and all are printed with some combination of sumi and water-based colours. In some cases, it is not certain that sumi is used and may be present only as a dilute grey tone. In fact, the use of sumi throughout this set of prints is interesting, as the use of a sumi-printed keyblock,[8] that controls and frames a print’s design, is a distinctive feature of ukiyo-e and shin hanga prints.

Only one print, Sekino’s Benkeibashi (Benkei Bridge), has the feel of an ukiyo-e or shin hanga print, with a finely cut, sumi-printed keyblock that incorporates a frame. Several others make use of a sumi block but none other uses a sumi frame, and, more typically, the ink block is integrated to a greater or lesser extent into the whole image. The master in this respect is, not surprisingly, Hiratsuka.[9] In his Asaka Rikyū (Asaka Palace),[10] the whole image is delicately cut and printed in light colours, except that two iron Western-style lamp posts are printed in black sumi. (Given the cultural inversions involved here, was he being consciously ironic?) In contrast, his Sukiyabashi (Sukiya Bridge)[11] integrates the use of sumi with other colours, to striking graphical and descriptive effect.

All prints make some use of Western geometrical-optical perspective, but in different degrees of precision and in different manners that are hard to summarise. Some works are carefully staged with the aid of perspectival devices; notably Hiratsuka’s Sukiyabashi, and Onchi’s asymmetrical Tōkyō eki (Tokyo Station)[12] – both of which, incidentally, are atmospheric in ways that owe more to Western than East Asian painting. But they do it differently, with Onchi’s print being the more thoroughly Westernised in overall handling and specific feeling.

Some images are structured so that they present the viewer with a frontal, nearly flat scene, although the underlying spatial structure still quietly obeys the rules of perspectival recession. The clearest example is Maeda’s Teidai Akamon (Imperial University Red Gate), in which the gate and its side structures span the width of the image, with a soft foreground recession and packed layers of depth, represented mainly by trees, beyond the gate. Onchi’s Nijubashi (Bridge to the Imperial Palace) gets the best of both worlds (East and West) by organising a view into deep space via several flat steps (like stage designer’s flats); a tree in the foreground partly obscuring the view of the bridge, placed in the middle ground, while the palace itself occupies a small but clearly defined position in the background.

And so on. Much more could be said along similar lines about the way in which these nine artists, in fifteen prints, find diverse solutions to the problem of combining Western and Japanese pictorial conventions within works produced in Japanese technical terms. It is worth saying that, in their use of Western pictorial (painterly) conventions all these artists except one seem to be drawing on a knowledge and understanding of an essentially French realist modernism, as they would have been aware of it at that time in their lives. The exception is Kawakami, whose two prints are more suggestive of French or German expressionism, most strikingly in the street scene, Yoru no Ginza (Night at Ginza).

Taking the Scenes of Last Tokyo as a whole, there is an evident struggle to find a balance between Japanese subject matter (itself complicated and with its own traditions of serial presentation, especially in the medium of print) and the use of Western pictorial devices and conventions (not only perspective but also clear layering of landscape space, and sky depicted as sky), mediated through the particular possibilities of the woodblock print (use of washi, mainly but not universally soft colours and textures, use of woodgrain, non-realistic colours, simplified forms and other devices derived from the ukiyo-e tradition).

The two artists who managed this balancing trick most deftly were, I feel, Onchi Kōshirō and Hiratsuka Un’ichi, both of whom, especially Onchi, were leading figures within the sōsaku hanga movement. Yamaguchi Gen (notably Meiji Shrine) and Maeda Masao (Imperial University Red Gate) come good seconds yet not with quite the same conviction and clarity as these first two. All nine printmakers are interesting in some respect while the much of the interest of Scenes of Last Tokyo lies in its existence as the result of a collective enterprise, expressive of sōsaku hanga intentions, produced in direct response to a crucial moment in Japanese modern history. If any one print says it all – perhaps more by chance than as an expression of the artist’s intention (it would be nice to know) – then, for me, it is Hiratsuka’s Asaka Rikyū, in which the palace buildings stand quietly in deep recession in the background of the scene, while the Westernising black, iron lamp posts are prominent features of the foreground. This spatial irony then turns in on itself, as the lamp posts are the sole features of the work to be printed in that ‘treasure’ of pre-modern East Asian art, the black ink of sumi.

© Paul Griffiths, 2nd May 2016

 

End notes

[1] After the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, Japan surrendered in August 1945.

[2] “During 1945… incendiary raids by American bombers brought death and destruction to [Japan]. By the spring, the B-29 squadrons were large enough to amount attacks in which hundreds of bombers dropped thousands of tons of incendiaries on Japan’s cities, night after night, methodically incinerating them and later returning to destroy surviving target areas.” Totman, Conrad. 2005. A History of Japan (Second edition). Oxford: Blackwell: 447.

[3] Merritt, Helen and Nanako Yamada. 1995. Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: 1900-1975. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press: 216, 277. ‘Last Tokyo’ may be the publisher’s mistranslation of ‘lost Tokyo’.

[4] This and the following general account of Japanese printmaking is based on Merritt, Helen. 1990. Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Early Years. Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press.

[5] There are some good English-language technical accounts of Japanese woodblock printmaking. For the new (smart) kid on the block, see: Vollmer, April. 2015. Japanese Woodblock Print Workshop: A Modern Guide to the Ancient Art of Mokuhanga. Berkeley: Watson-Guptill.

[6] Merritt & Yamada, ibid.: 277.

[7] This list gives the artists’ names as they are first encountered on the gallery walls, from the information panel onwards.

[8] “In colour printing [the keyblock] is the printing matrix having the most work, the outline or the part of the colour separations which pull the whole image together; either printed first or last.” Simmons, Rosemary. 2002. Dictionary of Printmaking Terms. London: A & C Black: 68.

[9] Neither of his two prints is reproduced individually in the Lavenberg website but they can be seen in combined reproduction on the general page (see note 7), in the first row, third from left, and third row, also third from left. But see also the following two notes.

[10] Merritt, Helen et al. 2001. Hiratsuka: Modern Master. The Art Institute of Chicago: plate 24.

[11] Merritt et al. ibid.: plate 25.

[12] Tokyo Station is at the bottom right corner of the combined reproduction.

Valley (Gaoutabry walk), 2016

Valley (Gaoutabry walk), 2016, multiblock woodblock print, paper 38 x 28 cm

primary documentation

  • artworks record: 2016-04-15
  • notebook14: 5, 6; extensive whiteboard notes
  • work: 03.03-15.04.16
  • matrix: 1 x plyblock 30 x 22.5 cm, cut as sides A and B
  • registration: kentoban and tracing paper template
  • paper for trial prints: machine-made hosho (pad paper)
  • paper for final prints: handmade hosho (washi), sized, 73 gsm
  • inks: bokuju, Sakura block printing colour, Chinese watercolour

 

ABOUT CONCEPTION AND PLANNING

This, the first print made since I completed the OCA printmaking course a year ago, follows on from ‘journeyed’ landscapes such as Peninsula, Journey and Winter. Beginning in January 2016, I have made three walks to a dolmen at the head of the Gaoutabry valley, in the Massif des Maures, in the French Var, and the first walk is the subject of a travel journal posted on my blogspot blog. The journal and this print can be understood as complementary works, and a reading of the former would give some insight into the imagery used for the latter.

I am interested in a landscape’s porous nature-culture interface, mainly as experienced through walking. Contemporary landscapes are signed environments. Our experience is mediated through signs (informative to instructional), and we make signs of our own passing. In this context, Peircian semiology (index, icon, symbol) assumes a particular force, and the imagery of this print is largely a play on such semiotics.

It is also important that the print works visually; as beauty, pleasure and satisfaction; as visual thinking; and as something intentionally made (by someone) to be looked at (by others).

I am most interested in woodblock printmaking based on modern Japanese models. I want to return to Yamaguchi Gen’s method, as documented by Gaston Petit and Amadio Arboleda (1977). I have used this print to help me to reconsider his approach in terms of my needs. His method can be summarised as follows:

  1. design;
  2. carving;
  3. paper dampening;
  4. printing.

While this probably simplifies what Yamaguchi did, it provides a good model for working with multiblock relief prints. For present purposes, I revise it to the following form:

  1. initial decisions;
  2. design;
  3. design transfer;
  4. cutting;
  5. trial prints and associated dampening/drying;
  6. possible re-cutting and decisions about final materials;
  7. final prints and associated dampening/drying.

In the following account of making Valley, it will become clear that, despite such careful planning, the final results are variable, something is still not working well for me, and it’s important to try to make some sense of this.

STAGE (1): INITIAL DECISIONS

It took a long time for my thoughts to settle down to a point where I was sure that what I intended was to (1) return to the journeyed landscape theme, (2) make a link between a print and the Gaoutabry travel journal, (3) work with woodblock resources available to me at the time, and (4) make this a reflective exercise in adapting Yamaguchi’s method to my needs.

Point (3) has an immediate, practical impact on image design, and I decided to work with the following materials (fig. 1):

  • one or two 30 x 22.5 cm plyblocks (maximum three block sides);
  • nine sheets of machine-made hosho (39.7 x 28.4 cm pad), marked P1-P9;
  • plyblock kentoban prepared with 2.5 cm margins;
  • 35 x 28 cm tracing paper template and carbon paper for design transfer.
(1) basic resource choices

(1) basic resource choices

 

STAGE (2): DESIGN

Images from the walks in the Gaoutabry area were chosen using Lightroom on-screen, and selected elements were traced directly from the screen display (fig. 2).

(2) tracing from the computer display

(2) tracing from the computer display

These elements were collaged together with tape, and the result traced in reversed reading to the 35 x 28 cm tracing paper template, with the addition of two drawn circles (fig. 3). The design, as it would affect block cutting, was complete.

(3) design transferred to the template

(3) design transferred to the template

 

STAGE (3): DESIGN TRANSFER

I assumed that the print could be achieved with two sides of one block, designated sides A and B. Side A would consist mainly of a field of light ink or colour, corresponding with almost the whole block surface, while side B would consist of localised elements. At this stage, the question of what inks and colours would be used could be left undecided, as long as there was the possibility of cutting more blocks.

The problem underlying design transfer is to ensure good registration between the kentoban, design and two, possibly more block sides. The solution was to make a kentoban-template assemblage that could be kept intact throughout the work process, and used when needed. (I got the idea by recalling how I used precision registration techniques years ago, when I was a professional maker of geological maps.)

The template was registered on the kentoban and securely taped in place so that it could be flipped up and down without loss of registration. Then the block was slipped beneath the template to register with the kentoban (fig. 4).

(4) kentoban-template-block registration

(4) kentoban-template-block registration

The design for side A was transferred to the block with carbon paper and soft pencil (fig. 5), and the kentoban-template assemblage was put aside.

(5) side A: design transfer

(5) side A: design transfer

 

STAGE (4): CUTTING

Given previous print documentation, there is no need to say much about this, and figs. 6, 7 sufficiently illustrate the cutting of side A.

(6) side A: early stage of cutting

(6) side A: early stage of cutting

(7) side A: cutting complete

(7) side A: cutting complete

The interesting thing is that the kentoban-template assemblage enables a cyclical approach to design transfer and cutting, making it possible to check the cutting of one block side before working with another side. Side A was re-registered with the kentoban-template assemblage (fig. 8), the design and cut block were compared, and some minor discrepancies were dealt with by adjusting the drawing of the design.

(8) side A checked against the kentoban-template assemblage

(8) side A checked against the kentoban-template assemblage

Next, the modified design was transferred to side B, as before (fig. 9), and this side cut accordingly (figs. 10, 11).

(9) side B: design transfer

(9) side B: design transfer

(10) side B: early stage of cutting

(10) side B: early stage of cutting

(11) side B: cutting complete

(11) side B: cutting complete

The last act of this stage was to re-check the cutting with the kentoban-template assemblage. This showed that very localised parts of side B had been slightly over-cut (fig. 12). This was left as it was, and it proved not to be problematic.

(12) side B: localised over-cutting

(12) side B: localised over-cutting

 

STAGE (5): TRIAL PRINTS

Trial prints on machine-hosho were made in two runs of three prints each. The sheets marked P1-P9 were trimmed to a width of 27.5 cm (block width + double the kentoban margin); P1-P3 and P4-P6 were used for the first and second trials, respectively, and the remaining sheets were not used. Making the trial prints enabled me to:

  1. check the cutting and mutual registration of the block sides;
  2. assess decisions about colour choices and their distribution between sides A and B;
  3. co-ordinate the cycle of dampening, printing and drying;
  4. consider the change from trial to final print papers.

Figs. 13, 14 illustrate the chief steps in the production of the first trial, and fig. 15 illustrates a result at the end of the second trial.

(13) first trial; side A printed, dilute bokuju, pure bokuju

(13) first trial; side A printed, dilute bokuju, pure bokuju

(14) first trial; print complete, Sakura colours added

(14) first trial; print complete, Sakura colours added

(15) second trial; bokuju, Sakura colours, Chinese watercolours

(15) second trial; bokuju, Sakura colours, Chinese watercolours

 

STAGE (6): DECISIONS FOR FINAL PRINTING

Making the trial prints was a rolling process, in which some changes could be made during and after printing each trial. The following comments summarise the actions and decisions that would affect the final printing.

(1) cutting and registration

Trial printing revealed several minor registration problems, some of which could be dealt with quickly during printing, while a final, limited re-cutting was done on side A.

(2) colours decisions

The two trials, each with some changes in colour use and dilution, were needed before I felt sufficiently confident about colours, their dilutions, distribution between sides A and B, and the sequence in which they would be printed.

(3) dampening, printing and drying

A dampening stack had been made with double-layers of dampened maobian (grass paper) between each undampened hosho sheet, and left for an hour or more. The hosho sheets were excessively moist at first, so, for the second trial, one sheet of maobian was interleaved between them. I felt I could work with the same arrangement for the final prints.

(4) paper decisions

It was an important part of this project to move, for the final prints, from a machine-made to a handmade Japanese paper (washi). I started to think about this while making of the trial prints. I was aware of some limitations in my existing stock but most exercised by the problem of working with relatively lightweight washi in a dampened condition. Problems with ink bleed and fibre disruption are much greater with these papers. I decided to use 73 gsm sized hosho. I had five 46 x 56 cm sheets left in stock and three sheets would yield six, cut to ~28 x 38 cm, leaving the deckle intact at the top edge (fig. 16).

(16) cutting handmade hosho for final prints

(16) cutting handmade hosho for final prints

 

STAGE (7): FINAL PRINTS

Final printing, on six sheets of sized hosho, was done in one long session. Work was done in the following sequence, with prints going back into the dampening stack through steps (2) and (3), then into a drying stack at the end of step (4):

  1. building a dampening stack;
  2. side A: single, separate prints of the main field and disc;
  3. side B: separate prints of the tracks, dolmen sign and red disc, repeated where necessary;
  4. side A: repetition of the print of main field;
  5. drying stack completed and left overnight.

Figs. 17-23 illustrate the main developments through steps (1) and (2), including attempts to deal with arising problems.

(17) building a dampening stack

(17) building a dampening stack

(18) completed stack left for 2+ hours

(18) completed stack left for 2+ hours

(19) side A: main field, dilute bokuju + Chinese indigo

(19) side A: main field, dilute bokuju + Chinese indigo

(20) side A: disc, pure bokuju, tamped before printing

(20) side A: disc, pure bokuju, tamped before printing

(21) side A: print placed in the dampening stack, disc protected

(21) side A: print placed in the dampening stack, disc protected

(22) troubleshooting: cleaning the block in between prints

(22) troubleshooting: cleaning the block in between prints

(23) troubleshooting: attempting to adjust paper dampness

(23) troubleshooting: attempting to adjust paper dampness

Figs. 24-26 illustrate work done in step (3) and the completed drying stack, step (5). No photographs were taken during step (4), which was done as very quickly (but see fig. 19).

(24) side B: the tracks, Sakura green + Chinese indigo

(24) side B: the tracks, Sakura green + Chinese indigo

(25) side B: dolmen sign, Chinese burnt sienna + rattan yellow; circle, Chinese rouge red

(25) side B: dolmen sign, Chinese burnt sienna + rattan yellow; circle, Chinese rouge red

(26) completed drying stack

(26) completed drying stack

Because of the speed of work, with prints going directly into the drying stack, it was not possible to assess results until the following day, although my feeling about the results, as printing was in progress, was not good. There were obvious problems with the sized hosho being too damp (see fig. 23), while step (4) was not pre-planned but introduced into the work sequence because I could see that the printing of the field of dilute colour on side A was not working well.

However, when the work was taken out of the drying stack the following day and assessed more coolly (with Françoise adding a less emotionally engaged point of view), things did not seem so bad. My judgement is that two prints are not acceptable (fig. 27), three are acceptable or marginally acceptable (fig. 28), and one is good but not free of flaws (fig. 29).

(27) prints 3, 5: not acceptable

(27) prints 3, 5: not acceptable

(28) prints 1, 4, 6: acceptable to marginally acceptable

(28) prints 1, 4, 6: acceptable or marginally acceptable

(29) print 2: good

(29) print 2: good

The main, common problems are these: (1) large areas of ink/colour not printing uniformly; (2) unwanted ink bleed, mainly due to excessively damp papers; (3) paper distortion where areas of colour (printed from different block sides) touch, again partly due to paper dampness and also to variations in the application of ink/colour to the blocks.

Such problems apart, I am not concerned by variations between prints, as my objective is not a set of identical, editioned prints. But I would prefer to have more ‘good-acceptable’ results than this, and I may one day try again with the remaining sheets of sized hosho. Backing the prints should also be considered. For these reasons, these prints are left unsigned for now.

 

COMMENTS

I imagine that Yamaguchi Gen could work without giving much thought to planning each print: through extensive experience, he had internalised a working method. I still need to plan consciously so that the work proceeds without disruptive distractions. I have to predict where problems are most likely to arise, then prepare for possible solutions.

Having a workable plan enables one to focus on each task with a sense of physical-mental ‘flow’, which is good for the work’s progress and for the engaged maker. Good planning is certainly about trying to limit failure but is also as much about the process as the result.

Whether the work is counted as four stages (Yamaguchi) or seven (mine), it is clear from the present account that such lists cannot represent the extent to which aspects of the work are interdependent and repetitive. For example, in the making of Valley, design transfer, cutting and trial printing were not a simple sequence, but a repeating cycle of actions. The point is that a plan gives me an efficient working structure that allows for variation and adaptation.

Yet is clear that a workable plan is not a guarantee of success. In the present case, I made a clear distinction between trial and final printing, hoping that this would help me to find a better solution to the problems associated with printing on dampened washi. This has not greatly succeeded, and I still have uncertain control over this aspect of printmaking.

Through experience, Yamaguchi had internalised an approach, or attitude, that could be easily varied to meet the needs of each print. I still need to plan consciously and also still need support. In addition to Petit and Arboleda, my other long-term, useful sources on Japanese printmaking techniques are Rebecca Salter’s book (Salter 2001) and Tuula Moilanen’s contribution to Kari Laitinen et al (1999).

There is now a new kid on the block, which I did not find until after completing Valley, April Vollmer’s guide to Japanese woodblock printmaking, re-contextualised for contemporary, international art practices (Vollmer 2015). It does seem to take the problem of describing technical matters in a book format forwards, but I notice that its accounts of some aspects of technique, notably paper-dampening, may still be too vague, given the difficulties involved.

References

  • Laitinen, Kari, Tuula Moilanen and Antti Tanttu (Laura Mänki, translator). 1999. The Art and Craft of Woodblock Printmaking: Woodblock Printmaking with Oil-based Inks and the Japanese Watercolour Woodcut. Helsinki: University of Art and Design.
  • Petit, Gaston, and Amadio Arboleda. 1977. Evolving Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints. Tokyo, New York and San Francisco: Kodansha International: 45-54, plates 4-11.
  • Salter, Rebecca. 2001. Japanese Woodblock Printing. London: A & C Black.
  • Vollmer, April. 2015. Japanese Woodblock Print Workshop: A Modern Guide to the Ancient Art of Mokuhanga. Berkeley: Watson-Guptill.

© Paul Griffiths, 18th April 2016, revised 5th May 2017

Indian Summer, 2009

Indian Summer, woodblock print with direct printing from found objects

Through 2006-09, I made a few woodblock relief prints, including reduction, single and multiblock prints. Two were well documented with studio notes and photographs, with the intention of writing them up as a studio resource, and I choose to write up Indian Summer because it was the least conventional of these prints, as it combines direct printing from found objects with limited use of a cut woodblock.

the work

  • bokuju and water soluble printing ink on machine-hosho, 19.9 x 28.2 cm
  • studio work: 30.10–04.11.09
  • notebook02a: 35-49; notebook08: 19; whiteboard notes
  • artworks record and photography: 2009-11-04
  • this documentation: 02.03.16

basic resources

  • source materials: found objects
  • design materials: basic graphical equipment
  • printing matrix: 14.7 x 20 cm woodblock and found objects
  • tools: chisels and gouges, inking brushes, baren
  • printing paper: 20 sheets machine-made hosho, 19.9 x 28.5 cm
  • inks: bokuju, Akua Kolor relief printing inks
  • registration: kentoban board
  • dampening/drying stack: wooden boards, cardboard, newsprint, weights

 

[1] INTENTIONS AND WORK SEQUENCE

I had several things in mind when I made this print, the most important of which are these:

  1. I wanted to experiment with a procedure based on the printmaking of Yamaguchi Gen (1896-1976),[1] and that also refers to his use of found materials in semi-abstract images.[2] I took such an approach further later, in Migrateur, and discuss my interest in Yamaguchi Gen in more detail in my account of that print.[3]
  2. I wanted to make the whole procedure as little dependent on craft skills as possible, while also keeping the process as open-ended as possible.
  3. The work was to focus on printing more than cutting.
  4. I wanted a small, easily reproducible print, and hoped for a small edition, but would have been satisfied with a good monoprint.

The work was done rather intensively over a period of six days, with the fourth day being particularly complicated:

  • Day 1: preparations, including preparing materials for dampening;
  • Day 2: 1st and 2nd rounds of printing, left in dampening stack;
  • Day 3: checking results, new dampening stack needed;
  • Day 4: adjustments to dampening stack, 3rd round of printing, another new dampening stack, cutting the board, 4th round of printing, left in drying stack;
  • Day 5: setting up a 2nd drying stack, left for a few hours, opening the stack at end of day;
  • Day 6: assessment of results.

Printing and cutting were simple tasks but cumulatively time-consuming. Much time was taken up dealing with recurring problems with dampening the papers correctly for printing. Mould affected the materials used for dampening but, fortunately, not the printing papers. Because of the complications with dampening and drying the papers, which mostly affected the end of each day’s work, it makes sense to organise the following account primarily by the sequence of days.

 

[2] DAY 1: PREPARATIONS

First, some objects suitable for direct printing were collected from the home environment (fig. 1). These were not intended to have any particular symbolic or allusive significance.

(1) found objects and other materials

(1) found objects and other materials

These found materials were to be used together with a 14.7 x 20 cm woodblock, and machine-made hosho taken from a 39.8 x 28.5 cm pad. Ten sheets from the pad were cut neatly in two, to yield 20 sheets, 19.9 x 28.5 cm, each of which was marked on the back (rough) side with an X that would define the registration corner (fig. 2).

(2) preparation of printing paper

(2) preparation of printing paper

The procedure for dampening and drying papers was similar to that used for Rhayadr Cynwyd,[4] so it is not described in detail, except to note the use of newsprint for the purpose (fig. 3). However, dampening/drying posed several problems, which are noted below and discussed in the final comments.

(3) materials for dampening stack

(3) materials for dampening stack

A small amount of nori paste was made in advance, with ~ 50:50 mix of wheatstarch paste and water. Nowadays, I buy prepared nori in tubes: much easier.

Finally, the materials that were likely to be needed for printing were set out on the table, in an organised manner that changed a little as printing got under way (fig. 4).

(4) set-up during first printing

(4) set-up during first printing

As a result of ‘builder action’, I have now lost the good big work table I had in those days.

 

[3] DAY 2: FIRST AND SECOND PRINTINGS

Day 2 was occupied with the first and second printings, which required different inks and different procedures.

1st printing: uncut block, dilute bokuju

The first printing was done with dilute bokuju, printed from the whole surface of the uncut block (fig. 5). This one dish proved adequate for the whole print run, but the dilution had to be adjusted, as noted below.

(5) preparation of dilute bokuju

(5) preparation of dilute bokuju

The work sequence was:

  1. dampen the block with clean water (fig. 6);
  2. add nori and bokuju to the block (fig. 7), and brush the nori+bokuju mix uniformly over the block surface;
  3. print from the block, registered to the kentoban board, with the baren (fig. 8);
  4. return each sheet to the drying stack.
(6) dampening the block

(6) dampening the block

(7) adding nori and dilute bokuju to the block

(7) adding nori and dilute bokuju to the block

(8) printing with kentoban and baren

(8) printing with kentoban and baren

The first few sheets to be printed were too pale. This would have been partly because the block was still not moist enough to take in the ink, in stage (2), above. But it was also obviously the case that the initial bokuju-water mix was too dilute. By the time I got to the fourth sheet, I had the dilution of the bokuju about right (fig. 9).

(9) typical good result of first printing

(9) typical good result of first printing

As printing the rest of the sheets progressed, it was possible to be increasingly parsimonious with the application of nori+bokuju to the block. When this printing was complete, the 20 sheets of hosho were removed from the drying stack and placed in a new dampening stack.

 

2nd printing: found objects, Akua Kolor

The patterned back of a cut wall tile was used for the third printing (fig. 10). Its intended position relative to the printing paper was marked with a pencil on the base of the kentoban board. Then the pattern was carefully brushed with a mixture of nori and Akua Kolor yellow ochre, and printed (fig. 11).

(10) inking the back of the tile

(10) inking the back of the tile

(11) printing the tile

(11) printing the tile

This was the end of Day 2 and, at this point, the work had to be left overnight. I had realised that the dampening prior to the first printing had not been sufficiently moist. But I over-compensated and made the papers excessively damp prior to this 2nd printing. I had to leave the papers in the dampening stack overnight, ready for the 3rd printing, but replaced some sheets of dampening paper with dry papers.

 

[4] DAY 3: NEW DAMPENING STACK AND MATERIALS

When the stack was inspected on the 3rd morning, I was still concerned about getting the dampening right while also avoiding mould. So I made an entirely new drying stack, built up with fresh, dry materials, and the work was left until the next day. This work, including preparing an abundance of sheets of dampening/drying papers, took up the whole day.

 

[5] DAY 4: 3rd PRINTING, CUTTING, 4th PRINTING

When I looked at the work in the drying stack the next morning, it was clear that some sheets had not printed well, but none was affected with mould and they were all in a good, softly damp state for continuing printing.

3rd printing: found objects, Akua Kolor

The 3rd printing all 20 sheets of hosho followed this cycle:

  1. two pieces of rough-grained wood (offcuts from a DIY job) were placed on the kentoban board, secured with blu-tack (fig. 12);
  2. one was inked with red oxide, the other with phthalo green-blue, without nori (fig. 13);
  3. they were printing with the baren (fig. 14), and each sheet returned to a drying stack.
(12) pieces of wood in place on the kentoban

(12) pieces of wood in place on the kentoban

(13) pieces of wood inked

(13) pieces of wood inked

(14) printing the pieces of wood

(14) printing the pieces of wood

Fig 15 shows the last print in the run of 20 sheets at the end of this stage.

(15) printing result after 3rd printing

(15) printing result after 3rd printing

At the end of this round of printing, all the prints were placed in a fresh dampening stack, to take up moisture again while the next stage, cutting the block, was in progress.

 

cutting the block and 4th printing, pure bokuju

The same side of the woodblock that had been used for the 1st printing was cut and printed, as follows:

  1. a simple design was drawn freehand in pencil on the block face (fig. 16);
  2. the outlines of this design were cleared with cutting tools (fig. 17);
  3. a final, patterned cut was made, freehand with U-gouges (fig. 18);
  4. each sheet was printed with pure bokuju (fig. 19); and
  5. the results were placed in a drying stack and left overnight (fig. 20).
(16) basic design drawn on the block

(16) basic design drawn on the block

(17) clearance of basic design

(17) clearance of basic design

(18) completed design

(18) completed design

(19) results of printing with bokuju

(19) results of printing with bokuju

(20) the final drying stack

(20) the final drying stack

It’s obvious from this last photo that, by this time, I was taking no chances with dampening and drying.

 

[6] DAYS 5 & 6: FINAL DRYING STACK AND ASSESSMENT OF RESULTS

I looked at the results the following morning and realised that everything was still too damp. There was no sign of mould, but several sheets of paper were wrinkled. So an entirely new drying stack was set up and left until later in the day. In the late afternoon, the 20 prints were laid out on the table in their order of printing, in rows from top left to bottom right (fig. 21).

(21) all printing results

(21) all printing results

I wrote extensive comments at the time, the main points of which are summarised here:

  1. It was impressive to see 20 versions of ‘the same’ print set out like this, and I felt that I was looking, not so much at an edition or potential edition in the conventional sense, but at a ‘total work’, understood as process and repetition.
  2. A related but not the same thought was that such a woodblock print is best done as a totality. In the past, I had normally first made a small number of prints, intending to return to them later, to extend the work to make a decent edition. This strategy had never worked for me, and the lesson to be taken from this print is that it is better to set up to print a large run at the start, to be able to select an edition from the result.
  3. But the complication is that this experience suggested that a run of about 20 prints is probably both a maximum and a minimum: a maximum because of the time and sheer effort involved; a minimum to ensure that enough of the attempted prints succeed.
  4. What did I feel about the image itself? I was pleased with it but also struck by how much it looks like a dated piece of modernist abstraction or semi-abstraction, hinting at landscape or rural imagery, based on a ‘natural’ (direct) use of materials.

Some final decisions were made that day and the following morning. These were:

  1. to treat the given paper size, 19.9 x 28.5 cm, as the whole work size;
  2. to keep and number on the back all 20 prints;
  3. to choose from among these to identify an acceptable, numbered edition;
  4. six ‘best prints’ were identified on the basis of printing quality, and these were signed and titled 1/6-6/6, Indian Summer 2009; the title being a reference to that year’s unusually prolonged mild autumn season (fig. 22);
  5. one of these was identified as the best print for the purposes of reproduction (fig. 23).
(22) six editioned prints

(22) six editioned prints

(23) Indian Summer, print 3/6 (14/20 in the whole print run)

(23) Indian Summer, 2009, print 3/6 (14/20 in the whole print run)

It has to be said that achieving these six ‘editionable’ prints had been exhausting. It had taken six days, each of which was nearly full (we had family visitors one day, and I had to break off to be sociable), much of the work, especially printing and preparation of dampening and drying materials, was physically exhausting (it got to my back then and this problem is greater these days). The nervous tension involved, especially because of the constant need to be concerned about paper dampening and drying, is also tiring.

 

[7] FINAL COMMENT

All I want to comment on now, from the point of view of 2016, is the problem of dampening papers, which was unusually great for this print, yet also sufficiently typical of my attempts at woodblock printmaking. While I was writing this account, I considered not discussing this issue or removing it to a separate section, rather than letting it clutter what may be conceived as a straightforward progression through design, preparation, cutting and printing. But I can’t ignore the extent to which dampening complicates all my woodblock printmaking, so I have left the account as it, and it seems appropriate that it is therefore a little difficult to read in places. What follows is not a full analysis of the problem, but just a pause to reflect on it, perhaps to get it into proportion.

Why is paper dampening done? Basically, the paper has to be moist enough for it to print uniformly, and to absorb the ink/colour into the body of the paper. It has to be neither too moist nor too dry. Then, once printing is complete, the papers have to dried and flattened.

The variables are complicated, for example: type, weight and texture of paper; how many sheets (of what dimensions) are being handled in a single session; how do sessions of cutting and printing relate to the needs of dampening and drying; the weather and studio conditions; and so on. Mould is always a threat, which can result in the loss of a whole set of prints.

Resolving these problems requires a good understanding of the physical properties of the printing papers (it is one reason I take so much interest in East Asian papers). It is also a matter of good planning and management. Experience counts for a lot, and the only way to get that is to keep doing the work.

In the case of this print, it seems likely that I had such serious problems because I did not plan with sufficient care the relationships between printing and cutting, and dampening and drying. But the paradox is that I had set myself an open ended task, and details of the work sequence were deliberately left undecided until each point came when a decision about design, printing or cutting had to be made.

It seems significant that it was a full two years before I tried to make another woodblock print, Migrateur. I worked on this over the winter of 2011-12, then work stalled when all design and cutting had been done, and the printing, including dealing with dampening, was still to do. I brought this work to a conclusion in 2013, within the OCA printmaking course. Whatever its merits, the OCA course was not organised around solving such issues, and, although I have made progress in dealing with the fundamental problems of woodblock printing with East Asian resources, the technical problems that I had with Indian Summer still recognisable define my limits as a woodblock printmaker.

© text, artwork and images, Paul Griffiths 2016


[1] Petit, Gaston, and Amadio Arboleda. 1977. Evolving Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints. Tokyo, New York and San Francisco: Kodansha International: 45-54; plates 4-11.

[2] Petit, Gaston. 1973. 44 Modern Japanese Print Artists, Volumes I and II. Tokyo, New York and San Francisco: Kodansha International: vol II: 174-81; colour plates C-78-80.

[3] http://paulgriffithshanga.net/2013/10/31/pm1-part-2-07-exercise-21-30-10-13/

[4] http://paulgriffithshanga.net/2013/11/18/pm1-part-2-05-exercise-23-17-11-13/

Blue, green and yellow, 2009

Blue, green and yellow, abstract monotype

This is the last and best documented of a series of abstract painted monotypes that I made from December 2008 to July 2009. They were made in basically the same way and most of them incorporated drawing that was added after the printing had been done. I had intended to include drawing in this one but decided that this print could best stand on its own. These were the first painted monotypes I attempted. While my resources, experience and interests have changed since then, this is still a useful account of a particular way of working.

the work

  • water soluble printing ink on wove paper, 76.2 x 57.0 cm
  • artworks record and photography: 2009-07-25
  • studio work: 24+25.07.09
  • notebook06: 85, 86; whiteboard notes
  • this documentation: 28.02.16

basic resources

  • printing matrix: 100 x 60 cm perspex sheet
  • tools: packing tape, masking tape, inking plate, palette knives, flat brushes, baren
  • paper: Velin Cuve BFK Rives grain fin, 250 gsm; untrimmed sheet 76.2 x 57.0 cm
  • ink: Akua Kolor water soluble relief printing inks, release agent, tack thickener
  • registration: printing paper taped at one edge to prepared perspex sheet
  • clean-up: water and detergent, white spirit

 

[1] INTENTIONS AND OUTCOMES

This and the earlier monotypes were made in the context of an extended drawing project, in which drawing rules and processes interacted with each other; so the project as a whole can be understood as an experiment in the interaction of control and freedom. Especially when this approach was extended to include printmaking, it could be difficult to get the balance right, and works were most likely to fail when I gave myself too much freedom. A first attempt at the present print failed for this reason, so the emphasis did shift towards control, in the form of clear pre-planning. My notebook comment made after finishing the print was, “I ruined the first attempt by not paying attention to the rules of my own game and suddenly starting to do ‘something else’. [This print] is no longer entirely and heavily prescribed beforehand but there is now a certain kind of orderliness; an internal logic that still allows for many possible developments, possible outcomes, once the work is begun. [But this] is not to say that the work, as completed, has been without trouble.”

 

[2] ESTABLISHING A DESIGN

To establish what I had in mind for this print, it will help to illustrate an earlier work in the series, which combined monotype printing with drawing (fig. 1). All these works were based on using a single, untrimmed sheet of BFK Rives, with its deckle edges intact. I treated the paper not only as a support for the work, which of course it must be, but also as a ‘field’, so that the whole sheet, including its unmodified edges, is taken to be ‘the work’. Within this field, the printed and drawn areas each occupied its defined area (with some overlap in a few of them); the ideal being that they interact with each other and with the white of the paper.

(1) Monotype/drawing No. 2, 2009, 76.1 x 57.2 cm

 

For the print being described here, I decided that the printed area should be a 46 x 46 cm square, symmetrically occupying the top part of the 76.2 x 57.0 cm sheet (fig. 2). Within this square, colours were to be printed in an organised grid, and in sequence, so that later colours were printed over earlier colours.

(2) the print design

(2) the print design

The diagram reproduced in fig. 2 was worked out on the whiteboard, then transcribed to the notebook. This enabled me to control the layout of the print relative to the printing paper, and gave me a working sequence, in which packing and masking tape could be used to mark off areas as printing and non-printing, changing the tape as needed as printing progressed.

 

[3] INITIAL SET-UP FOR PRINTING

The initial conditions for printing are illustrated in figs. 3 and 4. The main thing to note in fig. 3 is the relationship between the printing paper and plate. Because an untrimmed sheet of BFK Rives is inevitably not perfectly rectangular, this creates a small problem for registration. The solution was to use packing tape to mark out a mask on the perspex sheet, in a precisely measured rectangle that encloses the sheet of BFK Rives as tightly as possible. The paper was attached to the plate at its end nearest to the wall (and farthest from the printmaker) with a strip of packing tape. The clip hanging from string was used to hold the paper out of the way while any work was being done on the plate, without losing registration.

(3) general set-up for printing

(3) general set-up for printing

Fig. 4 shows how the plate was prepared for the design given in fig. 2. The packing tape mask used to control the placement of the paper (fig. 3) was used as the basis for all subsequent measurements. Packing tape was used to lay out a second, internal 46 x 46 cm mask, corresponding to the area to be printed. Finally, two strips of 2.5 cm wide masking tape were added, at vertical positions corresponding to (A) in fig. 2. Masking tape does not necessarily roll out in a neat straight line, so a steel rule was used to guide their placement.

(4) plate masked for first printing

(4) plate masked for first printing

Everything was then ready for printing, which would take place in two stages, with an intervening change in the layout of the masking tape masks.

 

[4] FIRST PRINTING

Areas B, C and D (fig. 2) were printed from the plate as organised in fig. 4. Each area was printed in turn, beginning each with a thin coating of release agent. First, phthalo blue was brushed onto area B, staying as neatly as possible with masked area. This was then printed and, because the pick-up was not good enough, colour was brushed on again and reprinted (figs. 5, 6). I was still not satisfied with the pick-up but earlier experience had shown me that, after two rounds of printing, the situation doesn’t noticeably improve.

(5) release agent and phthalo blue brushed to area B

(5) release agent and phthalo blue brushed to area B

(6) printing area B

(6) printing area B

The same procedure was followed for areas C and D, again printing each area twice. Both areas are printed with a mixture of phthalo blue and titanium white, the proportion of white to blue being greater for area D. Fig. 7 illustrates the end result.

(7) areas B+C+D, printing completed

(7) areas B+C+D, printing completed

Printing these areas was followed by a thorough clean-up of the plate, first with water and detergent, then with white spirit.

 

[5] SECOND SET-UP FOR PRINTING

The plate was re-masked, ready for printing two horizontal stripes that would overlie areas B+C+D (fig. 8). Where the stripes were to overlie areas C+D, each stripe would bridge the gap between the two areas and terminate 0.5 cm inwards from their outer limits (fig.2, E). Where they were to overlie area B, the length of each stripe would coincide exactly with the width of the area (fig. 2, F).

(8) the re-masked plate

(8) the re-masked plate

All this required precise laying of the strips of masking tape and, once done, the plate was ready for second printing.

 

[6] SECOND PRINTING

The different parts of the horizontal stripes, E and F, were printed in much the same way as areas B+C+D, each stripe colour being printed separately and twice (figs. 9, 10). Stripes E were printed with lemon yellow and tack thickener, and stripes F were printed with phthalo green over a thin coat of release agent. An arising problem was that, with each successive printing, the pressure of the baren on the paper caused some of the phthalo blue printed as area B to pull back off the paper.

(9) printing stripes E over areas C+D

(9) printing stripes E over areas C+D

(10) printing stripes F over area B

(10) printing stripes F over area B

Fig. 11 illustrates the final result.

(11) Green, Blue and Yellow, 2009, 76.2 x 57.0 cm

(11) Green, Blue and Yellow, 2009, 76.2 x 57.0 cm

The print’s obvious technical limitations are commented on below. When I appraised the work at this stage, I felt that, despite these limitations, the result looks good as it stands: it looks ‘complete’. I didn’t feel that adding drawing would necessarily contribute much to the work, and that good figure-and-field relationships were already established between the rectangular sheet of paper and the square, printed area.

 

[7] COMMENTS

In common with other prints in this series (see fig. 1), this work was conceived in terms of an open relationship between control, mainly in terms of forward planning, and freedom, which could have been expressed as developments of an initial plan and/or the inclusion of drawing at some stage in the process. In fact, no substantial changes were made to the initial design, as in fig. 2, and no drawing was added. However, in principle at least, my options were open from the first stages of masking and printing onwards, and the final decision not to include drawing can be best understood in terms of freedom to choose, rather than follow a pre-determined plan without further intentional intervention.

In 2016, I can look at this print, and the other monotypes of 2008-09, with the hindsight of having participated in the OCA Printmaking 1 course through 2013-15. Two things need saying from this point of view.

First, I find that the quality of colour pick-up from the plate is a limitation on making monotypes without a press. The problems that I had with this print were not much different from those experienced during the OCA course, when using different inks (Akua Kolor, Caligo Safewash) did not make a significant difference to how well the ink transferred from plate to paper. This remains as an unresolved problem, which could benefit from further experiment. Also, possibly, the pin press advertised by Akua Inks may be a better tool for this kind of work than a baren.

Second, some prints made for the OCA course involved the use of masks (stencils) to control a design and its placement on the plate and paper. I gave particular thought to the problem of using complicated masks in the Gardening gloves prints. In these prints, some difficult problems with plate-mask-paper registration were resolved, and inks were rolled onto the plate with brayers.

In conclusion, it is possible that the kind of controlled design used for the present print could be better achieved by using stencil masks and by rolling the ink to the plate. A significant difference between these abstract monotypes and the Gardening gloves prints is the paper size, and adapting paper stencils to the relatively large size of a sheet of BFK Rives would need careful planning, if it is to be done with sufficient precision.

© Paul Griffiths, 28th February 2016, minor revision 5th May 2017

 

Winter, 2015

Winterwoodblock with back-drawing

This is the last of the prints made for the OCA course. It follows on closely, conceptually and technically, from Journey. It combines single-block and multiblock relief printing, with back-drawing, much as in Journey, while the close attention paid to procedures yields good results.

the work

  • bokuju, water and oil-based colours on paper; 46.0 x 30.0 cm
  • studio work: 24.02-07.03.15
  • sketchbook18: 10-13; sketchbook 19: 23, 24
  • notebook 13: 56-58
  • artworks record and photography: 2015-03-07
  • OCA Printmaking 1, Part 5, exercise 42; documented 08.03.15, revised 03.04.16

resources

  • blocks/plates: 2 plyblocks 45 x 30 cm, acrylic plate 42 x 30 cm
  • registration: cut line on-the-block for the plyblocks
  • printing papers: 12 sheets single-ply semi-sized pizhi (bark paper), 45 x 30 cm
  • inks and printing tools: bokuju, Sakura printing colours, Chinese water-based colour, and oil-based printing ink for the back-drawing

[1] CONCEPTION OF THE PRINT DESIGN

Conceptually and technically this print is similar, at a general level, to the previous print, Journey. One difference is that the design would not settle down easily. Another is that I decided to work with a thin, handmade Chinese paper. This had interesting implications for how I could work with woodblock printing and for how I could refine the final printed image.

As with Journey and other prints, the basic idea was that this print would be based on walks made in a particular period, in a particular area. Having made these decisions for this print, I began to work on a design and to produce several sketchbook drawings, confident that things would unfold as neatly as they had done for Journey. However, after a couple of afternoons of this, I realised that a sense of a whole image – a collage of drawings from photographs and existing sketchbook drawings – was not coming together and that there was no way forwards with the material that I had in hand. I think the basic problem was that I began work on the design with a clear conception of what I wanted from the available materials, but those materials, the existing drawings and photographs, would not yield a workable image.

OK, so I started again, concentrating on another area and on walks taken there mainly over the winter of 2013-14. The area in question is a massive escarpment with a densely wooded backslope. As with the walks and resulting materials used for Journey, part of the interest of this area is that these scrubby, dominantly oak woodlands are not old growth and, rather, hide the remains of an agricultural landscape that has been abandoned and left to the growth of oaks only in recent decades. On the ground, this recent archaeology is most obvious in the ruins of stone terraces (restanques), buried in the trees, some derelict farmhouses, some large oaks, like the one included in Journey, and, every now and then, some fields that are still mainly open and were probably still being tilled and planted until quite recently.

Part of the area in question is also supposed to be a nature reserve, and there used to be some information panels describing the (ancient) archaeological and natural historical riches of this place. However, the local commune has decided that cheap electrical power is more important, and much of the area of the reserve is now covered with a vast field of solar panels. Perhaps the local officials are right but I still regret the loss of a large stand of Atlantic Cedar from this area.

All this is barely suggested in the final design: a ruined farmhouse wall, tracks produced by heavy industrial vehicles cutting through the garrique, my shadow stretching across an abandoned field in the low winter sunlight. It’s enough (fig. 1).

(1) working on the final design

(1) working on the final design

 

[2] TECHNICAL PLANNING

My thoughts about the actual printing process developed almost as slowly as the design, and some critical decisions were taken only after the design was settled. Most of this does not need discussion here since it is technical ground that has been covered thoroughly in several previous prints. However, the following four decisions were critical:

  1. to print on a handmade pizhi (bark paper) obtained from a supplier in the USA;[1]
  2. to use two plyblocks, one of which is faced with an interesting grain on one side, so I want to try printing this side ‘blind’, without an image, in an attempt to pick up the pattern of the grain in the pizhi;
  3. a decision not to pre-dampen the papers, contrary to all my practice with woodblock prints so far, and with the thought that the initial blind printing may be enough to dampen these thin papers for all stages of the relief printing;
  4. some back-drawing is to be included.

 

[3] PREPARING AND CUTTING THE PLYBLOCKS

The print was to be based on four sides of two plyblocks, designated sides A-D, and some back-drawing would to be done separately, at the end, in whatever manner becomes most appropriate at that stage (figs. 2-4). A confusion between blocks B and C is possible here because I changed them around after cutting them.

(2) transferring and modifying the design on the block

(2) transferring and modifying the design on the block

(3) sides A and C ready for printing

(3) sides A and C ready for printing

(4) sides B and D ready for printing

(4) sides B and D ready for printing

 

[4] PRINTING THE PLYBLOCKS

These decisions were made, partly in advance of and partly during printing (figs. 5-9):

  • side A – printed blind with dilute Sakura blue;
  • side B – (1) the track is printed with Sakura green; (2) the shadow is printed with a mix of Sakura blue (the last of the tube), Chinese sky blue and bokuju; (3) the ruined wall is printed with a dilute version of (2);
  • side C – (1) the track is printed with Sakura warm brown, and (2) part of the wall with a dilute version of (1);
  • side D – (1) the track outlines with bokuju, slightly diluted, and (2) the wall linework with a well-diluted mix of bokuju and Chinese sky blue.
(5) side A – printing in progress

(5) side A – printing in progress

(6) side A – a completed print

(6) side A – a completed print

(7) side B – printing in progress

(7) side B – printing in progress

(8) side C – a completed print at this stage

(8) side C – a completed print at this stage

(9) side D – at the end of relief printing, preparing for back-drawing

(9) side D – at the end of relief printing, preparing for back-drawing

 

[5] BACK-DRAWING

Fig. 9 also shows the beginnings of preparation for back-drawing. I had had time to think about it, and decided that all I wanted was a simple line for the silhouette of the hill, and some judicious smudging, to suggest the mass of the hill and the air around it. This was a good moment to use up the last of a tube of dense black, oil-based printing ink that I have had in stock for about 20 years. The method was exactly the same as that used for Journey, with the addition that progress was checked after the line has been drawn and, if necessary, the paper was smudged into the ink a little with the finger tip (fig. 10).

(10) back-drawing in progress

(10) back-drawing in progress

 

[6] FINAL RESULTS

Of the twelve sheets of pizhi that I began with, four were rejected at different stages for various reasons and eight were deemed satisfactory-to-good (fig. 11). Fig. 12 reproduces the print that I am particularly happy with, which is the fourth from the left in fig. 11.

(11) eight sheets at the end of printing

(11) eight sheets at the end of printing

(12) Winter, 2015; 46.0 x 30.0 cm

(12) Winter, 2015; 46.0 x 30.0 cm

 

[7] COMMENT

There is a not a lot that needs saying, as the critical general observations about my thinking for these experimental and combinagtions prints have been made in the documentation for the previous three prints. The only comment that I do want to make about this print is that it seemed as though it was on the verge of failure, for all sorts of reasons, from the start, at the design stage, and well into the printing process. Yet, in the event, I much better pleased with the result than I thought I would be until the eight sheets were hung on the wall, where I could review them all properly.

© Paul Griffiths 2016


[1] OAS (Oriental Art Supply), whose papers I have used for a long time. This pizhi is single-ply, so very thin, and were it not for the strength and length of the fibres, it would be almost impossibly fragile. Classically, a pizhi is made mainly of kozo (paper mulberry) and other bark fibres, but, in this case, the paper is flecked with what look like bits of wood pulp.