Valley (Gaoutabry walk), 2016, multiblock woodblock print, paper 38 x 28 cm
- 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:
- paper dampening;
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:
- initial decisions;
- design transfer;
- trial prints and associated dampening/drying;
- possible re-cutting and decisions about final materials;
- 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
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
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
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
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
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
(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
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
(10) side B: early stage of cutting
(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
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:
- check the cutting and mutual registration of the block sides;
- assess decisions about colour choices and their distribution between sides A and B;
- co-ordinate the cycle of dampening, printing and drying;
- 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
(14) first trial; print complete, Sakura colours added
(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
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):
- building a dampening stack;
- side A: single, separate prints of the main field and disc;
- side B: separate prints of the tracks, dolmen sign and red disc, repeated where necessary;
- side A: repetition of the print of main field;
- 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
(18) completed stack left for 2+ hours
(19) side A: main field, dilute bokuju + Chinese indigo
(20) side A: disc, pure bokuju, tamped before printing
(21) side A: print placed in the dampening stack, disc protected
(22) troubleshooting: cleaning the block in between prints
(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
(25) side B: dolmen sign, Chinese burnt sienna + rattan yellow; circle, Chinese rouge red
(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
(28) prints 1, 4, 6: acceptable or marginally acceptable
(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.
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.
- 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