The printmaking of East Asia: a view from the studio

I enrolled for Printmaking 1 (PM1) for several reasons; mainly to do with where I think my studio work is these days and with my feeling that my work has limitations that I need to think about. Given my interest in working on paper, printmaking is a particularly suitable medium for working that through. I don’t want to be any more precise about these matters. What I can usefully do is to think critically about particular strands of my work.

One strand that I must consider is my long term interest in East Asian arts and cultures. As far as printmaking is part of that, all I note is that I attended one-week courses in woodblock printmaking in 1998 and 2000, at Mary Ward Centre, London, with the Chinese artist, Xu Zhongmin,[1] and have been making woodblock prints off and on ever since.

I want to consider East Asian (Chinese and Japanese) printmaking from the point of view of an achievable studio practice.[2] For this purpose, I shall make a simplifying assumption that we can begin by largely ignoring the historical and cultural (including political) contexts in which printmaking has developed in East Asia.

The concerns of the studio can be considered from two overlapping points of view; in terms of the constraints and possibilities of an actual studio; and in terms of the materials and techniques of East Asian printmaking.

For an actual studio, I have to be specific to my own work space. Readers will judge how similar and different my situation is to their own. The following plan is a copy of an Adobe InDesign document, in which I can ‘virtually’ move my furniture around. The studio is small, 11.55 m2 (3.5 x 3.3 m). It began in 2005 as the cleared-out end of a stand-alone garage, which is itself about 35 metres from the house. In 2006, I had as much as possible of this space converted into a self-contained room, with white walls, electricity supply, good windows and ceiling lights. Last summer (2012), and partly with the needs of printmaking in mind, I had a sink installed, but this provides only cold water. I have found out, this winter, that I cannot rely on the water supply, as it is simply an extension of a buried garden hose, susceptible to freezing if I do not turn off the supply at source, at a point beyond the house. Using the house kitchen for clean-up poses all the usual problems, in addition to that 35-metre walk in not necessarily good weather.

Studio plan 2013

Studio plan 2013


Storage is a problem. A lot of studio space is taken up with storage of materials related to everything I understand myself as trying to do, of which printmaking is only a part. I try to keep one wall free, for large work. For work surfaces, I have a table and carpenter’s bench. Easels and other stuff not immediately needed can be stored in the garage proper. Completed work has to be stored long-term in the house, in dry, safe conditions.

It’s always on the verge of overcrowding, even for doing something as materially simple as drawing, while printmaking, even without a press, makes great demands on it. But it is also a congenial place to work. So I’m not complaining, things could be much worse, yet some attention has to be given to the reality of the spatial and material demands of printmaking.[3]

Working without a press is a significant condition of what I can do in this studio, now and in the long term, in life beyond PM1. The studio works well because I have slowly adapted it to working mainly on paper, with Western and East Asian resources, including those needed for woodblock printmaking. In these conditions, it is a given that I am aware of the extent of the achievements of East Asian printmakers, and their long and sophisticated history of making prints by hand, with relatively simple tools and media, without a press. Yet, as part of my participation in PM1, it is time to look again at these East Asian interests, in greater depth and more critically.

A first move is to compile a bibliography of English-language literature that concentrates on the techniques of East Asian, especially woodblock printmaking.

The bibliography consists of books and two articles from Printmaking Today. From its early days, this journal has covered Chinese and Japanese printmaking well but, as far as I know, these are the only two articles with a purely technical focus, and in both cases on sharpening cutting tools.[4] Rebecca Salter’s note can be seen now mainly as a flyer for her book (listed here), which was to come out the same year. Peter Clothier’s more recent note deals with the same problem in terms not focussed, as Salter was, on using specialist Japanese sharpening stones. Their different emphases draw immediate attention to what could be the main practical problem of working with East Asian resources. At what point does dependence on East Asian tools, media and methods become too great a problem? I shall come back to this.

I have included Ann Westley’s book on relief printmaking to emphasise the point that woodblock, the traditional medium of East Asian printmaking, belongs (mainly) to the family of relief prints, and that there is considerable transferability between, say, linocutting and woodblock tools and methods. Westley does a lot in her book to cross the ground between the Western and East Asian traditions.

Only one book in the list is concerned with Chinese printmaking techniques. As far as I can discover, Barker is the first person to publish an English-language book on the subject, while there is a long history of publishing on Japanese techniques – my list includes only those that I have copies of. The book is excellent, with broad coverage of techniques and contemporary artists, and enough historical background for the purpose. Barker takes the printmaker onto some very Chinese ground, such as seals and dab-printing. His comprehensive glossary includes terms in their Chinese character forms, pinyin orthography and English.

Three of the books listed are concerned with Japanese woodblock printmaking; those by Salter, Kari Laitinen et al (the Japanese section is by Tuula Moilanen), and the co-authored volume by Gaston Petit and Amadio Arboleda. Each of these is useful in its own way, although necessarily with substantial overlap in subject matter. Petit and Arboleda’s book is noteworthy because theirs is the only one that concentrates on techniques developed by 20th-century artists who identified with the sōsaku hanga (Creative Print) movement.[5] Japanese printmaking, as made famous by the 19th century ukiyo-e print, was based on an atelier mode of production, in which the artist was one of a team dominated by a publisher. In contrast, sōsaku hanga artists, in principle if not always in fact, pursued an aesthetic in which an artist-printmaker is conceptually and physically responsible for every step in the creative act, from design, through cutting of the block, to printing.

The sōsaku hanga artists’ conception of an independent artist-printmaker should resonate with anyone coping with the demands of PM1 (and PM2?). It shouldn’t be lost on us, either, that their conception of the artist as an individual, creative ‘genius’ (I shall wash my mouth out with soap and water later – I have an historical point to make here) derived from their understandings of Western art.[6] Sōsaku hanga artists give us a great deal to reflect on.

Yet it is one thing to imagine sōsaku hanga artists, working at their cutting and printing benches, and another to assume that we, in the West (or merely on PM1), can do exactly the same thing, on the same material and technical terms. It is not just a matter of studio size, or of particular problems like access to water. I can now return to the problem posed earlier; about the practical limits of any dependence on East Asian tools, media and methods.

The basic material consideration is that East Asian traditional media – famously based on brush, ink and paper – are fundamentally different in construction and composition from their Western counterparts. All the technical books listed here discuss this fact in adequate terms. The essential practical point is that there are few satisfactory Western substitutes for East Asian resources. While woodblock printmaking has different resource needs from painting and calligraphy,[7] and some resources, like cutting tools, are similar to their Western counterparts, the problem is not greatly different and, in some respects, can be worse.

All this applies most singularly to East Asian papers, which are not only lighter weight (thinner) than Western art papers, but also have material properties that put them in a world apart, as receptors of inks and colours, and as materials in their own right. Absorbent East Asian papers draw ink and colour deep into their own physical structure. One result is an enrichment of tones and colours. Another is that (depending in part on how a painting or print image is organised), rather than simply being a support for an image, the paper sheet functions more comprehensively as a visual-material field. A full discussion of the working and visual properties of East Asian papers is not possible here. All I can do is to reinforce the point that there are no Western substitutes.

Given access to online shopping, it is possible to build up East Asian printmaking resources, especially with guidance from books listed here.[8] The main problems are (1) being sure of buying the right kit, especially to start; (2) expense, especially if overseas postage costs are incurred; (3) re-stockage of consummables, especially paper; and (4) that no single supplier will ever have everything you are looking for. A particular problem, at present, is that, as far as I know, only Japanese tools are available online. That doesn’t necessarily matter very much. When I studied printmaking with Xu Zhongmin over a decade ago, we simply used Japanese resources with Chinese papers. None of these resourcing problems is specific to East Asian materials, and finding Western resources can be difficult and expensive enough, yet the sum of the problems considered here is greater: more research, more expense, less of a sense of familiarity, more anxiety about getting it right.

My final practical point is that ‘good shopping’ cannot resolve all problems. Not only are there very particular skills to be learned (tool sharpening is one of them) but there are, at least in my experience, sticking points in technical development that can inhibit a sense of making progress in the studio. My great bug-bear comes at the transition from the cutting to the printing processes, and the normal requirement in the latter process to keep a stack of paper dampened throughout successive printing. I’m still working on satisfactory solutions to this, and am also often annoyed to find that the paper is becoming spotted with mould. The technical books, no matter how good they are, can only deal with some of the problems, and the rest is up to you, to your capacity to experiment, and to extent of your patience.

In this note, I have assumed, for the sake of argument, that I am concerned with a purely East Asian approach to woodblock printmaking (Ann Westley’s book and Peter Clothier’s note counter this tendency). I have considered such printmaking mainly in practical terms, as a possible solution to the needs of working in restricted studio conditions and especially without a press. I hope I have done enough to suggest the advantages and disadvantages of thinking about Western (or just PM1) studio problems in East Asian terms. Perhaps the question of over-dependence on a specific kind of resource is not answerable in any one, generalisable way. I know that what matters in my work is that my interests in East Asian resources are not at all entirely practical. The brief remarks I have made about papers suggest how the land really lies for me – yet a positive interest in the specific materiality of working with East Asian papers and other resources does not make the practical problems disappear.


Barker, David. 2005. Traditional Techniques in Contemporary Chinese Printmaking. London: A & C Black.

Clothier, Peter. 2012. Starting from scratch: tool sharpening. Printmaking Today, Spring 2012, 21/1: 26.

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.

Salter, Rebecca. 2001a. At the cutting edge. Printmaking Today, Spring 2001, 10/1: 30-31.

Salter, Rebecca. 2001b. Japanese Woodblock Printing. London: A & C Black.

Westley, Ann. 2001. Relief Printmaking. London: A & C Black.

© Paul Griffiths, May 2013

[2] ‘East Asia’ is used in this text as shorthand for ‘China and Japan’.

[3] It is worth mentioning that I know of nowhere in my region in France where I could share printmaking resources or participate in an open studio, which intensifies my reliance on this studio.

[4] I have a few issues going back to 1991 but only have complete coverage from 2005 onwards, so I could be missing older articles on technical matters.

[5] Petit & Arboleda’s book may be unavailable now. I have had my copy for 12 years.

[6] Their understandings of Western art were not particularly up-to-date and certainly not avant-garde in Western terms. But they made their own avant-garde of their miscomprehensions.

[7] I mean East Asian brush-and-ink painting and calligraphy.

[8] I do not attempt to list such online resources. However, I do note one London-based supplier who can provide almost everything needed for woodblock printmaking using Japanese resources:

3 thoughts on “The printmaking of East Asia: a view from the studio

  1. Pingback: Sketchbooks and the documentation of studio work | paulgriffithshanga

  2. Pingback: PM1, Part 2-06: Exercise 20, 19.10.13 | paulgriffithshanga

  3. Pingback: Two books on Japanese printmaking | paulgriffithshanga

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