Coming from a painting background where the possibilities seem endless, I am more and more fascinated by the limitations imposed by woodblock printing.
What excites me is the level of individuality that comes through. It is such a direct, tactile process – in a sense its range of marks and qualities are unique.
The emphasis at Tama Art University (where I studied) was on students finding their own approach to this traditional technique. This is something that has stayed with me.
For example, although at times I use the traditional kento system to achieve a tight registration, I often take more flexible approaches. I also like to combine the more controlled cutting adopted by many Japanese printers, with the freer expressive style more commonly associated with woodcut in the west.
One of the materials widely used in Tama is varnish. As this repels watercolour, it can be applied to the wood as a painterly addition to the mark-making process.
Often a print will come about through a combination of planning and intuitive evolution. This can result in a print being one-off, or a series of variations. These may be resolved into a ‘final’ printed edition but just as often the creative impulse has taken its course.
There are many hundreds of Japanese papers (washi), hand made specifically for watercolour printing. Selection can be quite a long process.
The paper usually needs to be sized. However, Japanese paper gets stronger as it gets older, so sometimes sizing is unnecessary.
The size itself can take a couple of days to make. Its ingredients include Nikawa, a type of animal glue, and alum. These are ground, melted in water, and evenly applied with a large soft Dosa brush. Once the paper is dry, I try to leave it for several days to allow the size to settle in.
The paper is moistened by layering between several dampened sheets of newsprint. These are wrapped in layers of plastic that allows the moisture to spread evenly. It takes 2-6 hours for the paper to dampen ready for printing.
The brushes used to apply colour to woodblocks are a mixture of horse and pig or deer hair. They look like shoe brushes, as you’ll see from the photo below.
If the brushes are out of shape, I leave plenty of time for re-shaping as it can take all day.
Before use, the brushes are singed with fire, or a hot plate, and rubbed on a sharkskin, or modern metal equivalent. This splits the hair ends, and softens them, so that they hold more watercolour.
I normally use gouache or watercolour paints, prepared in small dishes or used directly from the tube.
If I want a richer colour, I use pure pigments. These are ground in a pestle and mortar and mixed with a binder, such as gum arabic or animal glue. I’ll usually also mix them with some rice paste glue on the block itself.
A baren is used to rub paper onto a coloured woodblock. This is a disk about the size of a saucer, usually wrapped in a bamboo leaf, that fits in the palm of the hand.
A printer will have several barens to achieve different effects. These may range from inexpensive machine wrapped card, to a skilfully crafted object made over several weeks. The latter cost anything from £300 to £1000. Ball-bearing barens are also popular.
Before use, the bamboo leaf has some light oil rubbed into it. The force of printing, and possibly dampness from the paper, will eventually split the leaf unless this is done.
A press can be used instead of a baren, but you lose flexibility. Extra emphasis in areas and intended baren marks can be integral to the final work.
Building up a printed image in layers may take several woodblocks.
Blocks are selected for the different properties of their wood type. I tend to use shina veneer, which is relatively easy to cut and has a smooth grain. When I need a rougher surface, the shina can be burnt slightly and rubbed to raise the grain; alternatively I use other woods.
The wood is usually cut away to create a relief image for printing.
Before printing the block is soaked with water. This keeps the colour on the surface of the block, rather than being sucked into the wood.
Colour is evenly brushed in a thin layer onto the woodblock, then left until it appears to start to dry. At this point, a sheet of the dampened paper is put in position with the aid of a registration guide.
A thin piece of paper, or plastic, is placed over the paper to be printed; then carefully but quickly rubbed over with a baren.
This process is repeated for each colour, building up the image in layers. For a rich saturation, apply the same colour again.