19 March 2007
More Step By Step
Today I'm printing the second block, the darker details of the iceberg. You can see my sloppy carving very well in this photo. I tend to go for speed rather than beauty, so although I'm very careful when cutting around the relief areas I'm pretty haphazard about clearing the big spaces outside the printing area. Most good moku hanga people will tell you to use square-headed chisels for clearing to avoid the ridges caused when using u-shaped chisels, but I use u-shaped chisels. I find them fast and intuitive, although I'll admit that u-shaped chisels are hard to sharpen. I just wanted to make this caveat -- I'm self-taught and I don't necessarily do things the "right" way.
Here you can also see the kento marks that guide the paper into place and keep the colors properly registered. Some type of registration system is absolutely necessary for multi-block prints (unless you're doing more experimental work that depends on serendipity) and I think the simple but elegant Japanese kento system is brilliant.
Here are the bottled pigments I use, pure pigments suspended in water from Guerra Paint and Pigment in New York City. Other people use Akua Color pigments or tube watercolors for moku hanga. Mixing these colors is just like mixing any other paints. I use any little container that can be sealed for mixing up colors. Baby food jars work really well. I suffer from overconfidence in mixing, so I rarely do test prints. I just mix a color until I like it, test it on a piece of scrap paper, and then start using it on the block.
Here's a quick test print of this next block:
I'm satisfied that I've cut deeply enough to get a clean impression. How deep to carve? My rule of thumb is just deep enough so that the cleared areas don't print -- shallower on small blocks, deeper on large blocks. After lots of practice you begin to know. Checking the color, this is close to what I'm looking for. I want it a little "grayer" so I'll add some gray, but I'm also aware that this color will get darker because it will overprint the first color.
Moku hanga blocks take time to "warm up." The first few impressions on a fresh block are quite pale, so the first few prints never make it into the final edition. I keep the sheets in order all through the print run and I consider the first 3 or 4 sheets to be my test prints. I make all my fine color adjustments on these first few prints. Here's the block being inked up. You want the relief surfaces to have a sheen like above, but no puddles.
Here's how the print looks with the second layer added. Right now I love it, which always frightens me. The fear that I'll mess it up if I do anything else makes me want to stop right now and not do the other two blocks I have planned. This happens to me on every single print.
Another thing that happens on every print is that the block swells from the moisture of the print run and the pigment begins to spread wider and wider into the cleared area. Eventually stray marks begin to appear and it's necessary to go in with a chisel and cut away a few problem areas. It's important to look carefully at each print as it comes off the block so you can analyze what's happening and catch any spots where you're pressing too hard or too lightly, places where you're not putting enough pigment, etc.
It's hard to see here, but my paper is beginning to curl at the edges and not lie flat on the block because It's gaining moisture in the center where I've been printing and losing moisture around the edges. After this block is finished I'll need to adjust the moisture by brushing some water on the edges and letting the prints sit under a weight to even out the dampness.
Here's how the blocks look after printing. The pigment can't really be removed -- it sort of stains the wood just as it "stains" the paper. Unlike oil-based inks, the water colors sink deeply into the paper and basically dye it. I love that about moku hanga.
Now I must go and ponder whether or not I have the guts to add the other two blocks. Art takes courage.