03 August 2015

Book Review: Japanese Woodblock Print Workshop by April Vollmer

Maintaining sensitivity to materials is the one essential key to using this technique successfully.
-April Vollmer

Three years in the making, mokuhanga artist April Vollmer's new book, Japanese Woodblock Print Workshop, is a comprehensive and beautifully illustrated overview of the process of making a Japanese style woodblock print. Compiled especially for use by creative artists outside Japan, the book contains chapters on the history of the Japanese woodblock print, an introduction to the tools and materials, step by step instructions, examples of contemporary work (including my own), and a comprehensive list of suppliers.

There are a couple of other English language books about mokuhanga that are already available, most notably Rebecca Salter's 2001 book Japanese Woodblock Printing and The Art and Craft of Woodblock Printmaking (1999) by Kari Laitinen, Tuula Moilanen, and Antti Tanttu. Both of these books offer excellent and thorough discussions of technique and should be part of every mokuhanga printmaker's library. What Vollmer's book provides, however, is a particularly American approach that resonates with my own teaching and working style. She presents an art form that is traditional and laden with historical and cultural complexity and makes it approachable and accessible for artists outside of Japan who do not have the luxury of studying with Japanese masters and who are more familiar with Western printmaking. Vollmer always describes the Japanese way of doing things, but she then offers workarounds if the materials are difficult to find where the artist lives and works. As she says in the book's introduction, it is "written with the belief that this flexible technique can be adapted for use by individual artist-printmakers. With experience, artists can develop an approach to woodblock printing that reflects their particular situation, technical ability, and available resources."

A photo spread introducing the ever-important element of rice paste in Japanese woodblock printing.

I like to say that mokuhanga is simple but not easy. I compare it to learning a digital drawing or painting application, such as Illustrator or Photoshop: an artist can usually make something satisfying on the first attempt, but it can take many years to truly master the program and many artists never take full advantage of all the possibilities. Mokuhanga is like that, and Vollmer highlights the elegant simplicity of the method, thus making the technique accessible, while inviting us to step into a deeper relationship with it by touching on the complexities and myriad possibilities, both in words and by showing inspiring examples of work by contemporary artists. 

Japanese Woodblock Print Workshop is a wonderful book in which I'm proud to be included, and which I will be recommending to my own workshop students. It's available from most booksellers and also from McClain's Printmaking Supplies.

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