29 July 2005

The Hanshita (Sketch)

The sketch that becomes the basis for carving is called the hanshita in Japanese. For my prints, I've been drawing the design by hand in black and white, then scanning it so I can make multiple identical copies to be pasted onto the blocks. I also use the computer to work out where the design will be on the block (the outline of the block is shown in blue), how the paper will align over the carved areas (the paper is shown in red), and where I will carve the very important registration marks (the black corner mark and side mark). When doing multiple color/multiple block prints, the registration marks, called the kento, ensure that all the colors will align correctly with each other.

A couple of the blocks I originally carved are OK to be used as they are, but there are several I will need to carve again, so using the same hanshita will ensure that my new blocks match the old blocks.

27 July 2005

How A Print Is Made - Online Demo

Dartmouth College's Hood Museum of Art has some Quicktime video footage on their website showing how a moku hanga print is made. There are a number of clips of printmaker Matt Brown preparing his design, carving blocks, and printing them using a baren, plus a demonstration of how colors are layered to make a typical ukioe print. Enjoy!

22 July 2005

Pause and Assess

I've been looking at these 3 prints and trying to discern where I want to go next. I've also been looking at some woodcut books that my friend Alan loaned to me, particularly a book about the German Expressionist E.L. Kirchner. What I notice most about Kirchner's woodcuts is the energy in his marks, the fact that you can "see" what he cut and the tools he used. You can almost watch his hand move. Look at this piece, for example:

Some of the cuts seem very precise and planned, but there's an energy and roughness to some of the other marks that I really like.

I'm happy with the 3 Buddha pieces I made, but I can see that what I've done is reproduce in woodblock a way of constructing a drawing that I've learned from 20 years of using vector-based computer software. In vector-based illustration you essentially layer colored shapes on top of one another to create your drawing, almost like cut paper. That's what I did with the Buddhas, too. Nothing wrong with that, but I'd like to experiment with the characteristics of the wood itself and the marks that the various cutting tools make.

21 July 2005

Final Listening Buddha Print (and More Trouble)

I had originally carved some birds on the dark blue block, but I decided I didn't like them so I carved these new ones in the old "sky" block. Again, I had a lot of trouble getting a clean print with these as I was getting a lot of blurred edges. I tried really lightening up on pigment and paste, but that caused loss of coverage.

Finally, something that Tom posted the other day clicked: I think there was too much moisture and paste built up on the paper by the time I printed this block. Probably should have let the paper dry some before I continued printing. Hopefully I'll recognize the symptoms next time. Anyway, here's the finished print.

20 July 2005

Running Into Trouble

So I did a great bokashi, and then went on to print Block #3, the medium green that defines the statue's shadows. It's thrilling how easily I seem to be picking up moku hanga!

But you know what happens as soon as you start congratulating yourself: trouble! It turned out that block #4 was the block from hell. I ruined about 6 out of 15 prints with this block. Take a look at this one, the best of the bunch:

See all that space that isn't printing dark blue - that vast expanse of sky between the Buddha's head and the left edge of the border, and again all that blank space across the cheek? Because in moku hanga you ink the whole block, including the nonprinting areas, I had to struggle to keep the paper from dipping into those nonprinting areas and picking up ink as I applied enough pressure to print the relief areas on the block. It was really really tricky. First I stopped printing and pulled my chisels back out to make the nonprinting areas deeper. That helped some, but it was still difficult. I ended up wiping the sky area clean each time before I applied paper and pressure. Sigh. One more block to go...

19 July 2005

A Better Bokashi

My first attempt at making a bokashi (a gradation) was clumsy at best. The method I had used was to put rice paste on one end of my maru bake brush and pigment on the other end and wipe it horizontally across the block. Tom Kristensen gave me some great advice in his comments on that post, and I'm pleased to show you this second, smoother much-improved bokashi.

As Tom suggested, I first applied a thin even layer of rice paste to the top section of the "sky" block. Then I applied a dollup of darker blue at the top of this layer of paste and used a horizontal motion of the maru bake to work the color into the paste, letting the ink spread into the paste. I found that I didn't need to be as rigid about keeping the motion completely horizontal; that if I pulled the brush slightly downward as I went along it helped the fade become smoother. I also used a blue that was closer in value to the first blue, so the bokashi was softer and not as pronounced as the first time I tried it. Thanks for the tips, Tom!

18 July 2005

Study #3 - Listening Buddha

Here's the third and probably last in my series of small 4" x 6" print studies of the Kamakura Daibutsu statue. I call it "Listening Buddha." It shows the statue's right ear and his cheek viewed against the sky. I love to crop in very closely on a subject almost to the point of abstraction. My regular illustration clients rarely allow me to do this, as they want an easily-recognizable "quick read" image. This is not a quick read. Perhaps it's the weakest of the three designs for that reason, but I like it and the fun thing about this exploration into woodblock printing is that I'm doing it just to please myself!

Here's block #1, the lightest tones for the statue's ear and cheek:

And here's the second block which defines the sky area:

15 July 2005

Study #2 - "Breathing Buddha"

Here's a second print on the theme of the Kamakura Daibutsu. I used the same palette and style. Here's Block #1, the base layer with highlights ...

Each block has a different character depending on how deeply it's cut, how much open space there is, how broad the printing surfaces are. Printing involves constant feedback - checking each print as it comes off the block and making small adjustments to paste, pigment and pressure until it looks right. (Or at least closer to right.) Here's the second block, the darker tones ...

And here's the final version, with the darkest tones added ...

I have to say, I think I've chosen some very unforgiving designs for my first prints. I thought these would be ideal because there are only 3 colors/3 blocks so not too complicated, but I think that the broad printing areas and hard lines are difficult to print. More difficult than a design with lots of cuts and soft edges.

I printed 40 of these.

14 July 2005

Maru Bake - The "Shoe Brush"

This photo from McClain's Printmaking Supplies catalog shows maru bake of various sizes. These are the brushes that are used to mix the pigment and paste on the block. These brushes, like shoe brushes, are made of horse hair and are fairly stiff. There's a long smelly process involved in properly preparing them. The ends of the hairs are "split" by first burning them and then rubbing them on shark skin or a shark skin substitute. I've heard of people using a cheese grater for this purpose. You can also buy maru bake already prepared (more expensive, of course). I've tried both and frankly I'd rather buy them pre-treated. Since the pigments tend to stay in the bristles a bit even after washing, it's helpful to have several maru bake so you can use one for blues, one for yellows, one for black, etc.

13 July 2005

Final "Steadfast Buddha" Print

Here's the piece with Block #2 added ...

And the final version with Block #3 overprinted. I made an edition of 15 of these 4" x 6" prints. It was really fun. More Buddhas are on the way!

12 July 2005

Bokashi - Gradation Printing

As Tom Kristensen suggested doing in a comment a few days ago, I wanted to try adding some heavier color along the bottom of this print. This type of inking is called bokashi. The result you see here looks a little heavier than this novice intended, but the basic method is to lay down some paste and/or water where the "clear" edge of the fade will be, put some ink at the darkest end of the gradation, and wipe the maru bake (inking brush) back and forth to mix the two as desired. Alternately, you can put paste at one end of the brush and ink at the other end and apply it to the block.

For further explanation and instructions, read this entry by printmaker David Bull in the Baren Encyclopedia.

11 July 2005

The Mystery of Rice Paste

Here are two prints of block #1 from the batch I printed this morning. Japanese woodblock printing is done with water-based pigments which are mixed with rice paste as a binder. You drop down some paste on the block with a little brush, dribble on some pigment with another brush and mix the two together on the block with a third brush, called a maru bake, that looks like a little shoe brush. The rice paste gives body to the pigment and ensures a uniform application to the block and the dampened paper.

I was surprised how much paste was necessary to get a smooth print from this block. I ended up using about 5 "drops" of paste for every 3 or 4 "drops" of pigment. You can see above how mottled the print looks when there isn't enough paste. Although I can imagine times when that mottled effect will be desirable, learning to control it seems important.

08 July 2005

Daibutsu Test Print

Here's a test print of the three Kamakura Daibutsu blocks. I see some places that need work with the knife and I want to adjust the colors a bit, but I'm very pleased overall. This isn't the paper that I'm going to use for the final print; I plan to use Rives Heavyweight, which is what my teacher Matt Brown uses. This is some Canson paper that I got at my local art store. They told me that it was for printmaking and could be dampened, but I tried it on a failed print (that I'll tell you about later!) and didn't care for it. The texture seems too rough to me, it fell apart under the pressure of the baren and it didn't take moisture evenly. But I'm using it for proofing because I can't stand to waste it.

I plan to print the full edition sometime next week, so I hope you'll check back then to see the final print.

07 July 2005

Buddha Blocks Carved

Here are the three blocks I've carved to make the print of the Daibutsu's hands. These are 4" x 6" shina plywood blocks. Shina plywood is easy to carve and won't warp when it gets wet during printing, but it chips easily so it's very difficult to get a fine line. Moku hanga is traditionally done on solid cherry, a harder wood that will hold very fine detail and can support thousands of impressions before wearing down. Cherry is more expensive, of course. I have to admit that I'm a bit afraid of cherry at this stage in my learning.

The next step is to proof these blocks with the pigments I plan to use and then make any adjustments that need to be made to the carving.

The main thing I've learned while carving these blocks is that I need to be very patient, very gentle with the wood and not tackle any cutting when I'm tired or distracted. It's so easy to slip with the knife, to forget which wood I want to stay and which wood I need to cut away, to accidently pop off a little chip that's important to the design. I used some Elmer's wood glue for a repair and will be curious to see if that holds up with all the moisture used in printing. (Several folks on Baren Forum suggested crazy glue! I'll try it next time.) It also took a lot of concentration because each tool is held differently and has a different use. The to is pulled through the wood, the gouges and bullnose chisels are pushed, and each has a different feel. I tried every tool in the set except for the large chisels.

NOTE (11July05): The Elmer's wood glue didn't make it. I'm a crazy glue convert!

06 July 2005

Carving Tools

Moku hanga is a type of relief printing, which is the oldest and most basic of printmaking techniques. (Other examples of relief printing include linoleum prints, potato prints and rubber stamps.) In woodblock printing the artist draws a design on a block and then carves away the wood in all the areas that will not be printed.

Moku hanga can be done with any knife that is made for cutting wood or even with X-acto blades. I wanted to use Japanese hanga tools, so I bought the set above from a store called "Woodlike Matsumura" through the Baren Mall. These tools are designed for cutting side-grain blocks of wood as opposed to the end-grain blocks used in wood engraving. In the Japanese cutting method, a tool called a to is used to outline all lines and color areas. Then the unwanted areas are cleared away with u-gouges and clearing chisels in sequence. (Note, however, that my first print was carved entirely with u-gouges.)

These tools can be sharpened on water stones and should last a very long time.

05 July 2005

Kamakura Daibutsu Study

While I was in Japan, Mariko and I visited Kamakura where we saw the famous Kamakura Daibutsu (literally "big Buddha"), a bronze statue that was cast in 1252 AD. I was quite taken with this statue, especially his hands, which rest in a position that is said to represent steadfastness. Knowing the story of the statue, that it used to reside inside a temple until 1495 when a tidal wave destroyed the temple but left the statue untouched, just adds to the sense of changelessness that the figure exudes.

As an American who lives in a country that is not yet 250 years old, I was overwhelmed to stand in the presence of a statue that has sat in the same spot and watched 750 years of Japanese history flow past. It felt more alive than me, just by virtue of its longevity.

I've decided to do a series of small woodblock prints about the Kamakura Daibutsu. Here's the final sketch of the Buddha's hands that will be the key block for the first print.

04 July 2005

What Is Moku Hanga?

Moku hanga is the Japanese term for woodblock print (moku means wood and hanga means print). Woodblock printing was brought to Japan in the 8th century by Buddhists from China and was first used to reproduce religious texts. After a time colors began to be added by hand and then, as woodblock printing became the primary form of commercial printing in Japan, printers began to carve blocks for each color. Japanese woodblock prints are known especially for their intense use of color and for the fact that the pigments are water-based rather than oil-based.

All that is needed to produce a Japanese style woodblock print is wood, water, pigment, paper, a few carving tools, some brushes and something to rub the paper with - simple materials that anyone can easily acquire and get started with right away. The process, however, is far from simple. It involves many steps - developing a design, transfering the design to the wood blocks, carving the blocks, choosing paper, printing the blocks - and each step introduces many variables so there are many challenges to this art form.

Traditional moku hanga differs from western style woodblock printing in several ways. Water-borne pigments are used rather than oil-based or even water-based printing inks and the pigment is brushed onto the block rather than applied with rollers. Pigments are then applied to the paper by hand using a baren rather than a mechanical press.

To go to the front page of this blog, click on the words "Woodblock Dreams" at the top of the page.

First Woodblock Print

In April I took a three-day workshop at nearby Snow Farm with printmaker Matt Brown. Matt works in the traditional Japanese style of woodblock printing, called moku hanga. While most western woodblock printing is done using oil-based inks and a press, moku hanga uses water-based pigments and the impressions are taken by hand-rubbing with a device called a baren.

This is the print I made at that workshop. A lot was packed into just 3 days, but under Matt's guidance I was able to complete an edition of 30 prints. I carved 5 shina plywood blocks for 5 colors and the paper used was domestic etching paper. The prints are 4" x 6."

I fell absolutely and totally in love with moku hanga in those 3 days. After 15 years as a digital illustrator, I'm not used to working with my hands on an alive material like wood. What an awakening this is! How much I've been missing! The tactile qualities of the wood, the scratchy sound of the knife cutting across the grain, the swishing of the horsehair brush, the thrill of making a perfectly smooth batch of rice paste, the frustration of trying to find just the right baren pressure for each block to print the way I want it to. I'm loving the challenge and the sensuality of it even as I curse the fact that there's no "undo" command to use when the wrong little chip of wood goes flying out from under my knife. So now the real work begins! Now begin the months and years of honing all the skills needed to make truly great woodblock prints.

This blog will journal that process.