Woodblock

Water based Japanese woodblock takes practise and a real feel for the materials. It uses watercolour paint with all the demands that medium brings and most prints are a build up of many layers, all of which have to work. That all said, the results are enchanting and it is a true table-top method: no press and no nasty chemicals.

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Here I am cutting ply wood, sold as Japanese ply in the UK, which is fine for most work, though not as good as the real Shima ply from Japan which I have to import. My cutting knife is making the initial sloping outline cut. Once I have an outline, I will clean away a ‘moat’ around my image which will allow for clean printing.

Cutting an outline with the hangi-to or knife. The hangi-to is a very personal tool: sized to fit the individual hand. No printer lends their hangi-to to anyone else. The blade can be replaced, but the handle lasts a lifetime.

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The rest of my cutting tools consist of a variety of chisels and gouges and are much the same as European tools. This plywood is easy to cut, but I work with a whole range of solid wood from pine to elm. I also use birch ply and very cheap shuttering ply, though the latter can only be cut in simple block shapes.

Cleaning away excess wood with a chisel.

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Here I am using the Japanese Kento method to register or align my print. This consists of two slots cut into the woodblock. Japanese prints are made up of different blocks all coming together to make the picture. A pair of Kentos is cut for every block and act to consistently hold the print in the right place to build up the image (at least that’s what happens if you are scrupulously accurate).

Using my thumbs to position the print for accurate alignment so that all parts of the image come together seamlessly.

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Japanese tebaki brushes are made of horsehair and perform the seemingly impossible job of spreading paint and rice paste over the block, pushing all the excess paint away while spreading a fine layer for printing onto the required surfaces. The rice paste, nori, is essential to give bulk to the paint and to make for a smooth printed result.

Blending rice paste, the white blobs, and watercolour with a horsehair tebaki or brush.

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Japanese woodblock is a wet method of printing, or rather a damp one. The woodblock must be damp as must the paper. Part of the skill in achieving a good print is to keep everything damp, but not too damp and to wait for the block to reach a good state to give a quality print. It’s a bit like making pancakes: the block takes several impressions to give a good result.

Testing colours while the block soaks

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Learning how to make a good bokachi is essential. Colour bleeds give the finished print life and depth. Japanese printmaking can be a very painterly process and bokachi can vary from almost imperceptible shading to bold brush strokes. Normally colour is applied at the edge of the block, as here, and the brush is used to blend it into a gradual bleed.

Applying nori to paint for a bokachi or bleed of graduated colour.

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Japanese woodblock doesn’t use a printing press; rather it depends on a baren. This is a disc of coiled bamboo inside a bamboo leaf skin. Here I am using baking parchment to prevent any friction between the back of the print and the baren. The skill is in pressing hard enough to get a clean impression without pressing so hard that the baren leaves marks, or pushes the paper down to pick up unwanted surplus ink.

Taking an impression with a bamboo disc or baren.

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I am constantly working to adapt Western materials to try and replace Japanese items which are either prohibitively expensive or simply unavailable. There are solutions to most of the problems and I continue to experiment. As I write this I am testing home cooked nori to see how long it lasts fresh, refrigerated and if it freezes. I’ll be visiting an industrial brush maker in Birmingham shortly to see if there is an English answer to the tebake. I give out factsheets to all my students which give details of my experiments. They also get a mention in my studio diaries.

Peeling back the print. The paper is Japanese mulberry: very strong for its weight.