In this post our printmaking expert, Jill Watton, explains the technique of Japanese woodblock printing.
By Jill Watton
You’ll find four main categories within Printmaking at jacksonsart.com – relief, Intaglio, Lithography and Screenprinting. We are especially excited to stock a number of exciting Relief print products, sourced from around the world, reflecting the renewed interest in this accessible yet diverse graphic printmaking process.
The Appeal of Japanese Woodblock Printing or Mokuhanga
The expressive and organic qualities of woodcut are a big part of the process’ appeal and perhaps a reason why its popularity has been on the rise in recent times. Mokuhanga or traditional Japanese woodblock printing holds particular appeal thanks to the use of non-toxic, water based inks as well as the lack of need of a printing press. The process yields markedly different results to western printing technique; by printing with water-based inks combined with Japanese Nori starch paste the results are subtle and delicate, while Western woodcuts tend to produce bolder results.
Japanese woodblock printing is a craft of discipline and sensibility where the materials and tools, developed from very early Chinese methods, have become arguably some of the best in the world. As always, inspiration is taken from diverse traditions and today we can see many printmakers mixing up techniques and materials from both Western and Eastern practices in order to create the effect they want.
Woods Used in Woodcut Printmaking
We stock a wide range of wood for woodcut printing, ready cut to convenient sizes.
Baltic Birch Plywood
Baltic birch plywood can be used with oil or water based ink, and is well suited to traditional Mokuhanga technique. JAS Baltic Birch Plywood is grown in a cold climate which produces a wood with a tight and fine grain, and has layers of birch throughout meaning the core has less voids than other plywood. The surface can be sanded very smooth or brushed with a wire brush to emphasise the grain so that you can incorporate it into your print.
Shina ‘Tilla Japonica’, Magnolia & Katsura Printmaking Wood
Shina ‘Tilla Japonica’ is the most popular wood for Mokuhanga in Japan. It is a sustainable timber grown in the colder climes of Japan and is renowned for its fine, almost indiscernible grain.
Japanese Shina Plywood is soft and easy to carve. It is robust enough to be able to hold detail and sharp edges when put through a printing press.
For solid colour – thicker, solid side grain blocks are available in Magnolia and more detailed-cutting solid side grain blocks are available in Katsura. Both woods are sanded smooth, ready to carve, and are thick enough to take carving on both sides of the block. All of these wood blocks are suitable for using with both oil based and water based relief ink.
Tools Used for Woodblock Cutting
Pfeil Specialist Woodcut Tools
Having stocked the ever popular Pfeil Lino and Block Cutters for a while, we have now added their range of larger tools designed especially for wood cutting. The innovative long, octagonal handles of the Pfeil Mallet Handle Woodcut Tools help achieve a stable grip when working and can be held with two hands. They can also be used in conjunction with Pfeil’s Hornbeam Mallet, a beautiful object in itself, carved from a single piece of native hornbeam. For bolder, vigorous woodblock cutting these are perfect. The tools are forged from steel manufactured especially for Pfeil, guaranteeing extreme hardness and edge retention.
Traditional Japanese Woodcut Tools
We stock craftsman-made, traditional woodcut tools from Japan. Japan has a centuries-old reputation for bladesmithing. This is derived from the art of making samurai swords, and from the need for tools capable of precise carving, as seen in the production of Ukiyo-e prints; the ultimate example of this artform being Hokusai’s well known ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’. These carving tools were perfected from earlier Chinese innovations and designs.
The quintessential Japanese carving knife is the Hangi To. This tool is held upright in the fist with the thumb on the top, it is used for outlining your design with flexibility and accuracy. You can add control by placing the opposite index finger against the blade as you cut. We carry Hangi-To in a variety of sizes and cater for both the left and right hand. You will find a brief outline of how the various styles of tools are used on the website plus information on the uniquely Japanese Kento registration system. We have also introduced a very economically priced set of five Japanese woodcut tools which are ideal for the beginner or for light use. Familiar to all Japanese students, these entry level cutters offer good quality steel blades that can be re-sharpened using the small waterstone included the set. [It is worth remembering these tools can also be used for lino cutting and vinyl so could be a good investment for several mediums.]
Eastern (Japanese-style) Woodblock Printing Process Explained
The greatest difference in approach between Eastern and Western woodblock printing is the method of inking the block. When making Japanese-style woodblock prints, inking is done with a brush rather than a roller. The uneven surface of the block, as well as the mixing of nori paste and pigment on the block, makes a brush the logical tool. The specialist inking brushes, hanga bake, are held upright, brushing over the print areas with circular movements. This method of applying ink allows for greater control and manipulation of colour as you can adjust the amount of pigment on the block, as well as create gradations of colour through blending.
Japanese nori (glue) paste is used in the printing process to bind and disperse the pigment colour and add to its brilliance. As mentioned earlier, colour can be in the form of a liquid pigment such as Akua Liquid Pigment, artists’ watercolour, gouache, or Sumi ink.
Taking a print from the inked block utilises the baren, a small, flat, disc-shaped tool that is rubbed over the back of the paper in a zigzag pattern while applying pressure with the heel of your hand. Traditional hon barens are finely crafted tools that are deceptively sophisticated.
What is a baren made of?
Fine rope coils are fixed to a rigid disc of layered washi then covered with an outer layer of bamboo, made by hand. Producing Japanese Printmaking barens is an art form in itself, and it is possible to invest a great deal of money and/or expertise into making the very best. We have introduced some affordable yet effective versions to our stock; you will find them in the Japanese woodcut / sundries section of the relief printing department, alongside everything you need to start printing.
Japanese Specialist Printmaking Papers
We’ve also introduced some specialist papers from Japan. Japanese papers, known as washi, have great character and resilience and are ideally suited to withstand the stresses of hand printing where strong pressure is exerted on the dampened paper. The inherent strength and dimensional stability of these papers helps prevent them distorting, so that accurate registration can be maintained.
Traditional Japanese woodblock printing has, for centuries, utilised washi made from the inner bark of the paper mulberry tree: kozo. Kozo fibres are extremely long and will create very strong and absorbent paper. Gampi has long silky fibres that can create a thin, translucent and smooth tissue-like paper.
Awagami Factory, a sixth generation family run paper mill make washi from these traditional fibres as well as non-tree fibres such as bamboo, cotton and hemp. Awagami papers are acid free and our selection comes in a range of prices and sizes, as well as a special selection pack for you to try.