Adrian Holmes’ addiction to the art of mokuhanga has led him to develop a warm and engaging approach as a teacher and a distinct and playful style within his practice. Following study in Japan and years of exploring the capabilities of this process, Adrian now makes work to commission as well as non-commissioned work that shows regularly in the South West of England. In this interview Adrian shares why he loves Japanese woodcut so much, why now is a great time to try the process for the first time at home, and offers tips on how to keep colours vibrant and delicate in your work.
Lisa: How did you first become entranced by the process of Japanese Woodblock?
Adrian: Where to begin? After studying Visual Arts at Plymouth University my ramblings took me to Japan, where I ended up living for quite a few years. It’s here I first came across woodblock artist Kiyoshi Saitos and his exquisite prints. This is probably what sparked my passion and interest in Woodblock printing. This led me to explore the world of mokuhanga, over time picking up the traditional techniques and methods, whether it was through one to one tuition or self-study. I’m always thinking of woodblock as a slight addiction some might say?
Lisa: On your website there is comprehensive knowledge of Mokuhanga and Sosaku Hanga. Can you just quickly tell us the main differences between the two?
Adrian: So yes, I would say Mokuhanga is the general Japanese term to describe Woodblock printing. Moku meaning wood and Hanga meaning print . Its really just the basic term for woodblock printing and I would say encompasses the traditional process as a whole. The term Sosaku hanga basically translates to ‘Creative prints’, this was a artistic movement that began at the end of the 19th century /early 20th century. It was an movement which became popular with artists wanting to make prints for art sake rather than merely for reproduction and commercial purposes. The traditional division of labour from artist, carver, printer and publisher (often seen in ukiyo-e prints) was replaced by artists and printmakers who were competent in all areas of the woodblock process. Inevitably changing the way prints could be made. A few of the more time consuming methods were simplified but the quality of the prints were made to same standard using traditional tools and materials.
Lisa: In these days of social distancing, it’s important to find ways of creating that are safe in the home, and easy to start up. Would you say Mokuhanga falls into this category?
Adrian: Absolutely. The beauty about Japanese woodblock printmaking in a very basic sense requires very little equipment for you to start printing. No press is needed or specialist equipment, it’s also a very green process, so no chemicals are required. It can be done from the confines of your home with relative ease so is perfect medium for these difficult times where we’re potentially cooped up in our houses going slightly crazy. I say get printing.
Lisa: You are an experienced demonstrator and teacher of Mokuhanga, and as a past attendee myself, I really recommend your workshops! But, while we’re social distancing, is it possible to try this process without an introductory class, and if so, what would be your top tips?
Adrian: Thanks for you nice comments Lisa, absolutely anyone can try their hand at creating a woodblock print with very little and those reading this blog are probably interested in art and may have some essentials lying around their homes. My top tips for making a simple woodblock would be keep your design simple, no more than one or two colours, don’t add to much detail in your drawing, start simple you can always get more intricate after a few attempts. You want to enjoy the process and not get stressed about it. These days there is so much information online you can get loads of tips and hints on how to make the perfect print – I’d even dare say email me?
Lisa: What materials at an absolute minimum would you say you need to start printing?
Adrian: So yes materials are important but what’s nice about Mokuhanga is one can attempt it with very little equipment – a DIY approach if you like. Try not to get hung up about not having all the best tools, just go for it. Assuming you have done all your carving of the woodblock, which can be done with some basic cutting tools and some type of wood; MDF and plywood are great choice if you have nothing else. Basic materials to print which are a must, would be traditional watercolours in tubes, poster paints, any paint really but water- based is best. Some paper, again any paper is fine to begin with, brushes of some kind, a few old shoe polish brushes if you have them…these are used for spreading the pigment onto the block. Something to burnish the back of the paper when printing. If you don’t have a baren (a circular disc with a bamboo skin around it) you can use your hand or a wooden spoon, or even a pebble. If you want to emulate a baren then you could cut a circle disc of card board and wrap an old handkerchief around or even and old pair of tights – anything smooth to help the disc slide around the back of the paper. Like I say not much is needed to begin with so give it a go.
Lisa: Can you describe what it’s like printing with water-based inks, as is traditional with this process. Most printmakers are really only used to acrylic and oil based inks in for western relief print techniques…
Adrian: Mokuhanga lends itself to water-based ink mainly due to the type of materials used in the process. Traditionally the printmaker will use ground pigments called ganryo. Other water based mediums such as watercolour or gouache are a common choice for those who find grinding their own pigments a daunting task. The use of watercolours gives the finished print a beautiful organic quality and the results tend to be more subtle and delicate compared to say a western style of woodcut that uses thicker based inks such as oils. Obviously water is an important element throughout the process. This combined with the use of Japanese paper give the overall print its unique qualities, sometimes showing the lovely texture of the wood and the properties of the Japanese papers . It’s also a much more eco-friendly approach; something which is good to be aware of when making art.
Lisa: Can you tell us about your own prints – how has your work developed since you started working with this process? How would you describe the work that you make?
Adrian: I’d say my style and approach is a contemporary one but with a strong focus on traditional methods and techniques. I’m fascinated by Japanese aesthetics and find the subtlety of woodblock printing captivating. My woodblock prints are playful, semi abstract snippets of my ramblings; still life with abstraction. I try not to be too serious within my work, pushing to evolve a style and approach which suits me as a printmaker. I’m heavily influenced by artists from both the Naive movement and the Sosaku movement and am a big believer in being experimental in my printmaking but at the same time maintaining and improving one’s skills. My work draws a lot from the abstraction of nature here in Cornwall and I would definitely say the outdoors and nature play a big part and have become integral to my work. I live on a farm and am very close to the coast, so it’s literally in every breath. Japan and Cornwall are obvious inspirations and I’m lucky to be able to spend time between both.
Lisa: How do you go about developing and resolving the ideas for your prints?
Adrian: I’m a big believer in getting messy and not being afraid to make mistakes. Woodblock is a delicate and balanced medium which requires being quite orderly and clean but before I approach a final print I will make sure I have had my fair share of play and experimenting. I do a lot of test printing and making mistakes is integral to my practice. Printmaking can be tricky as unlike painting where you see the picture evolve, in printmaking it’s hidden until the big reveal. It’s for this reason test printing is essential, allowing one to make changes, edits. I’ll always work from my sketches and have them to hand when printing. If my colour is starting to stray I can always reference my doodles and change where necessary. Don’t be afraid to stray from the field as sometimes mistakes push the work in a new and exciting way.
Lisa: What would be your tips for achieving colour harmony within a multi-colour relief print?
Adrian: Good question! Top tips would be: always apply your inks sparingly to the woodblock – you could always add more later but you can’t take away. I find the biggest mistake students make when printing is applying the pigment far too heavily. Woodblock is a subtle process and a delicate hand is needed. Balancing colour with any medium can be tricky, if one is trying a multi block print then they should be test printing each block for their desired colour.
Another good tip to know is when printing with woodblocks the combining of pigments will not produce results like those obtained when pigments are mixed in the usual way. The colours produced when mixing primary colours instead of overlaying colours separately on the block will appear different. For example if yellow is printed over blue it will not produce green; it will produce a sort of bluish yellow. The same thing applies to red and blue – it won’t be a purple, only a reddish blue. This is why test printing is crucial to see the final colour effect.
One thing I always recommend to my students is keep notes of pigment quantities and colour ratios and make sure you make enough of each colour pigment for your print. If you run out before you have finished printing trying to replicate the same colour is very tricky . Another tip to achieve colour harmony is using gradation (Bokashi) when printing, much like achieving depth when shading with a pencil. This is done with the brush. Be aware of the pressure you use when applying the pigment with the brush. All shading is done this way in traditional woodblock with the help of a little nori (rice paste glue). This takes practice but can yield some beautiful results. Give it a go!
Lisa: Where online or in the flesh can we see more of your work?
Adrian: To see some of my current work, what I’m up to, current events and workshops you can go to my website http://www.adrianholmesva.com/ . Unfortunately due to the nature of the current climate a lot of my exhibitions and workshops have been cancelled. My Instagram is https://www.instagram.com/adrianholmeswoodblock/
You can see my prints at galleries such as Far & Wild, they currently have an online spring show which I’m in.. Other galleries include 9 South Street Gallery and Kobi & Teal. I’m currently working on a few woodblock commissions so they will be up on my website soon. If people are interested in working with me or for commissions feel free to contact me via my website.