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Over the last decades a new technique how to create a multicolor woodblock print has emerged and become widely used by Chinese printmakers. The process is called reduction woodblock printing or sometimes also no-waste printing. All colors are printed just out of one block which is recarved for each color. Thus the original block is destroyed during the creation process and further copies beyond the first edition are impossible.
First Publication: July 2008
Early woodblock prints in China, Japan and Europe used to be in black and white. It was foremost a method to produce books. Later the technique was used to produce images too.
The letters, respectively the desired image were cut with knives into a wooden block. Everything that was standing out was covered with black ink and a white paper was pressed against the block. This is the most simple form of a woodblock print. It was used in Japan until the middle of the eighteenth century and in Europe until the twentieth century when technically challenged woodblock prints made by German expressionists like the artists of the Die Br�cke became "fine art".
In the eighteenth century artisans began to think how to add color to prints. Artisans in Europe and in Japan took two completely different approaches. Europeans had concentrated more on the invention of other printing methods like steel plates or lithographs which allowed artists to make by far more elaborate designs and to pull by far more impressions from a steel plate compared to a wooden block. To add color to a print, European artists and artisans had no better idea than to hand-color the finished black-and-white prints.
The Japanese took a more refined approach. They began to create multi-color prints by carving one block for each color. This was a tedious process and required high technical skill as the blocks had to match precisely with each other. By the end of the 18th century multi-color woodblock prints was state of art in Japan and had reached a high artistic level.
For a reduction woodblock print the designs for each color are carved onto the same block. The artist starts by carving the design of the lightest color on a wooden block. Then all paper impressions are pulled in the desired number of the edition planned. The second layer for the second color is carved and the impressions are pulled. And so on - until the desired image is complete.
At the end the original block has destroyed itself by the process. The printing of more copies than originally planned is impossible.
The technique of a reduction woodblock print requires careful planning of the whole process by the artist and excellent craftsmanship in carving and printing. Due to the complexity the number of colors are limited for a reduction woodblock print. The artist seldom uses more than 5 different colors. For more intricate color designs, artists may use more than one block. As long as more than one color are pulled from one block and as long as the process cannot be repeated due to the natural destruction of the block, one can regard it as a reduction woodblock print.
The technique of the reduction woodblock print is rather new. It is said to have been "invented" in Southern Yunnan, China, by Cheng Hsu, born 1959 and other Yunnan artists. But frankly, we have too little information to take this as a granted fact. Not all information coming from China can be trusted.
By the time of the publication of this article, the technique is used widely among Chinese printmakers. Also Western artists have adopted the technique. The American printmaker Andrea Rich is a good example. She published an illustrated explanation of the process on her homepage.
For collectors and art friends, a reduction woodblock print is of great advantage. They can be sure that no further copies can be pulled after the original edition. In the past artists and art dealers have seldom resisted the temptation of expanding a successful design beyond an original edition size. They later print a second edition or sell A.P. (artist proof) or H.C. (hors de commerce = not for commercial use) copies.
It is astonishing how much creativity and language skills (Latin, French) artists and art publishers have developed in the past to hide the simple fact that they violated the strict concept of a limited edition print. By the way, in theory an artist is supposed to destroy the blocks/plates once the whole edition was printed. But that is an illusion. I guess not even 10% of today's artists do it.
The critical question for art buyers is how to recognize if a print was really made by the reduction woodblock process or in conventional way. The answer is unsatisfactory. Only a printmaker has a chance to recognize from the print if it is a reduction woodblock print. They can judge it from the sizes of the areas for light and dark colors and their location. But when overprinting is used, then it is also for a printmaker extremely difficult. Also the number of colors used for a print is a bit of an indicator. A typical reduction woodblock print usually does not have more than 5-8 different colors.
In a nutshell: you have to rely on the information given by the artist. Even art dealers are not in a better position unless they know the artist(s) personally and have convinced themselves in their studios how they work.
The reduction woodblock technique is today widely used among the Chinese contemporary printmakers who create woodblocks. Foremost to mention are the printmakers of the Yunnan Art School. Artists to trust are here for instance Li Yanpeng, born 1958, Ma Li, born 1958 or Zhang Xiaochun.
Our art agent in China contacted the artist Zheng Jianhui about the question how to recognize a reduction woodblock print. We received the following two sketches and this text explanation (not edited).
"I asked Mr.Zheng Jiahui about your question, he told me that for the printmakers, it's easy to recognize it's a reduction woodblock print or print made from several blocks. But for the others, it's difficult to explain."
"In principle, the reduction woodblock print is finished (carving and printing) in one block, but the others are made from several blocks. So we might can judge from the last color, in general, the area of the last color might be smaller for the reduction woodblock, as after several times of cutting, there is smaller and smaller area to cutting. But the woodblock made from several block is not limited by this case."
"But for Li Yanpeng's reduction woodblock, the area of last color is enough big, so it's difficult to use this rule."
"And in general, the colors of the reduction woodblock is hardly recoverd by each other. But for Zhang Yuanfan's reduction woodblock, he created a methode to cover a foregoing color by a new color after one time's cutting and printing. But it's very difficult, and there is few people can do it."
"I also attached one picture that Mr.Zheng Jianhui explain to me, the picture above is a reduction woodblock print, and in the bottom is woodblock made from several blocks. The first color is light blue, and the second is green, the last is red. For the reduction woodblock print, when the artist prints Red, there is only the area of Red which is still left. But for another print, the red is printed on with another block."
"And Mr.Zheng Jianhui told me, in China, there is someone who use the reduction method and (printing and cutting) with several blocks in one print. And also artist like Zheng Jianhui, he prints different colors in one time, then after cutting, prints another two or three colors, and so on... It's more complicated then those method: One time cutting, one color printing. Artists are trying to find or creat one new method by which they think can express well what they think."
"I don't know if I have well explained, but I think it's really very difficult."
Author: Dieter Wanczura
.. more about Dieter Wanczura
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