By Hao Ping, 1995
By Hao Ping, 1995

The Chinese invented paper and printing a long time before the Europeans. Chinese woodblock printing has a tradition of 2000 years. Nevertheless Chinese print artists have been absent from the international art scene for decades. This is beginning to change.

First Publication: Spring 2003
Latest Update: March 2014

The Tradition of Chinese Printmaking

The woodblock printing technique came from China to Japan several hundred years ago. The Japanese developed it into one of the most admired art forms in the world. The high level of Japanese woodblock artisans has been preserved until our days.

With the opening of China, a vivid cultural exchange has started around 1980 between Japan and China. In the beginning it was more of a one-way street. Chinese artists and artisans came to Japan to learn traditional woodblock printmaking. Some Japanese cultural institutions promote modern Chinese art with exhibitions in Japan and purchases of contemporary works for Japanese museums.

The Printmaking Methods

Today Chinese printmakers use primarily the traditional woodblock. But also Western techniques like etching, lithographs and screenprints or mixed media techniques are common.

The Western-Japanese printmaker David Bull and Mr. Kiko Goshuo describe an interesting basic difference between Chinese and Japanese printmaking in an article titled The Chinese Printing Method. The most striking aspect is the use of several small woodblocks to compose the finished image. This explains why the Chinese can create rather large prints in woodblock technique.

German printmaker Eva Pietzcker from Berlin described the technique of Chinese woodblock prints out of first-hand experience in an article written for artelino. She had studied Chinese printmaking on the spot in workshops in China.

The Chinese printmakers who work in the traditional woodblock technique, use either oil-based or water-based inks. The latter is a special Chinese technique and produces a print that looks like a watercolor or a traditional Chinese painting.

Chinese Prints with Water-Soluble Inks ...

By Li Yitai
By Li Yitai

The technique of water-soluble inks requires a thin paper like Chinese rice paper. Before the printing begins, the paper must be moistened - not too much and not too little. The control of the paper humidity needs a lot of experience and is crucial for the success of the printing process. Even an experienced print artist hardly achieves a success quote above 50% with this technique.

Artists like Li Yitai, Fu Yongda, Zhang Gufeng and Yu Qihui or Shi Yi work in this technique. It has a history of 300 years.

... or Oil Based Inks

The printing process with oil-based inks - comparable to the Japanese method - is easier to control. The artists use a thicker paper - everything from laid paper, offset paper to a very thick, cardboard-like paper. The prints of the artists Hao Ping or Hao Boyi belong into this category.

The contemporary Chinese woodblock artists do the complete process of creating a print themselves - the design, the carving of the block and the printing.

For the carving of the woodblock a variety of knives is used - a knife with a round blade, one with a straight blade or a knife with a triangle blade and others as well. The woodblocks used by Chinese printmakers are like the Japanese blocks - cut from the vertical section of the tree. These blocks are softer to cut, but are worn off more easily the more print copies are drawn from a block.

Tuo or Taose

The Chinese know two printing techniques. One is called Tuo (Chinese pronunciation) and is mostly used for prints in black and white. The block is covered with the paper. A silk bundle is colored with Chinese ink and gently pressed aginst the outstanding relief of the block.

The technique used for multi-color prints is called Taose (Chinese pronunciation). The colour is applied on the cut woodblock - light colors first and then the dark colours, one in each step. The paper is pressed against the block for each color.

Contemporary Chinese Prints

By Lu Ping
By Lu Ping - Winter Sleep
Winter Sleep

China has an official art scene with academies, art institutions and regular print exhibitions with awards and prices. Many of the well-known artists work as professors at universities. The art scene does not seem to be much different from the rest of the world.

Since the 1980s, three centers for modern printmaking have become famous:

  • The Yunnan Art School - from the Southern province of Yunnan.
  • Bei Da Huang - a Northeast province
  • Suzhou - located in China's West. A picturesque city with canals and towers. The printmaking activities are bundled at Suzhou Art Institute.

Over the last years a few exhibitions about modern Chinese printmaking took place outside China, but held more by smaller institutions or museums - maybe with the exception of Japan.

Slowly, but steadily the awareness of modern Chinese prints is growing in the West. Some major exhibitions at such renowned museums like the Metropolitan in New York or the British Museum would probably lead to a breakthrough in the international art scene.

In the meantime something is moving on the Internet. artelino is part of it, and we are happy to contribute a little to the distribution of these wonderful art works. They are definitely unique and an enrichment for the fine arts.

Reduction Woodblock and Single Print

By Zhang Xiaochun
By Zhang Xiaochun

A special technique of modern Chinese woodblock printmaking deserves to be mentioned - reduction woodblock printing. It is a method of printing all colors from only one woodblock by recarving it after each color was printed. During the process, the images already printed are destroyed by the recarving. At the end, the block is reduced to the image of the last color and it is impossible to make new impressions after the first edition. The art buyer's investment is protected.

Reduction woodblock printing was developed first by Cheng Hsu in the 1980s in Yunnan. More and more young artists like Zhang Xiaochun or Ma Li use this technique.

A rather rare form of printmaking is the single print technique. We encountered it with some of the works of Beijing artist Zhao Tianqi. With this technique, the artist creates on a stone or glass plate the complete image in water or oil colors. Then he covers the plate with paper and presses the paper against the plate. Thus only one copy can be created.

Limited Editions

By Shi Yi, 1999
By Shi Yi, 1999

The prints that we have had in our hands so far, were all limited editions, signed, titled and numbered and often dated by the artist.

Unlike Japanese prints, no guesses about early or late editions, no guesses about the artist or the artist's life dates.

Mao Zedong - Where Are You?

By Yu Chengyou, 1996
By Yu Chengyou, 1996

You may remember the social-realist type posters of the 1960s and early 1970s and the little red Mao bible. At that time I was one of the critical students and one day I bought this little red Mao booklet. I expected to find revolutionary statements inside. Instead, the little book was mainly a collection of wise but ultra conservative sayings that I could as well have heard from my grandma like "You shall honor your parents". My first encounter with Chinese culture!

The cultural revolution is now history. Modern Chinese printmaking artists have nothing to do with social realism. Instead, many of the artists put their focus on the preservation of the Chinese rural environment and on traditions.

Nevertheless, I hope that the Chinese have not thrown away the old Mao posters. One day I would like to have an auction of these Chinese propaganda posters. It would be like a Beatles memorabilia event.

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Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura

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