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Japanese prints have become rather popular among collectors during the last decades. This article informs about the printmaking process, the color dyes and the papers used. The old tradition is still alive and used for high quality reproductions of famous masters or contemporary prints.
First Publication: May 2001
Latest Update: April 2013
Japanese prints made in old tradition are the result of a team work of four different persons - the artist, the carver, the printer and the publisher. Each of them needed several years of apprenticeship and practical experience. An artist usually joined a painting school at the age of fourteen and remained with his master for at least four years. The apprenticeship of a carver lasted for up to ten years.
This principle of collaborative teamwork was also the practice in early European printmaking. In the nineteenth and twentieth century it was replaced by the concept of an "original print", requiring the artist to perform all steps personally or at the least to supervise them closely.
A wonderful introduction to Japanese printmaking by English-Japanese printmaker David Bull. David, thanks for sharing this with us. And thanks for your clear pronunciation. Your worldwide audience will appreciate this.
The creation of a Japanese wood block print is started by the artist who makes an outline design on thin, translucent paper. This is called the hanshita-e. The carver dampened the paper and pasted it face down on a wooden block. Cherry wood is chosen because it is fine-grained and yet soft enough to allow the cutting. Japanese printmaking was by the way a no-waste process and blocks were used on both sides.
Next the engraver carefully carved along the lines of the design removing everything but the design lines. The result was a wooden block, called the key or basic or main block, that showed the design in high relief. The carver had to cut the most delicate lines like the nose or face outlines in one continuous move. There was no technical possibility of correcting a mistake.
Some artists made rather sketchy designs and it was regarded as the carver's job to work out the details. When looking at the fine lines of the hair in for instance Yoshitoshi's women series, one can hardly believe how this could be achieved.
Then the printer stepped in, rubbed ink on the raised lines and made several proof copies from the relief block. These relief print copies were handed back to the artist who marked on them the colors to be used.
The next step was done by the engraver again who had to carve one wooden block for each color in the final print. To produce precise replicas of the wood block, the carver used the print copies from the relief block. For these color blocks, softer wood could be used than for the key wood block which carried the relief.
When all wood blocks were finished, the printer prepared the paper by cutting the right sizes out of a large panel. The paper was moistened before starting the printing process, then pressed on the block and rubbed with a special tool called a baren.
This process had to be repeated for each color of the print. The last block used was the key block for printing the black lines on the prints.
The printer had to work meticulously to align the colors well along the lines. For deluxe editions mica or metal pigments had to be applied to achieve special effects. Another elaborate effect that required high skills was embossing, an area standing out from the print. Embossing was achieved by pressing the wet paper on a separate block that was not inked with color.
The publisher was responsible for the financial part and the commercial success. He commissioned the artist and paid the carvers and printers. He was the entrepreneur who carried the risk of an edition and who coordinated the team.
Just or unjust, older prints usually bear only the name of the artist, sometimes the name of the carver and rarely that of the printer. Since 1887 a law regulated that all Japanese prints had to show the exact printing and publishing dates. From then on the publisher is also mentioned - usually in the form of a seal on the print margin. Carvers and printers, although their part required such an incredible skill, were considered as minor working-bees.
For traditional Japanese wood block prints hand-made papers are used. They are referred as washi. The basic fibre is mulberry and is quite different from Western papers made from linen (Arches) or wood-pulp (laid).
For older prints there are basically two types, masa and hosho. Hosho is thicker and was used for deluxe prints and in general until the middle of the nineteenth century.
For modern prints you can find nishinouchi and kozo, which is dyed with natural plant extracts.
Japanese wood block prints were produced with natural vegetable dyes until about 1860. By then, they were gradually replaced by aniline dyes imported from Germany. Both - vegetable and aniline colors - have advantages and disadvantages.
Vegetable colors inevitably fade out in the course of time. How long it will take, depends on proper or improper conservation. Especially the violet and the pink colors are quickly fading and turn into some kind of light grey. Early eighteenth century prints hardly have anything like fresh colors.
Aniline colors on the contrary preserve their freshness better. But some of them, especially the red, have a tendency to run out under the influence of moisture. It is a defect that decreases the value of a Japanese art print and can often be found on prints of the Meiji era.
Author: Dieter Wanczura
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