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Japanese Woodblock Printing with Paul Binnie

Item # 59575 - Dream of Phoenix - Sold for $1,500 - 12/15/2013
"Ho-o no Yume" (Dream of Phoenix). This design was commissioned by a gallery owner in Europe. The phoenix was inspired by the tattoo on the gallery owner's shoulder. Here, the tattooed mythical bird is coming to life emitting the heat and the golden light.
By Paul Binnie born 1967

Paul Binnie (born 1967) was trained as a woodblock print maker in Tokyo in the early 1990s and has been making Japanese prints ever since. He now lives and works in London, but continues to use the same techniques as he did in Tokyo, which are a mix of very ancient block-printing practices derived from the traditional Ukiyo-e school and continued by the Shin-hanga publishers of the early 20th century, and some newer ideas derived from working within contemporary printmaking.

This article was made possible thanks to the support and close cooperation by the artist, Paul Binnie - an internationally well-known and established print maker and painter. We have known Paul since 2001.

Traditional Japanese Printing Methods

The traditional aspects of Binnie's prints are quite obvious, in that he relies on carved woodblocks to transfer colors onto handmade hosho washi paper, pressed from above and behind by a baren, the usual tool for the job.

In the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries exactly these methods were employed, and a Japanese artisan of the Edo period would feel quite at home with Binnie's blocks. However, at that time the blocks were made of solid cherry, which Binnie only rarely uses nowadays, relying more on Shina - plywood made of veneers of Japanese basswood - and Magnolia for his blocks.

Yamakazura versus Shina

There are two reasons for this, the first ecological, since 'yamazakura', or mountain cherry is getting very scarce and is threatened with over-logging, while the second is a consequence of that, in that the rarer cherry wood is now prohibitively expensive, and can be used only rarely and not for every color for prints that may require 20 blocks.

The Baren

Also, Binnie uses a traditional hon-baren, or a real, handmade one, consisting of a coil of fibre backed with a lacquered pad and wrapped in the outer sheath of a bamboo stalk, but he also likes the new innovation of a ball-bearing baren, which has a steel plate mounted with free-moving steel balls to press the paper down onto the block.

Hand-Made Japanese Paper

The paper is the one aspect which is truly unchanged since even before the great days of Ukiyo-e; it has to be the best quality hand-made paper for Binnie's prints, and the paper manufacturing process has remained unchanged for generations.

Keyblock Image

Binnie has several innovations that he invented or developed himself, such as his method of transferring the keyblock image onto all the color blocks. In the past, a thin piece of paper was printed directly from the keyblock for each and every color, and this was then used by the artist to note where each color area would be carved, but this leads to difficulty when pasting the paper onto the fresh blocks, since the thin paper often expands when damp, or can become wrinkled or distorted.

Self-Carved, Self-Printed and Self-Invented

As Binnie carves his own blocks, he is much more in control of the carving and printing process, and so he decided to print the keyblock onto a thin piece of PVC or acetate - which cannot warp or wrinkle - in lino-printing water-based inks, which can then be transferred directly by printing onto the surface of each block, making an absolutely exact copy of the keyblock each time. This gives a distinctive look to all Binnie's blocks, with the image still showing in the parts which are uncarved.

Hint from Yoshida Hiroshi

Taking a hint from Yoshida Hiroshi, who used the method constantly from the mid-1930s onwards (and can be seen on page 175 of the Abe catalog of Yoshida's prints), Binnie also occasionally has a metal keyblock, which is acid etched in relief to make a raised line to print from, and this speeds up the production of his prints greatly.

Printing with Colors and Special Effects

Also from Yoshida comes the idea of printing different color schemes from a set of blocks to evoke varying moods and atmospheres, and Binnie has done this from his very earliest prints. In terms of colors Binnie also likes to mix traditional Nihonga pigments and also Western shades, to create the best effect for any one print.

He always uses gofun for his whites, a pigment made of the ash of burnt seashells, and sumi, or charcoal-ink for his blacks, but between these all sorts of colors might be found, and he often uses mica, karazuri (blind printing or embossing) and special printing effects like baren sujizuri (swirls of printing with the baren edge) to remind the viewer of older prints.

Tradition and Modernity

All in all, Paul Binnie manages to combine the traditions of ancient Japanese woodblock printing with innovations of the modern world, and in doing so has built a fine body of very collectable prints.

For further illustrations of Paul Binnie's woodblock printmaking please see Paul Binnie - Printing Methods.

Dieter WanczuraAuthor: Dieter Wanczura