Time-Traveling Artwork: The World of Classic Woodblock Prints from Atelier Takahashi
Time-Traveling Artwork: The World of Classic Woodblock Prints from Atelier Takahashi
Craftsman: woodblock carver engraving the artist’s work onto the wooden slate.
Craftsman: woodblock printer applying red color of sky on the wooden slate to print onto the Japanese washi paper
Consequence of Advanced Technology: Traditional Artwork at Stake
Traditional woodblock printing techniques have been succeeded over decades by practiced craftsmen –from paper producing craftsmen to woodblock color printing craftsmen—yet the industry is in a detrimental status. Not only are these craftsmen becoming old without anyone to succeed their position, but primary material for producing paper, wood, paint, etc. needed for woodblock printing is also becoming scarce hence more and more difficult to procure. Those who cherish the art of woodblock printing is putting their best efforts to endure and to survive this crisis in order to carry on the torch of tradition to the next generation.
Brush used to spread out paint onto the wooden slates.
A variety of knives are used to achieve lines and feel of the artist’s brush strokes.
Original Purpose as “Copy Machine
Woodblock printing was a method of mass producing copies just like the modern day copying machine. Hundreds of copies were produced from woodblock printing and commoners were able to enjoy famous artist’s works for an affordable price. By “affordable”, the price range was from current day 500 to 1200 Japanese Yen (about US$ 4.75 to US$ 11.00) depending on the artist and printing house. As can be told by the price, woodblock prints were considered casual. They were used as advertisements, posters of famous actors, pictorial books, etc. In those days, artists were more like modern day famous photographers, illustrators, creators who would use their pictorial gifts for entertaining people through media, and woodblock printing served more as a “printing method” than “work of art”, without people realizing the highly complex technique needed to produce these prints. Hence, it is no surprise that many famous woodblock prints can be found outside of Japan since these prints were used as protective cushion for exporting goods like porcelain. Not until it was admired abroad that the Japanese realized the artistic value in these prints.
Woodblock printing was systematically segmented into three main work flows in order for efficiency already from the Edo Era (1603-1868), and this flow is still used today: drawing by the artist, carving of wood slates by carvers, and printing by printers who would apply color to the carved wood slates. Each flow has their own specialist. It is true that the sales of woodblock prints would depend on the popularity of the artist; however, without the meticulous eyes of carvers and printers, the artist’s exact intent cannot be delivered to the consumers.
Wooden slate is carved in order to recreate the artist’s lines and colors; think of it as carving out a “stamp” for each color. First slate would be for black outlines of the artwork only, followed by several wood slates for applying color. To prevent shadows for distorting the lines, carvers use a water-filled flask with a lightbulb so shadows are not created around the working hands. The carver’s vigilant eyes are depended on to carve out lines that can be thinner than a millimeter. The carver also marks the corner for where the paper is to be placed when applying color. One wrong mark will mean redoing the whole slate over again; this is one of the important steps in woodblock prints.
Paper is then placed onto the slate, first from the black color late and then to each color slate, and rubbed from the back for the right amount of color to transfer onto the paper. The tricky part is for the colors to stay within the designated black lines. All wood slate carvings must be the exact transfer of each other, or else the colors will not stay within the given lines. The printer must understand and make necessary adjusts to the wood slate. Another tricky part is that the ink must be rubbed at a proper weight so that it is absorbed into the paper fiber to prevent from smudging. If the colors smudge, it cannot be called an artwork. A single man’s good eye and craftsmanship is all that can be depended on.
[Carving: Following the Exact Intent of Artist’s Lines]
First, a paper with the artist’s picture is applied onto the paper, slowly rubbing it with the palm of the hand. Eventually, the paper will thin out and black lines will surface. The carver then traces the picture using the sharp carving utensil and scrapes out whatever unnecessary wood there is so lines only remain. Just like a stamp, the lines are leveled.
[Printing: From Black-and-White Copies to Color Prints]
Color is applied onto the carved wooden slate, then stretched out using a designated brush.
Paper is carefully placed so it is exactly where the color is to be applied. The mark in the corner carved by the carver is a guide to where the paper should be placed; however, the printer also makes necessary adjustments to this mark from experience.
Color is transferred onto the paper using baren, a handmade tool to rub ink into paper as above. In order to transfer the color evenly, the printer puts his/her weight on the baren.
“Time Travel” of Works from the Edo Era (1603-1868)
The woodblock prints at Japan Marche is a reproduction of original works drawn by artists from long ago. However, by using the same carving and printing techniques from those days, we, the modern people, are able to enjoy the same artwork, exactly per the intent of the artist. There are two ways of recreating these woodblock prints from old days. One is to copy the aged color as is and to reproduce the same condition as the original print. The other method is to study the first edition of the original print for restoring the original color. The challenge is finding the first edition prints and to determine and achieve the exact original color of the first edition.
For the woodblock prints at Japan Marche, the later method is used for recreating the woodblock prints. Thorough study and investigation of first edition prints were conducted: even a study of the back side. Conclusion of the study and investigation was the difficulty and skill needed for woodblock printing to print over 100 prints at once; to recreate such challenging works called for perfection of carving and printing technique. It is not too exaggerating to state that the recreation of woodblock prints from long ago is a challenge which will be appraised by future generations to come. For example, the Japanese washi paper used to print these woodblock prints is called Echizen Kizuki Bosho produced by Living National Treasure Iwano-Ichibe. By using Echizen Kizuki Bosho, the paint gets caught between the fibers and does not smudge even though prints are immediately placed on top of each other, one after another, when color is applied. Normal paper or even a normal washi paper cannot be used. For a woodblock print to “time travel”, craftsmanship and quality of materials cannot be compromised.
[Printing in Steps: Comparison Between Artists]
Example: Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Road, “Nihonbashi” Artist: Hiroshige Utagawa
In the case of works by Hiroshige Utagawa, he was known to have craftsman use many methods of applying color. His achievement through his artwork is the use of perspectives; by reducing the number of lines and utilizing the tones of colors, his work is given depth compared to general woodblock prints. This method was possible because he had trusted the craftsmanship of carvers and printers he worked with. For Fifty-Three Stations of the Tokaido Road, most works uses 1 black wood slate and 3 color wood slates with carvings on both sides, making a total of 5 to 6 carvings for color
Printing of only black lines per the artist’s intent. It is carved by a carver and printed in black by a printer from our time.
Applying yellowish brownish colors. The bridge has a gradation of color to give the illustration depth.
Skin color and light gray, overlapped by dark gray gradation
Indigo color of kimonos
Dark green colors of kimono added
Light gray cloud
Finished off by indigo gradation in the sky and adding brown to kimono.
Example: Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, “The Great Wave off the Coast of Kanagawa” Artist: Hokusai Katsushika
Artist Hokusai Katsushika’s strength was maximizing his work’s attractiveness despite using a few wood slates. For Thirty-Six Views of Mount Fuji, only 4-5 wood slates with carvings on both sides were used, making it 8-10 carvings for printing. Hokusai had a way of using his own unique brushstroke technique, thus the carver’s craftsmanship is truly tested.
Indigo, instead of black, is printed for lines and base color.
Yellow is printed for sky and boat.
Light gray is overlapped on to the sky and boat.
Gray sumi pigment is printed with gradation.
Waves are traced using light indigo print.
Dark indigo is printed to give depth to the wave.