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"Process of Wood-Cut Printing Explained"
Reviewed by Marc Kahn

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Click for larger view This book came to me through an online auction in February 2000. On receipt, I found it to be far more interesting than expected. What an undertaking to produce!! With the completed print on the cover and all of the in-process printing displayed on the right side of each of the 20 double pages, there are no fewer than 250 block-printed impressions!

There is no publication date, nor is there a copyright message. It seems right to share the insights into print production which this book reveals. The entire book is reproduced here, for educational purposes. May the ghosts of Shimbi Shoin forgive us for our trespasses.

The black label on the cover, and the stamps and writing on the first page show that this book was once in the collection of the Library of the Freer Gallery of Art, in Washington, DC. The catalog information reads: "Far E. 761.52.555 Copy 2".

Except for the text section at the front of the book, each block-printed "page" consists of 2 pieces of paper glued together. I'm not sure what kind of paper was used, but it is fairly thick and porous, and contains reflective sparkles which are visible when held at an angle to the light. There are a couple of "pages" on which the glue has given up, allowing a view onto the reverse sides, where the colors have bled through the paper. Holding the separated leaves up to the light reveals the same kind of chain lines that I am used to seeing on the paper used on prints in my collection.

It is my hope that you enjoy this book as much as I have.

- Marc Kahn, March 2000


Another of our contributors previously did a much nicer display along the same lines, but for the artist Koryusai. Check out Dave Bull's page at woodblock.com. What sets his approach above the rest are:

  • the pop-up windows showing the actual woodblock that he carved for each of the layers
  • his commentary, as the artisan, about each of the layers.
If you ever need to convince a doubter about the intense effort and skill required by traditional Japanese woodblock printing, show them this page!

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The Text

PROCESSES OF WOOD-CUT PRINTING EXPLAINED

Click for larger view The art of wood-cut printing has been practised in Japan since the eighteenth century, but it made the first really tangible advance with the development of the Ukiyoe school of painters, and during the last few decades has been extensively applied for the reproduction of famous ancient masterpieces. The succesive improvements introduced in this essentially Japanese art now place it beyond all possibility of outrivalry by artists of other countries.

The prints made by this process reproduce the slightest touch of the brush and the most delicate shades of colours in the originals, the result being such as can hardly be attained by lithographs. It can be truly said of Oriental paintings that except by this wood-cut process a faithful representation of the originals is impossible. The method of engraving and rubbing demands the utmost skill in the artizans, nor can the difficulties of the modus operandi be adequately measured by the casual observer of the printed picture. We propose, therefore, to give here a brief explanation of the process in the hope of making the real value of Japanese wood-cut printing more widely known.

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The blocks are usually made from cherry-wood, but where very fine cutting is needed willow-wood is sometimes used. For each colour and for each shade of the same colour a separate block is provided and for this reason the number of blocks used for a single picture often reaches several hundreds. A drawing of the ground lines is first made, with outlines of the colour scheme, and from this a block is cut. Having obtained the ground block, a new one for each colour is cut. Since the blocks are liable to swell or shrink with varying atmospheric conditions, it is very important to examine them carefully before going to press, and dry or moisten them as the case may demand.

This part of the process requires a great amount of skill in the artizan. Several blocks are sometimes required to print one color, as it is not always possible to print a whole mass of colour in one shade and at the same rime, but a series of blocks has to be employed to produce the desired effect. Laying a single colour on the block in the right manner itself constitutes a difficulty. The usual process of printing begins with the lightest colour and proceeds on to the thickest ones, and it varies according to the nature of the colours used in the originals. The rapidity with which colours, sometimes single and sometimes double, dry, must also be taken into consideration, for it is one of the conditions that decide the order or succession of prints. After the colour has been laid on the block with a brush, the paper is rubbed from the back with an instrument called "baren," made of a piece of ropework covered with a bamboo sheath, which is slightly moistened with oil to make it soft and smooth. A specimen copy of the finished picture is kept before him by the artizan, who is extremely careful to make each copy follow the sample picture in every detail. Only water colours were used till a few years ago, but it has recently been found possible to employ even white lead. Further we have made experiments that have resulted in our being enabled to use verdigris and Prussian blue, and there is now hardly any pigment that cannot be successfully employed in our wood-cut printing.

Click for larger view Every variety of our pictorial art productions can be reproduced by our method of wood-cut printing, which has made a signal developement within the past few decades. The shades produced in our prints are precisely the same as in the originals in tone and materials used, the latter including gold and silver dust, Prussian blue, and verdigris. As a matter of fact our method of reproduction increases the difficulties of the work, but we point with pride to the result, the original pictures reproduced without the slightest deviation in technique or colouring.

The Shimbi Shoin, Ltd., Tokyo

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The Plates

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Block 1

Here's the key block. Although it looks black at first, a comparison with Block 4 shows that it is, in fact, grey.

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Block 2

This seemingly unnecessary step "preps" the hair for the black color to follow at Block 4. It accentuates the very fine hair lines and helps ensure a deep dark rendering of the hair color. Because of the delicate carving in this area (eyebrows, fine hair lines, eyes, etc.), utmost care most be taken with the baren when applying pressure to the paper. Many thanks to Julio Rodriguez for these comments.

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Block 3



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Block 4



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Block 5



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Block 6



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Block 7

This is almost the same color as on Block 6. The areas where the color is doubled up are darker.

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Block 8



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Block 9

These dark purple lines interact with the key block lines to produce a beautifully dynamic texture.

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Block 10



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Block 11



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Block 12

The construction of the outfit of the woman on the left is accomplished in steps 3, 8, 12, 13, 15, and 16. This red block contains some nicely detailed carving.

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Block 13

The plate on the left side needs to be rotated 180 degrees, in order to fit in.

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Block 14



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Block 15



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Block 16

Applying the blue color gradient (bokashi) brings the kimono to life!

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Block 17



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Block 18

Where the blue block in step 17 had areas which were carved out, this blue wash is applied over the entire print with no block outs, even over the women's faces. It's subtle, but you can see the result in the final product. I wouldn't have believed it if I hadn't seen it here!

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Block 19



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Block 20


 

Original text as written and submitted by Marc Kahn for this article is his property, copyright 2000, all rights reserved.
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More on This Subject   Dave Bull shows how a modern-day shin hanga style print is created, step by step. Reading the artisan's explanation of each block's importance, you'll appreciate better the care and complexity behind the original shin hanga works. Begin here!   Tip: Set your monitor to 1024 x 768. Click on all the steps to load them into your computer's memory, then go back and click through again, in order. As each color block is added quickly, the print will "flower" before your eyes.

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Except as noted, the original content herein is the property of
The Shin Hanga Skull & Bones Society (TM).
Copyright 1999-2004. All rights reserved.

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