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  • Belle Brett

Zen and the Art of Japanese Woodblock Printing

Art figures prominently in my novel, Gina in the Floating World. The title of my book itself refers to an aspect of Japanese life (“the floating world,” or pleasure-seeking quarters) that became a popular subject matter for many of the great Japanese artists in past centuries, especially those producing woodblock prints.

My first introduction to woodblock prints was the set of two prints that adorned my parents’ bedroom wall. Long and skinny, they depicted women with grim faces, dark hair piled on their heads, and swirling kimonos. I was intrigued by these ladies. Later, especially after my trip to Japan in my twenties, I sought out this kind of art. I am fortunate to live in the Boston area, where our Museum of Fine Arts (MFA) houses the largest collection of Japanese art outside of Japan. I am a frequent visitor of their changing exhibits.

But as the daughter of an artist and art teacher, I have been a life-long dabbler of art myself, taking classes in a variety of media. In recent years, along with my writing, I have followed my artistic leanings more seriously to the point where I am exhibiting and selling what I produce. Mostly, I have focused my efforts on paper collage, photography, and watercolor painting, forms of expression that use different parts of my brain and tap into different sensibilities.

As an artist I am always interested in how others make art, even if I don’t plan on pursuing that particular form. So, when I spied a rare opportunity to learn about Japanese woodblock printing from an American master, Matt Brown, of the Hanga method, I jumped at the chance. Six of us attended a three-day workshop at the Concord Art Association.

The workshop challenged me to my artistic core. You may be familiar with Ginger Rogers line that when dancing, she had to do everything Fred Astaire did, only backwards and in high heels. That’s what the woodblock process felt like to me. Here is a summary of the many steps:

Design. First, we had been instructed to bring in an uncomplicated design that would translate well and color it in, emphasizing shape rather than line and using no more than five distinct colors. My sketch was on a red bridge over a small pond set in a park with trees, representing a place my protagonist visited when she was trying to get her head straight. It was her place of Zen. In retrospect, I think my design was too ambitious for a first attempt.

Color separations. We then created what are called “color separations,” in which we made five identical copies of our sketch, shading in the areas where a particular color will be used, one copy for each color. (Of course, one can use fewer or more colors, but five was our limit, given the time constraints of the course.) These sketches would guide our carving process. The challenge here was to be able to imagine how one color might look when printed on top of another area that already has some color from the previous block.

color separations for woodblock printing

Block preparation. Next, we pasted each colored copy onto a small plywood block, spraying it lightly, so that we could gently rub off the top layers of the paper with our fingers, leaving only the bottom layer and its image, with indications of color. This action takes time and patience. Too much vigorous rubbing, and the whole image is destroyed; too little, and nothing happens. This was my first Zen moment, and I accomplished this task without ripping the skin off my fingers. Finally, we spread a little mineral oil on the block so that the image and its colored parts clearly show through.

Initial carving. The carving process presents its own set of challenges. (Some of these challenges are similar to those in other forms of print-making, including lino-block. etching, and silk-screen, all of which I’d done in my past). The goal is to leave the portions you want to hold the ink and to carve away the rest when instinctively, one wants to carve away the colored portions. Matt had us place our blocks in a “jig” to hold them in place. Using a set of different width gouges, we had to use care in maintaining our shapes.

woodblock carving

Part of the key is having sharpened tools, and Matt demonstrated how to sharpen a dull gouge on a sharpening stone. Even with sharp tools, I found carving stressful on my aging fingers and shoulders, but I did manage to complete my blocks without putting a hole in myself. One of the participants commented that he found the act of carving very Zen. Although I can’t say that carving sent me into that Zen space, I will say that it required a mind-clearing focus.

Printing preparation. The water-based paints we used required a rice-starch paste to serve as a binding. Matt demonstrated this process, mixing the powder with water and heating it to just below boiling.

preparing the rice-starch paste

We had a large variety of colors to choose from and could mix these in any way we wanted. My palette consisted of a pale blue, yellow (which I later changed to an ochre), green, vermilion red, and a deep brown. Matt had prepared our printing papers by lightly wetting a stack and storing it under a damp towel to maintain moisture. Each of us had a printing station with our jigs, and a place to put our completed prints, also to be kept under a dampened towel.

Proofs. The proofing process allows you to see both the areas of the block that might require additional carving and to assess the colors you have chosen. To print, we first put a bit of the rice paste on our block, which was held firmly in our jig, and then sprinkled on some of our mixed paint. Using a small brush that looks something like the kind one uses to rub in shoe polish, we spread the color evenly over the block, rubbing it into the grain of the wood. After aligning a sheet of the damp paper on top of the block, we used a round object called a “baren” to rub the surface of the paper so that the ink adhered. Like the first pancake, the first proof is usually not very good as the color hasn’t sufficiently sunk into the block. But by the second or third proof, you can clearly see where you need to carve away more wood. When the proof of my so-called yellow plate came out chartreuse, I realized I had a dirty brush. I switched from yellow to ochre and found an uncontaminated brush. In addition to printing each color separately, I also made prints by adding each successive color to see how the blocks would look when printed together. From these, I concluded that I needed to make my blue deeper. I also saw areas that needed correction. Sometimes, it was too late to go for perfection as I had cut away areas that I meant to hold color or had not been careful enough about where I had carved.

woodblock proofs

Final printing. As with writing, you can keep editing. But we were under a deadline (the end of class), and our job was to create enough prints for each of us to have a portfolio of all the prints in the class, plus one for our instructor. This meant printing up enough copies to allow for mistakes in printing---not enough color on the block, too much color, the occasional misalignment, and in one case, printing the next color upside down! Even so, most of us tweaked those final images with additional carving. Too late, I realized that I should have printed my brown block last, not my red block, as I ended up with several red trees—not a total disaster, but not what I had envisioned. My edges weren’t clean either.

Post printing steps. After we completed our run, we signed, titled, and numbered our prints. Matt would take them home for a drying/flattening process under blotting paper and heavy weights.

The verdict. I have a whole new appreciation for this kind of printmaking and great admiration for those who do it well. But I don’t think it’s my medium. Aside from the amount of equipment and supplies needed, I found it physically taxing and maybe too precise for me. My art-making serves as a counterpoint to my writing. Like the woodblock printing process, writing novel length fiction requires time and endless revision, editing, tweaking, and reviewing in an iterative fashion. In contrast, I aim for art that is more organic and can be produced in an afternoon or two.

During the weekend, Matt also shared his collection of fine Japanese prints from one of the masters, Kunisada, whose prints I had seen recently at the MFA. Of course, these masters were the designers, with others carving and printing their designs. It takes a village of craftspeople. But looking at these exquisite prints, I was transfixed and in awe, given my experiences with woodblock printing. Maybe that was my Zen moment.

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