October 15, 2015

Chapter One – The Print [The Technique of the Color Woodcut]


A Japanese artist's drawing for a woodcut (From a drawing by Hokusai, in the Victoria and Albert Museum)

A Japanese artist’s drawing for a woodcut
(From a drawing by Hokusai, in the Victoria and Albert Museum)

The artist made a drawing with the point of a brush and Chinese ink on paper of a landscape, an actor, a fish or a bird, and gave it to the block-cutter to engrave, with some instruction regarding color. The block-cutter pasted the drawing face down on a polished plank of mountain cherry wood. (Those who have heard that wood engravings are cut on the end grain of box-wood or maple must not confuse that process with this. Cherry wood is cut plank-wise: with the grain and not across it. The thickness is, roughly, one inch). He scraped away the superfluous thickness of paper, and oiled the remnant in order to render it transparent and so clarify the drawing. With a knife and a gouge he cut away the portions of wood uncovered by the drawing to the depth of perhaps one-eighth of an inch, so that eventually he had a facsimile of the original drawing in reverse in wood and in relief. He brushed over this a black powder pigment ground in water, and finally a little paste to bind it. Damp paper was superimposed and the back of it rubbed with a baren (a pad covered with bamboo leaf). An exact reproduction of the original drawing resulted. He pasted this on the other side of the cherry-wood block, and as before proceeded to lower that portion of the surface which in the finished print would be void of a certain color. A second print was taken from the first—the key-block—and pasted on a second block of wood, which he cut for another color. And so the process continued until all the requisite colors were accounted for, ten or twelve perhaps, when a second craftsman, the printer, took charge. The finished print was made up of impressions from each of the blocks dealt with successively. The system of making the several blocks fit, or of registering them accurately, is described later on.

There is a Japanese print in the British Museum depicting the various processes in the fabrication of a print. The exponents are young ladies. They were never employed for the purpose, but they grace the picture, and demonstrate things quite effectively.

The Japanese print of the best period is straightforward and simple: an outline in black filled in where necessary with flat washes of color relieved only by occasional gradations or patterns. Most processes at present in use are based upon it, and many modern artists find in the method an adequate vehicle for the expression of their own ideas. The thin, unemotional, but very expressive line is now expanded to indicate shadow and depth, or manipulated to suggest textural differences. Instead of being entirely negative in color—the Japanese line is gray, occasionally, as with Utamaro, flesh-red—it has become positive. In Miss Mabel Royd’s or Miss Frances Gearhart’s work, for example, it has the full value of black in the black and white wood-cut, and is originally designed with pictorial completeness. In William Giles’ recent work it has vanished altogether as outline. Apart from its technical significance, in relation to Japanese practice, the retention of outline by modem artists is the result of their appreciation of its aesthetic value.

No modern maker of color-prints yet has attempted to adopt the stereoscopic perspective peculiarly Oriental, which is contrary to the laws of our somewhat conventional science. The cubists adopted it, and that was one of the most reasonable things they did, for the science of perspective is based on the doubtful axiom that we are equipped with only one eye—and that immovable. Hold a small box in the position depicted below, near to the eye, then vote for the more accurate presentment of what you see.


Of course this applies to very near objects only. But neither system is accurate applied universally.

While some of us follow somewhat blindly the traditions of Nippon, others actually employ Japanese craftsmen. An original print, however, one which may be signed by the artist with a clear conscience, is defined as one designed, cut, and printed by the artist, and exclusive societies, such as the Society of Graver-Printers in Color, of London, admit only these to their exhibitions.

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