I went to the woodblock printing workshop yesterday hosted at the Daiwa Foundation in collaboration with ICN and the Adachi Foundation. The Adachi Foundation is based in Tokyo,and works in preserving the art of traditional woodblock printing. To do so they train young artisans and run workshops like the one I attended. With over half of the few artisans left in Tokyo over 60 already, no wonder the Adachi Foundation see it as such an important task!
Funnily enough though, ukiyo-e, or woodblock printing, did not start as art, but was intended for commercial use. It was a means of mass production. And this is what for me, also adds to the charm of woodblock printing. Because the process that goes into a creating a single print not only requires skill and craft, but is also a real team effort. Ukiyo-e is not done by one person only, but includes an artist, producer, wood carver (horishi), and printer (surishi). Even within the woodcarvers there are many at work to produce the wood blocks. Generally the (woodcarving) master will carve out the most difficult and complicated parts, and the apprentices will carve out the simpler ones.
So how exactly is a woodblock print created? First of all the artist will create his drawing. Now during the Edo period all published works were highly controlled by the government. So before any artist could continue to the next step, they would have to get the publisher’s approval and the government’s approval. This approval would be in a form of a seal, which you will often find in the corner of a print.
Once the drawing had been approved, it could then go to the horishi, who will carve the woodblock by placing the drawing on the block and using it as an outline. Of course this process destroys the drawing. The horishi do not carve out the whole image on a single block, but on several, which really gives the final print that depth. Again, keeping in mind that woodblock printing was originally for commercial purposes, artists would often be commissioned to create designs that required no more than 5 wood blocks. This was cost and time efficient. But this restriction is what allowed for such simplistic beauty, which today characterizes ukiyo-e. Trend was also an important factor in deciding prints. Which is why Hokusai famously reproduced his 36 views of Fuji: because it was a popular subject (and of course it’s beautiful!).
From the horishi to the surishi, the print is now in its final stage. And this is what I was lucky enough to witness (and try) today! The surishi use washi paper, which is a special type of paper used for such prints. And again, even the washi paper is handmade! The washi paper used by the Adachi Foundation was produced by the Living National Treasure of its 9th generation: Mr. Ichibei Iwano. He uses a technique that has been passed down from generation to generation. And this particular paper is special. It’s special in the sense that when the ink is printed, it is not printed on top of the paper, but kind of seeps through to lie within the paper. すごいでしょう？！
So here are a couple videos of Kawai-san, a really talented surishi, at work.
Printing on the gradients is considered one of the most difficult parts of the printing process. But what a beautiful effect it makes.
Everything in the way the printer works is precise and so attentive to detail. The angle at which her work table is slanted is the same as during the edo jidai. This particular angle has been proven to be perfect in order to distribute the right amount of pressure needed to do the prints. The way she sits, and where all her tools are positioned are also important factors.
The tools can even be considered an art on its own. The pad used to rub on the ink is covered in bamboo skins and braided knots. The size of the knots determine how much pressure you can use. Bigger knots allow you to use more pressure, and smaller knots are more suitable for smaller and delicate areas.
A surishi also needs to understand the characteristics of the wood, paper and ink, because when printing it is essential to keep the wood moist, but be careful of expansion and so on. The process of printing also requires a lot of strength (which I was soon to discover), so surishi are often males. But Kawai-san showed us with much speed and skill that women can do it too 😉
This picture probably doesn’t do it justice, but I love the attention to detail that has gone into this print!
Once Kawai-san was finished with her demonstration, we each got a go at making our own prints.
And I leave you with my masterpiece… enjoy!