THE ART OF Japanese Woodblock

Japanese woodblock is a marriage of patience and persistence. The gentle washi paper and the carved block combined with a bit of magic creates a one-of-a-kind print. The pressure of the hand-held baren forces the watercolour pigment inside the damp fibres of the paper to produce a stained-glass effect. 

See how I print one of several blocks that form my Mind Map II print. I use a hand-held baren, washi paper, watercolour paint and glutinous rice glue to print my hand-carved block. 

The Tradition of Japanese Woodblock 

A mid-19th-century print by Kunisada depicting the woodblock printing process. An actual print shop would not have been staffed by such beauties.

A mid-19th-century print by Kunisada depicting the woodblock printing process. An actual print shop would not have been staffed by such beauties.

With origins in China, Japanese woodblock is a 400 year old printing technique refined by Japanese craftsmen during the 1700’s. Commonly known as Ukiyoe, these artworks were an affordable alternative to traditionally inaccessible aristocratic paintings. Dynamic and highly popular, Ukiyoe reflected fashion, theatre and pursuits popular with the newly wealthy merchant class. 

Adopted by modern artists in the early 20th century in Japan, the surprisingly 'eco-friendly' process is now used by international artists who adore its versatility and often complex nature.  The ability to create intricate detail, vivid colours and delicate painterly effects makes it a highly desirable and unique printmaking medium. 


My Print Process - Mind Map II


Artist @ Work: 1 minute video - watch how I print the first of four hand-carved blocks that make up my Mind Map series. This technique is Japanese woodblock printing - same method used to create the 'ukiyoe' genre of prints popular overseas with artists like Van Gogh!

Artist @ Work: 3.5 minute video - watch how I print the second of four hand-carved blocks that make up my Mind Map series. 


Dampening paper may sound mundane, but it's one of the crucial steps to getting the right level of moisture in your paper. The perfect level of humidity in the fibres of Japanese paper will ensure that watercolour pigment penetrates the surface when forced in through the pressure of a hand-held baren.

Steps to Creating a print 

1. Cut the woodblock to size using a handheld jigsaw and avoid any injuries!

2. Transfer images to the woodblock

3. Carve with special tools

4. Cut each piece of professional grade washi paper to size

5. Use water based ink and nori rice glue with hog hair brushes

6. Work up a sweat printing with a hand-held disk baren

7. Flatten prints using my favourite hard-cover books

All my prints are created in my home studio in Toa Payoh, which is one of Singapore's oldest housing estates. I import most of my tools and paper directly from Japan - much to the interest of my local postman!  


Learn Japanese Woodblock Printing 

Join my Japanese Woodblock Easy Print Workshop to learn how to print using a 400-year-old technique! 

materials

Japanese paper

Washi ain't always washi...there are many types to choose from depending on your budget. Kozo, Gampi and Mistumata are the main three fibres used. Go for the best you can afford. McClains has good service and variety. Woodlike Matsumura is based in Japan but has an English website. Recently I've been working with both thicker paper that needs to be dampened and thinner paper that can be used dry. 

Tools

The sharper, the better! Buy locally from Straits Arts or Art Friend. My beautiful kento registration knife was bought in a set from Woodlike Matsumura. Don't forget to buy sharpening stones!

Wood

Cherry wood was the traditional craftsman preferred wood but unless you have very deep pockets, it's a tad pricy these day due to diminishing stock. Locally-sourced timbers include basswood. Try Artfriend or timber suppliers. 

carving+tools.jpg
wood block wood types
watercolourpigments

Pigments & Glue

Waterbased pigments including gouache and watercolours can be used. Sumi calligraphy ink can also be used as a black. Nori rice glue can be bought from Kinokuniya book store or made by hand. 

Baren

A baren and your arm form a 'press', so choose wisely for best effect. A quality barren will put you back a few hundred dollars, or you can grab something reasonably priced at Art Friend (top right).  I have a traditional Murasaki baren (top left corner) that cost about USD150 and a plastic disk baren (bottom right - designed by my teacher Akira Kurosaki) for USD30. Learn more about barens and the time involved in making them here. Both barens can be bought at online stores run by McClains Printing Supplies and Woodlike Matsumura

Tradition barens - they do eventually need to be re-shealthed. I'm yet to do this but it does look a bit tricky. 

Plastic barens - the one shown here comes with a re-stickable textured surface for when the bumps start to wear out. 

Ball-bearing barens - they say these are especially good for linocut or oil-based woodcuts. A bit of an investment - about USD250 upwards. 

Whichever you decide, make sure to place a piece of baking paper or greaseproof paper in between your print and the baren. This will help to prevent any ink from staining your baren, and from wear and tear to the washi paper. 
 

Sizing

Some washi papers come with it and others don't. If you like a fuzzy sort of image - then unsized is for you! Otherwise, make sure your paper is sized when you purchase it. If you are doing an edition with a lot of colours, you may have to resize your paper halfway through. I'm learning how to do this! 

Japanese woodblock master Dave Bull talks about sizing and you can also see how to make your own sizing here. 

Drying Your Prints 

Left: A print that has been left to dry naturally. Right: A print that has been pressed under weights. 

Left: A print that has been left to dry naturally. Right: A print that has been pressed under weights. 

Prints that have been made on damp paper usually need to be pressed as they tend to buckle if allowed to dry naturally. If you don't have time to press your prints immediately after printing, I suggest the following steps. 

STEP 1: After class, allow your prints to dry naturally on a clean horizontal surface. If you forget your prints inside a plastic folder, it's lightly that they will develop mould. 

STEP 2: Use a damp sponge (a small makeup one or cut a kitchen sponge in half. If you have a big wide brush, you can use that too. Lightly dampen the back of the print with water until the surface is shiny but doesn't have pools of water. 

STEP 3:  Place your print between clean sheets of newsprint or photocopy paper. You need a sheet on top and a sheet below of each print. Lay this paper pack on a flat surface and place a few heavy books (hardcover ones work well!) on top. Leave for 10 minutes.  

STEP 4: Now replace the damp newsprint/copy paper with dry ones. Leave for 1 hour. 

STEP 5: Now replace the damp newsprint/copy paper with dry ones again and leave for at least 24 hours. 

By then your prints should be dry and flat! 

Materials List & Suppliers

Discover the tools and materials you'll need when printing Japanese woodblock at home. This list is aimed at students in Singapore, but should serve as a rough guide for beginner and intermediate students who are able to shop online. Many materials can be bought from US and Japan based suppliers over the internet. 

Technical guides 

McClains Printmaking Supplies

Brushes 

Caring for Japanese Printing Brushes

Brushes on a Budget

Contemporary JAPANESE WOODBLOCK ARTISTS


David Bull

Annie Bissett

Paul Furneaux