A print is a two-dimensional work of art that involves transferring an image from one surface (wood, stone, metal, etc.) onto another surface, usually paper. This process may involve relief printing, in which the raised surface is the only part that prints (like your fingerprint), or it might be intaglio, which refers to prints that are made by rubbing ink into incised or etched lines and polishing the surface so that only the deep lines print. A planographic process, like lithography or silkscreen, uses a flat surface.
One of the advantages of making prints is that you can make multiple impressions of the same image; the total number is referred to as an edition, and each one is signed and numbered by the artist.
This guide is designed to introduce you to relief printmaking, with an emphasis on Japanese woodblock prints.
Three people are needed to create a Japanese woodblock print: the artist, the carver and the printer. The artist makes an original drawing on paper and pastes it, face down, on a block of cherry wood. This is then carved by a master carver.
Once this key block has been made, several black and white impressions are printed, or pulled, and returned to the artist, who indicates on each sheet where the colour should be. For each colour used, the carver must create a different block - there might be as many as 20 blocks carved for a single image!
To print each colour, rice paste is mixed with pigment and applied to the block using a stiff brush which allows the printer to make gradations of tone, almost like painting. Damp paper is then carefully laid on top and rubbed with a round smooth tool called a baren to transfer the ink. Each block must be carefully aligned with the paper, or registered, to ensure that the colour goes where it is intended, and does not drift into neighbouring areas. The printer's job is thus a critical one, involving great expertise.
Because the paper is subjected to multiple printings, it is important that it be very strong and flexible. Mulberry bark paper (commonly referred to as rice paper) is the most popular because it has long fibres that can withstand the rigour of multiple printings, but Mitsumata and Gampi plants are also used.
The earliest print technique was a woodcut, appearing first in China in the 9th century. By the 17th century the first colour woodcut print on paper in Japan appeared. From the middle of the 18th century to the mid-19th century, the art of woodblock printing reached its height, and Japanese woodblocks became famous around the world.
When they made their way to Europe (often used as packing material for ceramics), artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Paul Gauguin were greatly inspired by them. The subject matter of everyday life and the intense colour and compositions using cropped figures had an enormous influence on the course of European painting.
Colour prints require the use of numerous individual blocks. They are layered onto the same sheet of paper to create the final image.
Hokusai (1760-1849) is internationally recognized as an exemplar of the Japanese woodblock print. His influence within and outside his country was profound, and his famous series of prints, Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, contain the well-known image of The Great Wave Off Kanagawa.
Hiroshige (1797-1858) is one of the most acclaimed masters of Japanese printmaking, with an estimated total of 5,400 prints to his credit, primarily landscapes.
Hiroshige's work influenced European artists such as Vincent van Gogh, who reproduced the print Ishiyakushi in his painting Père Tanguy (1887-88).
Special thanks to the
International Fine Printmaker Dealers Association
for making this publication possible.