JAPANESE WOODCUT or WOODBLOCK PRINTING
by Frank Trueba
Relief prints are prints in which designs are carved in wood and all the material that is not going to be printed is carved away, thus leaving the design on the wood block "in relief." This relief surface is then inked and paper is printed under pressure, transferring the ink (and design) to the paper resulting in an original print. [Original print meaning each print is executed by hand and not by a photo-mechanical process, such as an ink-jet printer or other printing machine.] A Japanese woodcut is a form of relief printing in which each color of the final print is carved on a separate piece of wood and each color is registered to the single piece of paper using "kento" marks and the pressure is applied using a "baren" (a bamboo covered disc) rather than a printing press. The paper is also printed while dampened rather than dry, as occurs with Western printing press techniques.
To create a Japanese woodblock print, designs are drawn on planks of wood, traditionally, cherry planks were used. Today, cherry planks are expensive and also slightly difficult for a beginner to carve and while other woods can be used, shina plywood (a Japanese basswood) is often used. This type of wood combines an ease of carving with the ability to hold a fair amount of detail. As with any relief print, the parts of the design not to be printed are carved away. A different block of wood is carved for each color to be printed.
Water-based ink is applied onto the carved block using specifically designed Japanese horsehair (or boarhair) brushes, rather than a brayer. Additionally a binder made from rice or wheat paste is mixed with the ink while on the board. Then, the already dampened paper [the paper is not considered wet] is placed on top and burnished with the baren (a Japanese tool consisting of a disc made from layers of "washi" or Japanese paper, which sits on a braided coil of bamboo rope and covered with a bamboo sheath), transferring the raised design to the paper.
Subsequent colors/designs are applied in a similar fashion until all colors/designs have been printed. Each sheet of paper is registered—so that all the colors/designs match-up—using a set of carved notches on the wood block. These notches are referred to as kento marks and consist of an "L" shaped notch on the right-hand side of the block and a straight, horizontal, notch on the left-hand side of the block. Each color is printed on each piece of paper before moving on to the next color—for example, if the you were making 10 prints of a design using two colors, you would print the 10 sheets of one color before proceeding to print the second color. Often, one color may be printed more than once to achieve a certain effect and so a print may be labeled as having been produced from three blocks but five impressions.
When the printing is complete, the prints are left to dry in such away that they remain flat. After drying the prints are signed and numbered (numbering an edition is a recent phenomenon; traditional Japanese prints were not numbered or editioned—in fact one can still buy handmade prints of "classic" Japanese prints by such great artists as Hokusai (Red Fuji or The Great Wave), who lived centuries ago because the blocks for those prints are re-carved when they wear out and are printed by master printers today.
Classic Japanese prints, known as ukiyo-e (loosely translated as "pictures of the floating world") were produced between the 17th and the 20th centuries, and have a long association with poetry. Poets and their poems were often the main subject of the print, such as evidenced by the Hyakunin isshu (Small Treasury of One Hundred Poems by One Hundred Poets) a collection of "tanka" or the Sanjűrokassen (Thirty-six Poetic Immortals) whose selected poems were compiled the third imperial anthology and reproduced the poems of some popular poets,
Of all the ukiyo-e print categories, those prints known collectively as surimono (printed thing) were very closely associated with poetry. In fact, while these prints might be commissioned by wealthy people for New Year greetings, or commemorating special occasions, they were often commissioned by poets to circulate amongst their poetry clubs. Surimono prints usually contained poetry of the ky˘ka type.
Frank Trueba, born and raised in New York City, he always had an interest in drawing. In an educational system that only had funds to provide a visiting art teacher about once a month, he never had much formal encouragement. However, his areas of study in college and graduate school turned to more established subjects such as science, biology, and wildlife management.
He furthered his studies through workshops in painting, pastels, bookmaking, scientific illustration, and a concentration in printmaking. Both his artistic and analytical traits are used in the printmaking process, from design, to carving, and printing. He enjoys the reproductive quality that allows him to share his art with many people.
After visiting a Japanese woodblock print gallery in New York City in 1985, his passionate interest in this style of art ignited. Discovering the Baren Forum web site in 2001, http://www.barenforum.org/, he has learned the techniques of moku-hanga.
His web site at http://www.ralene.com/gallery has been designed to explain printing processes and to show his art in various mediums.