Yesterday the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints, in association with the ICN gallery, held an ukiyo-e live demonstration and workshop at the Daiwa Anglo-Japanese Foundation in London, and I went along to have a go.
Ukiyo-e (浮世絵) is an iconic part of Japanese culture that many people will be familiar with, even if they don’t know the word ‘ukiyo-e’. Japanese woodcut prints (ukiyo-e) are one of the most famous symbols of Japan, and almost everyone knows this image:
I remember my confusion when I first learnt that Hokusai’s The Great Wave (above) was not a one-off, or even a limited edition. In fact, ukiyo-e prints were originally commercial products, selling for around the cost of a bowl of noodles, and the more popular they were the more runs they would do. One set of woodblocks would typically be able to print about 100 ukiyo-e prints before the wood started to decay or wear out due to the paint reacting with the surface of the wood and, when the blocks did wear out, if the print was still popular, more blocks would be made. Of course, the first prints made with a set of woodblocks would be the better ones, known as ‘hatsuzuri’ (初刷り) or ‘first prints’, but even these could be the first 50 or so, so weren’t exactly ‘limited edition’.
The technique of woodcut printing is a traditional but dying art in Japan. There are not many ukiyo-e artisans left in Japan now – perhaps only around 60 true artisans, taught by masters – and over half of them are over 60 years old, which is why the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints, based in Tokyo, is working hard to preserve and continue the art of woodcut printing. But it is not a job that everyone can do, as we heard in the live demonstration yesterday. The printer giving the demonstration worked very hard, using a lot of physical strength and even raising a sweat, whilst maintaining a remarkable degree of accuracy and speed. Not everyone is cut out for that kind of work, we were told, and even after years of training some wannabe printers have to give up. I wondered if any foreigners had ever made it as carvers or printers, but was told that, except for ‘one Canadian man’ (who I assume is David Bull), they didn’t know of any gaijin who had made it. One of the reasons I was given was that it was more than a job to be an artisan – it was a way of life – and learning to be a woodcut carver or printer would involve learning a lot about Japanese life, language, customs and culture as well as the craft itself.
The Adachi Foundation is the only institute of its kind, at the moment, which acts as a publishing company for traditional woodcut prints. This means that the producer, woodcarver and printer are all working together under one roof. The Adachi Foundation reproduce original ukiyo-e works using facsimile reproduction – attempting to recreate the original piece using the exact same techniques and materials. Washi (Japanese paper) is used for the prints, and the paper used by the Adachi Foundation is made in a traditional way by the Living National Treasure of its 9th generation Mr Ichibei Iwano. This particular kind of washi, made from mulberry, is called ‘echizenkizukibousho’ (越前生漉奉書). The paint used is made from plant or mineral based pigments, which is coarser than dye but not as coarse as ‘rock paint’, which is made of minerals and used for Japanese-style painting. Ukiyo-e prints were generally made up of eight colours or less when they were originally made – partly because not many colours were available, and partly because one print was usually supposed to be made from eight blocks or less (each block was used twice – front and back). The eight colours that were usually used are: india ink (black), yellow arsenic (yellow), Bengala/red iron oxide (reddish brown), original indigo (blackish indigo blue), indigo (clear indigo blue), crimson (red), mica (for glimmer effect, no colour) and Paris white. The Hokusai image above uses only seven colours. Mountain cherry wood is used for the woodblocks themselves.
As with all traditional Japanese arts, there is a certain way everything should be done in ukiyo-e, and also a certain way in which objects should be placed and held. Watching the printer at work, it was easy to make connections between ukiyo-e and other traditional activities such as tea ceremony, calligraphy and flower arranging.
Everything was laid out in its certain place, partly to aid speed (the ink dries quickly) but also because that is the way it’s done.
As the printer, Chiharu Kawai, lay down the first woodblock, it was incredible to see Hiroshige’s famous wave right there in front of my own eyes. I knew it was a reproduction, but it was as close as anyone could ever really get to the real thing.
The printer daubed a little ink with a drop of water and a touch of glue (made from sticky rice) on the block, and worked it all around with confident brush movements.
Once the ink was spread, she carefully (but swiftly) lay the paper on the block, using the guide marks in the bottom righthand corner to make sure the paper was straight. Then, picking up a ‘baren’ (馬楝) – a round disc of knots covered in paper – she proceeded to rub at the back of the paper to print the colour on. As she rubbed, you could see the colour starting to appear through the paper, which absorbs the ink so there’s not much chance of smudging.
After each block had been used four times, the printer would lay it to one side and reach for another one, ready for the next colour. It was incredible to see the picture building up, and I still can’t quite fathom how the colours got in the right places and didn’t get all messed up.
One part of the process which I found particularly fascinating was the gradation process – making that soft grey part in the sky:
The whole process takes such skill, training and accuracy but, despite that, we were all allowed to have a go! Naturally it would have taken too long to make a whole picture each, so we just had a go out the basic outline. First, the printer went through the whole process one more time, making it look incredibly easy:
Then it was our turn…
Ramata of LovelyComplex: Nihon in London gets stuck in – look at the determination on her face!
I was dying to have a go too…
I have to say, rubbing the paper to make the design come through is really hard work, but thoroughly enjoyable! I could happily have carried on printing all afternoon. Here’s my finished piece:
Mine is unique because there’s a little bit of extra ‘lightening’ in the sky where I pressed too heavily in the wrong place. Still, it was my first go! I scanned my ukiyo-e print in to see what fun I could have with it, and had a go at making something a bit more colourful… what do you think?
I’m a big fan of ukiyo-e, and even more so now I’ve had a go myself. I think back to my days studying art at college where I did try screen-printing and paper-making, and I just wish I had known about ukiyo-e back then. I didn’t know what to do with printing when I was 16 or 17 years old, but now I think I could have a lot of fun with it if I had the time, space and materials.
I’d like to say a big ‘Thank You’ to everyone involved in putting the workshop together – it was excellent. If you’d like to know more about the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints you could download this PDF information sheet, or visit their website: adachi-hanga.com, where you can also buy ukiyo-e prints. The Great Wave off Kanagawa, unframed, will cost you ￥13,000 plus ￥3,000 for shipping (that’s about £124 in total). Alternatively, you can buy the Adachi Foundation’s prints from the ICN gallery, which is probably easier if you’re in the UK (and they also ship world-wide).