Tanuki Printing: My Set-up/Hovel

1. blocks 2. water and misc. brushes 3.printing brushes (maru bake) 4. pigment storage 5. more blocks 6. pigment pots 7. barens 8. carving tools 9. bamboo skins takenokawa.
Not shown: sharkskin, washi, print drying press
I have very limited space to print as you can see. It’s doubles as my office at the university and is a mess most of the time. I hope that someday soon, I can locate to a studio where I am not falling over stuff- or stuff falling on top of me.

As you can see, I have pretty much all I need except space and time… I am presently building a forced-air print drying press (from a conversation I had in Hawaii with the gracious Paul Binnie)- details to come on that…

Traditional Mokuhanga Pigment Mixing: Using a Wooden ‘Mortar and Pestle’

pigment drawer
The pigment drawer at Mokuhankan– Asakusa, Toyko

I had the pleasure of spending a month working at Mokuhankan Studio in Asakusa, Tokyo from May to June, 2017. One of many new experiences for me was, under the direction of Natsuki Suga (who worked under Kenichi Kubota at the Adachi Institute for 5 years) to make relatively large batches of color using wood board mortars and pestles. This is to assure the pigments’ quality and to create a well-mixed supply of color paste that is ready to use later. Each color requires it’s own sanded cherry board and pestle (pine with cherry faced using epoxy glue) that was made by Lee-san.

Cherry blocks made by Lee-san to be used as a pigment griding ‘mortar and pestle’.

Like most printers, I generally use a mortar and pestle for a far too short of a time in order to grind pigments into a paste [for beginning printers, this resulting color paste is then later added by the printer to the block with varying degrees of water and nori (starch) paste while printing]. For the record, I’m pretty slack and sometimes just mix the pigment out of the bag with water (sometimes w /alcohol to break the surface tension) using only a brush/tokibo or hakobi. I am learning that mixing the colors thoroughly helps create much smoother colors and avoids a print being spoiled because of stain blotches which sometimes show up during printing from not mixing the pigments well enough.

“Warning: It takes a long time.”

This process of grinding on a board takes a long time but, unlike using a deep mortar, you can much more easily see the texture of the pigment on the flat surface.

List of colors:

A list of colors used at the Mokuhankan printshop
Taking care not to spill pigments

Prep: Of the 5 colors, only bengara had pure ethyl (grain) alcohol added, mixed in the night before, and was allowed to sit open for the alcohol to evaporate. Also, pigments like bengara require more time to grind because the particles are coarser. You will need a wooden board, wooden pestle, a scraper (my credit card seemed to work well since it was not hard enough to damage the wood), water, jars.


(1) Wearing a mask, add a small amount of clear (preferably distilled) water to the dry pigments in a jar and stir.

(2) Approx. one tablespoon of damp pigment is then placed onto the top of the block.

The wooden pestle should be held at a slight angle as it’s pushed  towards the pigment.

(3) The wooden pestle is held at a slight angle away from the pigment to be ground and pushed with moderate pressure back and forth.

4) The processed portion naturally accumulates and builds up on the pestle which is then scraped off.

(5) Water is occasionally added, but Suga-san explained that too much water doesn’t allow the particles to grind against each other.

(6) After each pass, the color is then pushed back and the process is started over.

(7) The idea is to grind 4>6 times into a paste (refer to chart above it took on the average 45min. to process a tablespoon of dampened pigment). Suga-san said that the final surface should appear creamy-smooth.

(8) At the end of the grinding process, water is spread around and the residual pigment is gathered up.

Forcing the mulled pigments though a screen before storing

(9) After grinding, enough water is added to the paste to be pushed through a fine sieve into jars.

(10) Water is then very carefully added to the top. Over time, the water and heavier pigment naturally separate.and stored out of the light in a cool area of the studio.

(11) Each morning, the water is drained carefully off the top. New water is then carefully added again to the top of the drained paste after it’s used and returned to a cool, dark area. This process or replacing the water reportedly keeps spoilage down (presumably, by limiting exposure to air) as opposed to adding preservatives. The key is or course, not to shake or stir the jars.

Letting pigments settle
  • Additional references: Preparing powdered pigments can be found in a “Tools and Materials” section David Bull’s www.woodblock.com Encyclopedia article. The idea of keeping a selection of pigments stored in ‘paste’ form in an alcohol/water mix is discussed in ‘One-Point Lesson’ #6 in another section of the Encyclopedia.


Mokuhankan is planning to compare this traditional method of grinding pigments with using a western-style glass muller/ glass slab combination. I suspect that this will result in less hard-won pigment being lost and may go a bit faster.

As of several days later, both the Ultramarine and the Indigo did not separate to clear water. I was a little suprised at the Ultramarine since it is a mineral pigment.

I’m also not quite sure that the step of pushing the pigment through the sieve is necessary since the ground particles are much finer than the screen.

After printing, mixing bowls are left to dry around the printing desks and are reconstituted (unless starch paste had been added) by simply adding a little water and stirring with the tokibo without apparent problems. I’ve noticed that this reconstituting doesn’t work as well with commercial tube watercolors since there is gum added and it results in a grainy texture.

“Pigmento Party” 2017! John, Suga-san, Aiyumi-san at Mokuhankan

Printing in Japan 日本での印刷: Part 2


This is a continuation of my time spent in May and June, 2017. See earlier part 1- Printing in Japan: 日本での印刷

A Comparison of Learning Environments: Academia and the Apprenticeship Models

Watanabe Publishing c. 1935

I personally feel very fortunate in many ways: I have have a functional, supportive family and as a university professor, I am paid to learn, along with my teaching responsibilities. I have tried to not separate learning and teaching as much as possible.

A few opportunities came up for me via woodblock printmaking to consider my role: One was casual conversations with David Bull of Mokuhankan concerning the apprenticeship model and the other is an invitation to speak at IMC2017: the International Mokuhanga Conference in Honolulu, HI this late Sept. The subject that I chose for the conference relates to Environment and Social considerations of woodblock printmaking- certainly a broad subject with a lot of latitude. I would like to concentrate on active learning within work environments and how to incorporate elements of active learning within academia. There will be a diverse crowd: artists, craftsmen, academics, professionals, and amateurs. As a teacher and commercial artist with a diverse background, I feel that I am able to compare ways of learning which I have personally felt were the most valuable to me and my students.

A little printmaking background: Since the mid-90s, I have struggled (mainly on my own) to understand what variables equate making a strong and well-made print, both in design and execution.

If you have tried mokuhanga, you know what I mean: (1) everything seems prohibitively expensive, (2) a lot of things are hard or impossible to come by, and (3) you’re not sure of what’s right/wrong since there are very few reliable sources of direct information. Some, if not most of these challenges can’t be addressed by studying books or taking classes. I have learned enough of the art that I needed to go back to Japan to feel, smell, look, hear, and absorb the process and to work alongside others who have a more developed and varied experience. I really wasn’t conscience of what I needed, it just seemed like the natural progression of things. And I got a chance to do just that this summer. Beyond the technical issues, I also was able to rediscover and consider that…

“I find that, although I have learned a great deal as a student, I have valued work and outside of academia experiences every bit as much, if not more.”

Selected Glimpses of Learning

As I stated earlier, I worked for nearly 10 years at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution starting in 1987 and later as owner of Amoss Illustration, Inc. working with many national clients.

Prudential Quarterly
cover illustration c.1998
A masthead illustration
for the 1996 Olympic
Editions of the AJC

During that period, I learned:

  • to carefully chose the questions to ask
  • to learn to teach myself
  • to watch, try, then ask
  • to be engaged
  • to be patient and open to listening to authority
  • to witness artwork being made
  • that ability was rewarded
Toshio Odate

Later, I took a week-long course in Japanese woodworking, which, to some degree exposed me to a taste of what it was like to work under a master, Toshio Odate.

I learned:

  • that, in a group, students quickly, and naturally formed a hierarchy based on skills and that there were several un-official teachers
  • that I had the choice to stay or leave
  • that the teacher only helped those students who tried all solutions first
  • that spaces are to be filled with action, rather than talk
  • that I was not very good at carpentry
Fellow printers at work- (clockwise FL>FR): me, Aiyumi-san, Suga-san, and Ishikawa-san

And to compare, I considered my experience this spring at Mokuhankan, print studio in Tokyo.

I learned that:

  • although I was a ‘competent’ printer, I was around printers who were obviously consistently better and I continuously re-defined what “quality” was
  • it was understood that all printers had to steadily improve or they were relegated to less interesting work
  • a print-shop is a team effort which allows for all to contribute
  • you are receptive to learn what you need when you need it

This begs the question:

As an educator in a public university, the question that I am posing is: How can I/we incorporate these “apprenticeship-like” modes of “deep learning” into practice?

Not to be a “downer” here, but there are many things in academia (non-technical schools) that seem to ‘conspire’ against doing so IMO:

  1. Class length: You have them for 3 months or so and even if they take the next class in succession, such as Printmaking II, it could be a year or more since they’ve thought about the subject. Sometimes the 2.5 hours a class period is too long and too short
  2. Grades: Especially in the beginning of college, students often care more about grades than learning- is this high school’s fault? parents? society? What many students are looking for is a “stamp of approval” aka a diploma (which should be important). At least in art, a good portfolio is key to getting anywhere.
  3. Class schedule- me to students: OK, guys- first we study relief printmaking, then etching, then… Some students want to continue to stick with something longer because they see its potential instead of moving on. The rationale is, of course, that they can pick it up later in their academic career to pursue what they resonate with.
  4. “Info-dumping”. Most students want the answers and if the instructor doesn’t give them all of it, then the student doesn’t feel as if they have received what they’ve paid for.

Of all the issues above, #4 seems to be the biggest deal for me. The problem of an “info dump” is that it’s artificial, consumer-based, and not very useful for anyone. I hate to say it, but the student must first find the problem in order to appreciate the answers. Art is, in my opinion, a REALLY good place to apply an active learning process based on information given within the context of need, rather than simply laying out information.

To use an analogy: As a musician, I’ve seen many a beginner buy a very expensive instruments from square-one [I liken this to having access to all of the answers aka “info-dumping”]. Although you can say that “you can’t blame the instrument anymore and it’s now up to hard work”, so many times, the ease of getting a thing overshadows creating a thing which requires a shift of thinking from a consumer to a maker. The same can be true of information- knowing is an abstraction and by “info-dump”, it doesn’t equate understanding and I think a large part of understanding comes from the physical activity of receiving the information when you can value/need it/understand the context. I’m sure I have succumbed to these strong temptations in my life many times- maybe I’m doing it right now…

However, I feel confident in this recipe for succeeding in anything:

“Do a lot of work consistently with persistence, awareness, curiosity, and purpose.”  Or, in distilled terminology:

Enough of my soapbox…

Check this out:

On apprenticeships:In the old days that sometimes meant just hanging around sweeping the floor or helping stack wood, being a ready eager extra hand. When the carpenter was satisfied with the young students’ commitment, then he would begin to give some unimportant tasks to accomplish. Rudimentary tools and basic instruction of their use would be provided. As experience and familiarity with the tools was gained, he was allowed to approach more involved work. Generally the methods of teaching are not overt. It is said that the student must “steal” information. That is, when he has tried and failed at something, then truly ready and eager to learn, the teacher will allow an opportunity for the student to see how it should be done. But nothing is said and the student can’t just stand and watch. He must sneak a look while still busy with his designated task of the moment. Little or no pay was received until the apprentice could produce useful work.”   –Takumi Carpentry

Based on what I’ve experienced- and the system that was developed over centuries, what I would add as a teacher to my academic courses are:

  • To point out what students do and let them explain to the class how they got there frequently and well BEFORE a critique
  • To let them fail without me feeling personally responsible
  • To use silence and work as a way to reduce abstraction
  • To work in front of students as much as possible in and out of class
  • To make another printing bench so that those who show interest can work alongside me

Can you think of any other ways of “keeping things real” as they say?

NEXT: Over the next chapters I’ll discuss what I learned while in Japan about the preparation of some materials.

NEXT: More about Printing in Japan 日本での印刷: Part 3