I’ve always loved senjafuda.Senjafuda (in Japanese- literally “thousand shrine cards”) are taken by travelers and pilgrims where they are pasted on rafters and posts. They don’t look as junky as you might expect- much better than graffiti IMO.
Making and collecting senjafuda (some are quite spectacular) is very popular thing to do in Japan. As an artist, they’re very convenient to make- you have some left-over wood? Perfect. Some extra paper scraps? A piece here a piece there, and voilà!
I plan to use this as a demonstration and simple print for my printmaking students to start mokuhanga. The idea is to print around 200 (this test batch is only 14) to bring and give away at my IMC2017 Mokuhanga Conference talk at the University of Hawaii in late Sept. Shhh! it’s a secret surprise…
Technically, it’s obviously a 3-color print- actually 5 impressions as the red and black are over-printed. I took a hint from Mokuhankan’s print parties in Asakusa and printed the black keyblock last- that keeps the lighters colors clean! Normally, the black keyblock is printed first, but sometimes the black bleeds into the later lighter colored blocks resulting in a dingy mess.
As Thomas Edison said: “There are no rules here- we’re trying to get things done”.
Incidentally, I’m using ‘black hole’ sumi or sumi no kaori (literally “scent of carbon”?)- anyway it’s velvety-smooth-nano-vanta-fiber-crow-in-a-coalmine-event-horizon bahahalackkkk! If you’re interested in buying this glorious stuff, the only place I could find is a calligraphy shop in France of all places. See: Comptoir de Secritures
Yoshida’s prints fall within the genre of shin hanga (or “new” prints)- a 20th-century movement started well after uniyo-e’s demise and provided a Renaissance of mokuhanga that lasted from roughly from the mid 1910s until the 50s. This movement was started by Yoshijirô Urushibara (1888–1953) through his collaborations with western artists such as Frank Brangwyn. Other notable artists include Charles Bartlett, Elizabeth Keith, Tsuchiya Kōitsu, and many others. The idea of shin-hanga was to use traditional mokuhanga printing techniques in a watercolor effect- lessening the importance of line while layering color over color in a realistic, western manner often creating atmospheric depth.
In the 1920s, two primary shin-hanga artists arose: Hiroshi Yoshida and Kawase Hasui. Even though Hasui seems to get the most credit through his influence on anime, I’d put Hiroshi over Kawase Hasui any day.
True, old man Yoshida couldn’t draw people worth a nickel, claimed prints to be “self-printed”, and used zinc plates, but- Oh!, his Values, his Colors, his Lines!…
As one of the shin hanga heavies, I believe one reason Yoshida’s prints were so consistently superior was that he published his own work early on. Unlike the Hasui/Watanabe Shōzaburō team, I don’t see lulls in quality over his career.
I’ve had Blakeney’s book Yoshida Hiroshi: Print-maker since the 1990s and it’s very informative. It describes his background, travels, and a catalogue raisonné.
Plus, it has a posthumously printed woodblock fronticepiece “Court of Lions, Alhambra 1928” (I have a soft spot for the subject matter since I really liked visiting the Alhambra).
As usual, the Court of Lions is beautifully rendered and printed. The woodblock is similar to the color prints found within Yoshida’s Japanese Woodblock Printing from 1929, the classic how-to guide that I also treasure. The hand-printed examples in both books are really inspiring- especially considering the thousands of copies that must have been produced.
Warning: This chapter contains a lot of geeky, technical information often going beyond the basics of Japanese-style printmaking. To add context, please refer to Woodblock.com’s extensive Encyclopedia entries.
I apologize in advance if you already know these things… That said, Dave Bull would regularly remind me [paraphrased]: “There are often more ways than one to do these things- you should look, listen, and try one way and then another, and then compare the results. One advantage is to think outside the box”. And he is right as evidenced by his, and others’ work and innovations. So to that end, here are a few things to consider…
Printing Brush Prep
Printing brushes (maru and hanga bake) have stiff hairs for a reason- you need the firmness to move pigment and paste around the blocks. On the other hand, a firm, stiff hair leaves a streak. Usually, mokuhanga requires smooth pigment application, so to get the best of both worlds, the tips need to be softened by a mechanical process of rubbing along a rough surface (sharkskin, ‘dragonskin’, coarse sandpaper, etc.). I was able to compare the “pre-conditioned” brushes from Matsumura and the ones at the print studio and the latter were noticeably softer. Here, I am conditioning a maru bake.
The first step: Singeing the Brush Hair
After you get a new brush, the next step is to form it (see brush profile pic above). The traditional way is to melt the hairs using a hotplate. I made my own setup to fit on top of an electric element. It’s a pretty stinky and hot process. Some folks simply trim with scissors although I find that the melting technique is a bit quicker and easier to be consistent.
The Next Step: The Old Grind
Shark skins have unique properties and are valued by craftspeople for a number of purposes. This angel shark skin features thousands of serrated tooth-like dermal denticles [see images]. 90-grit sandpaper can also work if you don’t have access- large sanding belts provide a longer surface to use. I’ve seen folks use powered machinery, but this really isn’t that much work to me.
The technique that works best for me is to:
Dampen the brush ends- I use a plate to pick up a few droplets of water.
Hold the brush flat and push from the tail to the head in long strokes in North>South>East>West degrees for about 50 strokes each direction.
Then on the side fins, vigorously grind the brushes in short, hard strokes pushing the hairs so that you can feel the hairs grab. It helps me to support the brush hairs from the back with my thumbs to make sure a strong contact against the sharkskin or sandpaper is made.
It should produce a kinda gross brown powder build-up.
If hairs protrude, it’s best to trim them with scissors rather than pulling them out since tightly-packed hairs are what’s keeping them in the brush.
When I was shown the process by experience printers in Japan, I aped what I saw. I wasn’t able to get anywhere for many hours. I did successfully rip the tip of my finger open which got me a little mad, [see pic of my finger] but this also got me thinking: I needed to rip the hairs just as I did my finger.
After doing the ~30 initial strokes to roughen up, I finally was able to feel the hairs ‘grip’ the sharkskin- really grip them.
To consider when to stop, look for a light brown color developing on the face of the brush- an almost velvety look indicative of a well-conditioned brush. I also diagnosed the softness of the tips by rubbing it against my cheek.
Problems: The middle of the brush had a slight dip. We concluded that that area had the most contact with the sharkskin.
I asked Kubota-san why the ‘dip’ in the middle and he explained to me that I should rub the brush 50 times FLAT. He said that I should rub each brush in the following directions: North, South, East, West, 45°, 135°, 225°, 315°, the on the ‘CORNERS’ of the brush in all NSEW directions top and bottom. I’m not good at math, but this is 16 angles x 50= 800 strokes. Maybe I’m lazy, but I found that the brushes didn’t need that much attention.
Here’s a short video to get a feel of it:
So, what are we looking for microscopically?There was a bit of deliberation on the question: Are the tips of the brush tapered or ‘frizzed’? Suga-san (who worked at the Adachi Institute for 5 years) and Mr. Kenichi Kubota, master printer at Adachi discussed this. I personally was at a loss with my lack of language skills to comprehend the vast majority of what was said, but I think that ‘tapered’ won out (see diagram).
Brush Jigs for Hanga Bake
Like I said earlier, I use my thumbs to keep the hairs from bending too much while rubbing against the skin (once again, this is a bit tricky to avoid fingers being ground). If you are sharpening a hanga bake (the more ‘paintbrush’ like tool), it’s advised to wrap the brush with a jig and twine so that only the tips are being ground. The printers wrapped them tightly using wooden strips with holes on both sides to keep things stable. If someone knows how to make a jig for maru bakes, please tell me.
Watching a Brush Maker on Asakusa Dori
I stumbled across a brush maker on Moto Asakusa near Ueno Park. I watched Mrs. Miyagawa work and the process looked relatively simple- I’m sure it’s a lot harder than it looks. Hanks of horse hair are cut and gathered, loop light wire through holes in the wooden brush base. The hairs are threaded into the wire loop half way and the hairs are pulled into the holes. I purchased a couple of smaller maru bake brushes and she gave me a small hanga bake. Nice lady! A more in-depth report on the shop can be found here.
A Comparison of Learning Environments: Academia and the Apprenticeship Models
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.
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
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.
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
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 whatyou need whenyou 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:
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
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.
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.
“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.
Enter a caption Enter a captionI know the title sounds bad and I should have more respect for my heroes . However, this is an animation assembled from a hand-printed progression in Hiroshi Yoshida’s “Japanese Wood-block Printing” from 1939. I’m fortunate to have a copy of this along with his son’s two manuals. Hiroshi Yoshida was a pioneer of the shin-hanga movement and I find his examples very instructive as far as layering transparent colors. The man especially loved grays and browns which is a bit surprising for me. Each of these four progressive plates have an average of 3-4 colors per page for a total of 15 impressions:
Black outline; outline block (I).
Blue sky; sky block (VI).
Brown sail and boat; sail block (II)
Yellow on water; water block (VII).
Indigo reflection on yellow; reflection block (IV).
Subdued purple gradation for the sky from bottom upward. The sky block (VI) repeated.
Carmine to heighten the light; the red block (VIII).
Indigo gradation from top downward on the reflection. The reflection block repeated.
Indigo gradation on water from either side; the water block (VII) repeated to kill the red where unnecessary.
Brown gradation on sails from top downward; the sail block (II) repeated.
Brown over the boat; the boat block (III).
Indigo for water to heighten the light in the upper part, and also perforated in the lower part; the indigo block (IX).
Plate IV (Finished)
Indigo gradation from the top of the sky. The sky block (VI) repeated.
Grey-block (V) to darken the masts and give a shade to the boats.
Indigo gradation from the bottom upward on the water. The water block (VII) repeated for this purpose. A baren of sixteen-strand cord was used to produce the horizontal marks on the water.
At the end of the progression, he also includes a night version (left).
Don’t take this the wrong way- I think this guy’s junk looks fanfrickentastiqué!
Below is an animated .gif I put together in Photoshop from images of a simple woodblock, Castle of Himeji, by Hiroshi’s son, Toshi Yoshida 1911-1995. From what I can tell, the impressions are as follows: (1) black keyblock, (2) light yellow sky (3) dark yellow foreground (4) med. gray architecture (5) blue/green sky, foliage (6) light gray details in sky, shadows (7) med warm green> dark cool green bokashi for trees. Note the small details, like the blue on roofs, subtle gray shadows on houses and trees. I hope to be able to print as cleanly and be as efficient in the color use someday.
Toshi Yoshida, Castle of Himeji, ca 1950. Courtesy of Japanese Arts Gallery