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 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

The Great Wave

When I worked at Mokuhankan in Asakusa in May, I had the honor of trading one of my prints for a painstaking re-make of  Katsushika Hokusai’s (1760 – 1849) 「富嶽三十六景 神奈川沖浪裏」 “Great Wave off Kanagawa” subtitled: “Beneath the Wave”. The print was originally designed by Hokusai c.1829 and was re-carved by Dave Bull and printed by Numabe-san. See Mokuhankan’s Great Wave Project

A print process animation of “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” by Katsushika Hokusai- this is from the Adachi Institute I believe.

Hokusai’s ~9-color ōban print was part of his series “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji”. Kanagawa is near Tokyo’s port town Yokohama- you can see Fuji-san in the background looking WNW.

golden mean wave
Overlay of the “Golden Section”/Mean/Ratio” relating to Fibonacci sequence-based proportions.
dragon hokusai
Katsushika Hokusai “Dragon Ascending Mt. Fuji” 1835
earlier wave
Katsushika Hokusai, “Oshiokuri Hato Tsūsen no Zu”, 1805

“The Wave”, of course, is an iconic image– likely the most recognized woodblock print in history. I am always amazed when students have never seen it. Students who recognize it think that Hokusai carved and printed it also- I sometimes clue them in to the division of labor, sometimes not.

Hokusai’s use of the golden section based on natural observation has often been noted by academics.

I have also read that the Great Wave’s foam forms “claw-like” leading crests very similar to the way dragon claws are depicted see: Hokusai’s “Dragon Ascending Mt. Fuji” from ‘One Hundred Views of Mount Fuji’ (Fugaku hyakkei) 1835. The effect depicts an active nature’s power in the face of puny fishermen who prostrate themselves in fear.

hokusai portrait
Hokusai’s self-portrait– from a collection at the Louvre.
hokusai grave
Hokusai’s last domicile– I managed to find his grave (street view here) in Tokyo’s Motoasakusa area.

It is also interesting (at least to me) to note that Hokusai made a series of ‘proto-waves’. Shown above left is one entitled “Oshiokuri Hato Tsūsen no Zu,”  or “Fast Cargo Boat Battling The Waves” c. 1805. The style looks to me a bit like work from a later artist, Rockwell Kent.


Hokusai factoids:

• Although his studio and much of his work was destroyed in a fire in 1839, the artist is thought to have produced 30,000 works over the course of his lifetime

• Hokusai lived in more than 90 dwellings during the course of his life.

 “When I was 50 I had published a universe of designs, but all I have done before the age of 70 is not worth bothering with. At 75, I’ll have learned something of the pattern of nature, of animals, of plants, of trees, birds, fish and insects. When I am 80, you will see real progress. At 90, I shall have cut my way deeply into the mystery of life itself. At 100 I shall be a marvellous artist. At 110, everything I create — a dot, a line — will jump to life as never before.” He died at age 88 hoping for ten more years in order to become a “real painter”.

– Katsushika Hokusai


Gotou-san and a Baren Trove

Gotou-san stripping the cuticle from the inside of the white bamboo leaf before braiding strips.

The baren (馬連 or バレン) is the most important tool (other than hands) for a mokuhanga printmaker. As it’s well-documented, hon barens have three parts: the (1) shin, or coil that is twisted shirodake bamboo and sewn into a disc; the (2) ategawa, the disc composed of ~40 sheets of washi paper glued together with persimmon juice sealed with water-proof urushi lacquer; and the (3) takenokawa, a timber bamboo leaf covering. Barens are, as you can imagine, quite expensive as it takes upwards of 6 months for a craftsman to make and cost anywhere from US$800>$1400. The number of strands, the width of strips, and how they are braided dictate the coarseness, power, and/or finesse of the baren depending on the intended printing effect. An article from about hon barens and baren-making can be seen here.

I have used a number of low and medium-quality barens (murasaki, etc.) over the years, but I always felt that my equipment lacked hon (or “authentic“) barens. I experienced the advantage of using the real thing while printing at Mokuhankan in Tokyo where Dave Bull was generous enough to allow me to try many of them from his baren ‘strongbox’. Incidentally, there was fine 8-strand baren which we all politely fought over for detail work. Anyway, I found that the hon baren’s washi ategawa allows for the printer to pull on the baren sides in order to concentrate the power in several directions plus the bamboo coil really makes a perfect combination of power and finesse. I would also recommend using the standard 13 cm-size baren as it  works as an ‘outrigger’ to keep it flat on the block while printing.

“After a while, I really felt as if the natural combination of a hon baren’s coil, disc, and covering was simply an extension of my arm and fingers.”

The barens I purchased on a Japanese auction- 7 hon, a ball-bearing, and an old murasaki-style. Also two ‘free-range’ ategawa were included.
Seven hon barens and an old murasaki-like rope thingy (bottom left)

UPDATE: So I am always “trolling” Japanese auctions (,, etc.) for printmaking tools. I occasionally come up with jewels- last year, I purchased 32 Kintaro-brand maru bake (printing brushes). Anyway, after about 2 years of diligently looking for barens, I hit what I consider the ‘motherload’ of barens a few weeks ago- maybe a printer died 😦 Although not cheap (especially with all of the fee$), I was able to purchase 7 hon barens! I wonder where they came from- most are very lightly used if all and one seems very old. I believe that there are (2) 16-strand, (2) 12-strand, and (2) 8-strands along with (1)a very old-looking 6-strand(?). I am patiently waiting for Hidehiko Gotou, who is purportedly the last maker of traditional hon barens, to help me identify them.

Gotou-san said that the baren coils can last a professional printer for up to 3 generations, the ategawa for up to a decade, and as you probably know, the a takenokawa covering lasts for a print or two depending.

This fall, I had the pleasure of meeting Gotou-san at the IMC 2017 conference in Manoa, Hawaii. Earlier in the year, I had ordered two kiurushi barens (here’s the link to an earlier entry) from Gotou-san and I was quite happy with them. I found Gotou-san to be a delightful person (taller than the typical Japanese) and loves printmaking as well as baren-making. He’s now 65 (doesn’t look it) and announced while in Hawaii that he now has secured an apprentice to possibly ‘pass the baton’ for future generations of printmakers. People seemed very relieved at the news.

A 16-strand coil of braided bamboo from the Geidai University, Tokyo

You can see in my Youtube video below how Gotou-san twists a 4-strand (ko) which can be then formed into any number of braiding combinations. The plant-end of the shirotake (white bamboo) leaf is cut into strips, the cuticle is stripped off (see pic above) and the strips are spliced while twisted and braided at the same time.

Some barens take around 12 meters (~36 ft.) of braid to make a single baren coil, As you can see, he is blazing-fast (no, this is not sped-up!) and amazingly consistent.

Braiding combinanations that form the 8 to 16 ko baren.

Afterwards, the 4 strands are doubled (8 ko), tripled (12 ko), or quadrupled (16 ko), and sewn together to form the flat coil. It’s then fitted to the ategawa and a softer rope is laid outside the coil to minimize ‘bumping marks’ from the sides. Gotou-san is, of course, also a master at wrapping the takenokawa around the whole enchilada. The presentation of a new baren is very clean using white bamboo to wrap (which is weak, but pretty), and a photo of the coil is included with the new baren. I have heard that it takes some time to break in a new baren. An article from goes into some detail- see: here

I also did a re-wrap of all of my 22? barens (hoarder?) which was good practice. Plus, I uncoiled and sewed together the old hon baren (seen in the bottom right of above picture. Pro tip: to sew a baren you have to use silk thread and tie an overhand knot in each pass through the coil by tying, winding the coil a quarter turn, tying, etc. and introducing ‘eighth pie sections’ 2/3 of the way through for stability. Very little tension is what you want in order to keep the coil really flat- which is VERY important. IMO, my final product doesn’t look that bad for a gaijin– and thus, I give myself a ‘gentleman’s “B” ‘.

If you’d like to check out Gotou’s baren webpage, here is the link. He speaks a whole lot better English than I do Japanese, but there is always Google translate. He can make a baren to order (takes some months to make and receive)- and he does now have a PayPal account- I think that I made him join! 🙂

A video I took in Hawaii showing Gotou-san twisting shirodake (special white bamboo) strips into a 4-strand (ko). Amazing!

Another baren-making site that you might be interested in is by Aiyumi Ohashi, who I had the pleasure to work with in Asakusa. She was a student of Gotou-san and has a brief how-to page of her own here.

Tanuki Senjafudas!

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

Ben Blakeney’s 1953 Yoshida Biography


Hiroshi Yoshida is My Hero.

Ever since I picked up the book The Complete Woodblock Prints of Hiroshi Yoshida, in 1991, I have been haunted, nay gobsmacked, by his designs. In fact, I wouldn’t have quit my illustration business, gone to grad school, and taught higher education if it were not for his work. If you’re not familiar with Hiroshi Yoshida (1876-1950), check it out on Google.

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.



I’ll be in awe of this man the rest of my life.

Printing In Japan 日本での印刷: Part 3

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’s extensive  Encyclopedia entries.

Bucket o’
conditioned brushes ready for work
An all-purpose profile shape

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.

Flattening bottom of the brush
Rounding the edges around the brush

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:

  1. Dampen the brush ends- I use a plate to pick up a few droplets of water.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. It should produce a kinda gross brown powder build-up.
  5. 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.
A detail of the denticles
The skin texture

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.

If only i would work
as well on the brush!

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:

A comparison of brush hair ends

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).

A close-up of the tapered brush hairs
A well-conditioned brush

Brush Jigs for Hanga Bake

Hanga bake
wrapped with string
Suga-san with a wrapped brush

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.

Mrs. Miyagawa, brush-maker
Brush-making tools
Full horse tails for brush hair
The brush-maker’s bench

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


A Peek at Hiroshi Yoshida’s “Junk”

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:

Plate I
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).

Plate II

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.

“A Junk”, night version

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!

If you are interested in buying a recently printed copy from Mokuhankan, click here.

Castle of Himeji by Toshi Yoshida

Toshi Yoshida, Castle of Himeji

I owe a lot to the Yoshida family, particularly Hiroshi Yoshida 1876-1950 who’s powerful color and design choices got me interested in woodblock in the early 90’s after I was struck by his work featured in The Complete Woodblock Prints of Hiroshi Yoshida. As one of the major shin-hanga artists, like Kawase Hasui 1883-1957, Hiroshi was able to take the layering of his watercolor paintings and transpose the process into woodblocks that are some of the most beautiful prints I’ve ever seen.

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