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About The Asian reporter. (Portland, Or.) 1991-current | View This Issue
ASIA / PACIFIC
March 7, 2016
THE ASIAN REPORTER n Page 3
When in Tokyo, try making a Japanese woodblock print
By Linda Lombardi
The Associated Press
ou probably know what an ukiyo-e
print looks like, even if you don’t
recognize the term.
“The Great Wave Off Kanagawa” by
Katsushika Hokusai is a familiar image
around the world, a premier example of a
Japanese art form that turns up on mugs
and t-shirts as well as museum walls.
For me, a few museum posters bought in
high school and preserved like precious
relics gradually evolved into an obsession
with Japanese culture. So when I heard
there was a place in Tokyo where I could
make an ukiyo-e print myself, I had to try
David Bull, who moved from Canada to
Japan in 1986 to become a printmaker,
owns the Mokuhankan studio and offers
“print parties” to tourists.
When I arrived, I knew we weren’t going
to start with anything as complex as
Hokusai’s wave. Bull provides a simple
design for beginners. But the basics are the
same: These multicolored prints are made
by using a different woodblock to apply
For this to work, you need to line the
piece of paper up perfectly each time. I
couldn’t help thinking of those screen-
protector films you put on a phone, when
you get just one chance to line it up
correctly. I can’t usually do that right. How
was I going to do this again and again on
the same sheet of paper?
There’s a method to it of course. Each
woodblock has two shallow notches or slots
carved along the bottom of the design as
guides: a straight line on the left and a
corner on the right.
But all of your instincts — or mine, at
least — are wrong, as I found when I
picked up the first piece of paper from the
stack between my thumb and forefinger.
You’re supposed to hold it between your
first two fingers. And if you think that’s
awkward, wait until you hear what Bull
TEACHING TRADITION. A professional
printmaker (left photo) demonstrates the method of
rubbing paper on a woodblock (right photo) with a
flat stone in the Mokuhankan print studio in Asakusa,
Tokyo. Mokuhankan offers tourists a hands-on experi-
ence making a simple Japanese woodblock print us-
ing traditional methods. (Linda Lombardi via AP)
told me next: Don’t look! We’re not going to
do this by sight. Your thumb needs to be
free to cover the carved notch on the right,
so you can’t see it. You slide the paper in,
determining by touch that it’s snug
against the carved angle, and lay the paper
down over the whole block.
I practiced that on each block, and Bull
said we were ready. Laid out on the work
surface were some pretty little bowls with
brushes in them, containing pigment and
paste. First, you drop a glob of paste onto
the block’s surface. Then stir up the
pigment and brush some on. Mix them
together right on the block with a little
We started with red because it’s easy to
see when the pigment and paste are mixed
and ready; with the others, you just have to
trust it when the block looks shiny and
wet. Then we got the sheet of paper and
put it down.
Once the paper was in place, I picked up
a round, flat stone with a handle and
rubbed the paper hard. Since each color
may be used on different parts of the print,
there’s an example of each block posted on
the wall so you know what spots to cover.
We were making an edition of three
prints, so with the first block I printed
three sheets of red. I put them between
pieces of Styrofoam to keep them moist.
Bull moistens the paper the night before
and it expands a little; if it dries up, the
design won’t line up right.
You can put the prints on top of each
other immediately without worrying that
the ink will smear or stick. “That’s the real
difference between Japanese printmaking
and western,” said Bull: With many west-
ern prints, the paper is the carrier of the
ink; here, the paper is actually embedded
with the pigment.
When we moved on to the second block,
with blue, I lined one up wrong. Bull
reminded me that even the professionals
“The first three per day never make it to
the shop floor,” he said. “They’re like a
warmup — that’s your excuse to the boss.”
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We did the black outline of the design
last. The black ink tends to splatter, so
Bull had me put on an apron. The scrubby
brush to mix this ink on the block has
shorter bristles, so it’s easy to get it on your
fingers. To prevent smudging, you have to
stop and make sure your fingers are clean.
The professional printmakers in the
back of Bull’s shop print the black ink first,
but it needs to dry overnight. So with
novices like me, the order is reversed to let
us experience the whole process in one
We also used only four blocks — the
professionals that day were working on a
print that required 30 different
impressions — and less expensive paper.
Otherwise, we used real materials and
an authentic division of labor.
“It’s the old ukiyo-e quartet,” Bull said:
the boss, the designer, the carver, and the
printer. He is both boss and carver for this
shop, but insists, “I’m not an artist.”
“The guy directing the movie, he’s not a
screenwriter,” Bull said by way of compari-
son. “This way, you have consummate
professionals at every stage.”
Even without being a consummate
professional, it was fascinating for me to
get a taste of the method.
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