Viewing Woodblock Prints (entry by David Bull)

Do you know how to look at woodblock prints? I have been surprised to find that most people do not know how to look at prints, so whenever I send out some of my prints to new collectors, I make sure that I include instructions on how to look at them.

I suppose you think I am being a bit silly, explaining how to look at something as simple as a woodblock print, but it is a very important point indeed. Many people put their prints into frames and hang them on a wall, but if you do this, the only thing you will be able to see is the artist's design. Eh? But isn't that the whole idea - to see the artist's design?

Yes, of course the design is important. But to see only the design, is to miss most of the beauty of the print. Woodblock prints, unlike art such as watercolour paintings, are not made by a single person; they are produced by a group of people - designer, carver, printer, paper maker, paper sizer, knife maker, 'baren' maker, pigment grinder ... The work of all these people is visible in the finished print - but only if you look at it properly! Stuck up on a wall, hidden behind glass, with the bright room lights glaring on it, the real beauty of a print is completely hidden. Come with me, and let's step back in time a hundred years, and learn how to see the beauty of a print ...


We are in a tatami room, seated on cushions in front of a low table. There is no electric light hanging from the ceiling overhead. The only illumination in the room is the natural light radiating from the closed shoji screens that face us across the table, on which, bathed in this soft light, is a woodblock print.

Look, there in the open areas of the print where there are no colours - now you can see the textured surface of the 'washi', not just blank white space. Look, there in that area of smooth colour, now you can see how the pigments have been absorbed deeply into the body of the paper, and don't just sit on the surface. Look, there at the edge of that carved line - now you can see the shadow that shows where the printer's baren pressed the paper onto the carved block. Now can you see the beauty of this woodblock print?


This is the way to look at your prints, with a soft illumination falling horizontally across the surface of the paper; all overhead lights must be turned off. Only then can you understand that no matter how skillful the designer may have been, without the cooperation of all those other skilled craftsmen, his design could never 'live'.

So please try this with your prints. The Edo-era which saw the birth of the Japanese woodblock print is long gone, but I know that every electric light in your home has an 'off' switch. Please take my suggestion - I know you won't be disappointed.