Part One - A suitable design

Although it certainly is possible to start carving directly onto a piece of wood without any prior planning, we are going to use a more controlled approach in these pages. The kind of print we are going to make is of the same type as the traditional Japanese ukiyo-e; it will have a 'key block' that carries the basic design elements, and this will be accompanied by a number of 'colour blocks' to fill in the spaces with colour tints. Of course this doesn't mean that your design has to be a 'Japanese' design, simply that we are going to follow their traditional technique ...

A simple introduction to the basic concepts involved in this 'key block / colour block' technique can be found in this section of the Encyclopedia (use your 'Back' button to return here after reading it ...)

The key block defines the entire print, and selection of a suitable design is very important. What makes a design 'suitable' for making a woodblock print of this type?

  1. It is simple and clean
  2. The major 'masses' are clearly defined with outlines
  3. It has no fine delicate lines

Sample printLet's look at these points with reference to our sample print.

  1. simple and clean: there is quite a lot of 'empty' space in the design; it is not cluttered with unnecessary detail.
  2. major 'masses' are clearly defined: the distant hills ... the roof of the yellow temple ... are all drawn with the bare minimum of strokes.
  3. no fine lines: Actually the balcony railings are a bit too delicate for a 'first' print, but in the rest of the print, delicate lines have to a large extent been avoided - there are no small branches in the trees, and no textures on the faces of the buildings for example.

Which is a more important 'element' in the final print - the design itself, or the colour? It's hard to say; the two elements seem quite evenly balanced. But an important point to be made is that if you take away the colours, the design still 'works'.


This is one of the fundamentals of this 'key block / colour block' kind of print. Of course it is certainly possible to make woodblock prints in other ways, but in this traditional method, the design comes first (and can stand on its own) while the colour comes after. In fact as we shall see later, it is possible to produce a whole group of quite different prints (morning scene, evening scene, night scene, etc.) from one set of carved blocks. So although you may certainly be thinking about the colours you will use in the print, such details do not come into the 'recipe' at the point of creating your design and getting it ready for carving.

The preliminary sketches can be done in any method you wish - with pencil, brush, or even a camera ... Once your design is basically worked out, it is then necessary to 'clean it up' and produce the master tracing that will be used to guide the carving. This tracing contains only the main outlines of the image - no colours, no shadings, nothing but the lines themselves.

It must be prepared on a clean sheet of fairly thin paper ... but let's head to the next page to learn more ...