Yoshida - Japanese Woodblock Printing : Chapter III : Part III

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Japanese Wood-block Printing

Hiroshi Yoshida




The paper constitutes an important part of the print. It is always used sized. There are two main kinds that we use: hosho and torinoko (hodomura). The best hosho, invariably with rough edges called mimi-tsuki, comes from Otaki in Fukui Prefecture. The place has an old tradition. Hosho is made from the bark of kozo (paper mulberry). There is a part, perhaps on the inside of the bark, which is of a darker colour and remains in the finished paper. The paper cannot free itself from these dark particles. Even the best of hosho contains them, only in less degree. But if bleaching is attempted with chemicals the quality of the hosho will deteriorate. Hosho is best suited for prints; so much so that hardly anything else has been used in Japan for this purpose from early times. It has excellent qualities; it is comparatively free from shrinkage and expansion. It is soft, yet strong, thus allowing the pigments to be driven into it, and enabling the artist to rub it many times without damaging it.

The fibre is longer than that in gampi; thus the paper has the fibre well arranged lengthwise. The one flaw in the fibre, the discoloured part, may happen to come in the face of the figure printed. In that case the print may be depreciated in value, but it cannot be helped; the paper must. be used as it comes.

In making the paper, the material in its fluid form is kept in a tank, out of which the necessary amount for making a sheet of paper is dipped into a frame receptacle. This receptacle is rocked backward and forward across the width of the receptacle. Thus the fibre runs crosswise of the paper. This sheet of paper is cut into halves for an ordinary sized print. So the fibre runs lengthwise in ordinary sized paper known as minoban (14 5/8 x 9 7/8 in.). The fibre of the paper runs in the same direction as the grain of the wood in the block, and the baren is used in the same general direction, being moved in the direction of the fibre of the bamboo-sheath with which it is covered.

Torinoko is made mainly from the bark of gampi (Wikstroemia) or of mitsumata (Edgeworthia chrysantha) and is too hard for ordinary prints. In order to make it suitable for prints foreign matter must be mixed with it. Sometimes wood pulp is added. The result is not quite satisfactory, because pulp remains flattened when once pressed; it does not resume its original condition as hosho does. Sometimes particles of "Manila" (fragments of ships' rigging) are mixed to give the necessary softness.

The pigment does not sink as much into torinoko as it does into hosho, as may be ascertained by scratching the surface. The print looks even better on torinoko than on hosho immediately after the printing. But the colour on hosho improves with time, while that on torinoko remains the same.

Torinoko comes in a larger size than hosho; so it is useful for large blocks. It is widely used for etchings, and can be obtained in various thicknesses. Torinoko of medium thickness is used for the colour plates inserted in this book.

Masa, hosokawa and takenaga are kinds of hosho, only cheaper. Minogami is thin.

Foreign paper is not suitable for our purpose. Kent is smooth but too hard and the pigment cannot be driven into it. Whatman paper is rough and the pigment does not stick to the paper uniformly. It is also too hard, and the rough surface cannot be made smooth with the baren. Since these papers are too hard, when the pigment is pressed, it spreads on the surface instead of sinking into the paper. Cheap paper, such as "cotton," may be mentioned as an exception.

Foreign paper shrinks and expands very greatly with moisture. In Japan extra caution is necessary during the tsuyu (wet season), which generally comes in June. It is at that time that bad spots occur on the prints. Spots generally come when the dosa gets spoiled. Even Whatman is affected by a similar trouble in Japan; paper so affected is said by Japanese artists to have "caught cold."

Mimi-tsuki (paper with uncut edges) is generally characterized as good paper; the natural edges are preserved for beauty. Cheaper ones have their edges trimmed.

Silk mounted on paper has been tried, but found unsatisfactory. The pigment does not sink into it; it goes in between the warp and weft, and not into the silk itself. Silk has a sheen of its own even with pigment applied and this prevents the sheen of the colour from showing to advantage. Somehow colour does not look well on silk.



It has been said that the pigments used in the Edo regime were better than ours and that some of them are no longer obtainable. This is not so, according to my judgment; it is the way the pigments were used that produced the excellent colours found in the prints of the Edo Period.

Generally speaking, powder pigments have been found satisfactory. The transparent ones are the best. The body colours are also used, though they are not so good, because not all the colours are obtainable in transparent or semi-transparent form. The body colour may be used first and the transparent one on top of it in order to obtain satisfactory results.

Mineral pigments are not good for our purpose, for they do not sink into the paper.

Some powders are readily soluble in water, but others take a long time. Some do not dissolve in water; in this case use alcohol and then add water. Glycerine is used in water-colour painting and oil is mixed in oil painting, but in prints the pigments must be used pure, though mixed with paste on the block.

Printing ink is far from being good, except for kyogo. It contains oil and some kind of dryer and when it dries the colour becomes less beautiful. Furthermore, the oil spreads over the paper, discolouring it. For the purpose of thinning the colour, white may be added to the pigment. This too has a tendency to minimize the beauty of the colour.

Some young print-artists use oil paints in their work. It is easier to print with oil colour, for it does not easily dry up, and one can manipulate it on the block before printing. But the oil blurs on the paper, and though this can be remedied by benzine the colour loses the moistened effect of oil.

Dye, being a chemical compound, is undesirable. The colour may be attractive at first, but it penetrates the paper and has a tendency to disappear finally. The ordinary pigment can be pressed into the paper in printing to about half the thickness, but dye penetrates to the underside, and only a little remains on the surface.

When powdered water-colour pigments are used on prints the colour effects improve with time. They improve not in the manner often described in speaking of the old prints, viz., the improvement of colour harmony which comes from the fading or disappearance of undesirable tints. Here the mellowness, or the brightness of the colour, seems to be emphasized mainly by the disappearance of dosa from the paper.

The pigments that have been found to be the best from experience in painting are also good on prints. However, one observation may be made regarding the treatment of the pigment. It is necessary to use the pigment on wet paper, and to keep it from being exposed to the air for several days during the process of printing. Sometimes the colour may grow musty from the heat in the wet season, or the colour may be "eaten" up by rotting dosa, causing spots. Certain colours are affected in this way. Some pigments, therefore, should be used only at the last stage, just before the prints are to be dried.

Ki-wo, seki-wo (yellow) is obtained from sulphur and arsenic, and it is opaque, and so when printed over another colour it obliterates the other colour. It often shows spots of burn. These spots are the result of chemical action on the pigment of the oil transmitted from the back of the paper by the baren.

Shi-wo (gamboge) is a sort of pitch from tree-bark and is poisonous. It has a tendency to burn. Because of this, I refrain from using it.

Airo (indigo) is better than the blue that comes from India. The latter is too dark, but the former is clear with an element of brightness. This was the pigment used in the Edo Period, and it is still to be had in Japan. It comes in paste form, made by boiling old rags originally dyed with indigo.

Beni (pink) taken from flowers, is very effective when used for flowers, though very difficult to use. It should first be dissolved in the juice of half dried ume (Japanese plum). But the colour so obtained is not certain, for it sometimes changes its tint or fades.

Madder - pink madder, rose madder, or deep madder - of foreign importation may be used as substitute.

Shu, Chinese vermilion, is excellent. It contains quicksilver.

Benigara is rather poor. It is made of ryoku-ban, sulphate of iron.

Taisha (red ochre) is good.

Tan red is made from lead, shoseki (saltpeter) and sulphur; the tone changes slightly afterward. It first has a yellowish tint which changes to a brown.

Zumi, taken from tree bark, is brownish-yellow first and deepens afterward, but remains transparent.

Ukon is a pleasing saffron, but is no longer used; it fades too much.

Kuchinashi, yellow from Gardenia florida, seems to have been used, but is seldom used now. Good yellow is difficult to obtain.

Sumi (black) and gofun (white), secured in Japan, are both good. White is often mixed into, the body colour. This gives the effect of having been printed many times over. But by mixing white with it a colour becomes opaque, even if a transparent colour is used. Black made from lampsoot or soot gathered from the smoke of fresh pine-needles has been used from ancient times in Japan as well as in China.

There are many foreign pigments in use, such as vermilion, carmine, light red (like taisha), cobalt, ultramarine, indigo, cadmium (pale, medium, etc.), viridian, all of which may be used. And in addition there are other pigments which artists may wish to try.

For deep brown, sepia, umber, sienna, etc. are used and generally with good results. These pigments may be mixed and used on prints without decreasing their value.

Different countries produce excellent pigments peculiar to themselves: blue from Persia, red from China, black and white from Japan, carmine from South America, etc. Someone told me in India that good yellow might be obtained from a cow after feeding her with mango-tree leaves. I have not been able to obtain such colour.

Constant care is necessary in trying to get rid of any blemish from the colours used. Whenever any undesirable symptoms are discovered, I have always tried to find the real cause by suitable experiments so as to avoid the repetition of these failures.



Paste is made from rice flour. Fine rice flour is kept in water over night, and with a suitable amount of water it is heated over a slow fire; it needs continuous stirring until it begins to boil. When cooked it finally turns translucent, but just before it turns entirely translucent, while there still remain some whitish parts, it should be taken off the fire. That is the stage in which the starch paste is the strongest. When it becomes too thick it can be diluted with water to a suitable consistency just before using. It should be sufficiently fluid so that it can be poured into another vessel, and when an amount less than the tip of the thumb will adhere to the end of a stick.

For printing a mino size (14 5/8 x 9 7/8 in.) block in tsubushi the amount of paste required will be less in volume than an inch of an ordinary cigarette.

Paste has a tendency to contract the paper, and it is best not to use too much of it. Rather it should be used in small quantity each time the impression is made. If on the one hand, a strong adherence of pigment is not required, only a tiny bit of it will be sufficient.

The starch paste gives a thickness to the pigment which will force it into paper when pressed in printing. It also helps in printing, for the paper sticks to the block better, thus keeping it secure on the block when the back of the paper is rubbed with the baren in printing.

When paste is mixed with pigment, the print shows a clear, uniform, deep colouring. Without it, the colour on the print is likely to give a porous effect, a dry, granular texture, known as goma (sesame). As long as the colour in the brush is sufficient, the starch paste is not added. It is added only when fresh pigment is put on the brush or on the block.


Sizing (Dosa)

In summer thick sizing is necessary, but in winter thinner sizing is sufficient. Dosa is prepared by boiling glue and alum in water in the following proportion: glue about thirty-three ounces and alum about fourteen ounces, boiled in about four gallons of water. This is the proportion for preparing the standard dosa for the top side of the hosho paper.

This dosa is spread over the top side of the paper with a broad hake, or Japanese brush, and is dried by hanging it on a line. When the paper is dried, the underside of it is treated in the same way. The sizing on the underside may have to be thinner or thicker, according to the condition of the paper after applying dosa to the top side, and also according to the particular requirement at the time; that is, the paper should be strengthened with thick dosa, if a great number of printings have to be made on it. The sizing on the top side is to allow the pigments to stick to the paper uniformly; that on the back is to protect the surface and facilitate the rubbing by the baren. So if the work of the baren is to be repeated very many times, resizing may be required before the printing is finished. Fine days should be chosen for applying dosa to the hosho paper; rainy days should be avoided. It is impossible to print on hosho without dosa. The paper sticks to the block, and the baren will not move smoothly on the back, but will damage the paper.

When it is necessary to apply dosa again on account of repeated printings the print must be first dried, then the dosa put on, and the print allowed to dry before moistening it to make it ready for the printing.

Fusuma, a kind of torinoko paper, contains something that acts like dosa. But if fine work is to be done, dosa should, be applied, but diluted about four times; that is, add four parts of water to one of dosa prepared as described above.

There is great difficulty experienced in applying dosa evenly on the paper. The same dosa may be applied to a set of papers, but according to the speed used in drawing the brush across the paper, a great difference will be shown in the result.



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