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Colour Woodcuts

John Platt





Introductory - need for artist's colour print medium - colour woodcut compared with other printing media used by artists


OWING, no doubt, to the changing conditions of our time - the smaller houses, the tendency to mobility in the middle-class world, the spread of education and of artistic appreciation - there has been for some years an increasing demand for fine prints, such as etchings or wood-engravings. The output has been considerable, and the best of it has attained a very high standard. But these are monochrome media, and both artists and the discerning public have felt, increasingly, the need for a medium in which the artist can produce prints in colour.

Appreciation of the value of colour is a marked feature of the present time, and the modern room calls for fresh and telling colour in pictures to enrich it and yet be in accord with the simplicity and severity of its decoration.

The artist's public, that is those who can appreciate and wish to possess personal works of art, has much increased of late years. There is now a greater demand for forms of art capable of duplication by the artist himself, and so saleable at a lower figure than the highly priced individual painting, yet possessing aesthetic qualities setting them entirely apart from mere machine-made reproductions.

Several media for producing prints in colour have been tried, but none so far has been the corresponding success in its way that monochrome prints have been in theirs. A serious handicap to these colour media is that they are printed in oily printing-inks, which give very little beauty of surface. The colour-woodcut produced from wood blocks in the Japanese method is an exception. Here the fine powder colours are mixed with rice paste (a water medium) and so remain transparent, and are absorbed into the fabric of the soft fibrous paper, instead of remaining on the surface like a varnish, as does printing-ink. This in itself gives a vibration and a greater beauty to the actual colours; moreover the surface of the paper is unobscured and actually enhanced. The decorative value and pictorial power of Japanese colour-prints are unquestioned. They undoubtedly had a great influence on French art of the latter part of the nineteenth century. Indeed, the aesthetic principles they state so freshly and clearly have now become part of our Western artistic heritage, Of late years the growing need for a colour-print medium has led to a widespread interest in their technique. All essential investigation has now been made, and the materials and tools may be readily obtained.

Mr. F. Morley Fletcher, to whom we owe the arduous spade-work which has made this medium available, says: "I know of no other kind of art which has the same telling value on a wall, or the same decorative charm in modern domestic rooms as the wood-block print. A single print well placed in a room of quiet colour will enrich and dominate a whole wall."

This handbook gives a detailed, practical description of the method of work and the materials used; also an analysis of the qualities arising out of the technique which determines the type of design suitable to this medium. The colour-woodcut has great possibilities for the practising artist, and he may find in it a means of expressing his own ideas and producing works of art of a kind eminently suited to contemporary conditions.

In European art, etching and engraving rank with painting and sculpture; but as yet no school of colour printing of equal achievement has arisen. In the East, however, there flourished a school of colour printing which included among its productions some of the world's masterpieces. I need only mention the 'Awabi Fishers' by Utamaro and 'Fuji above the Lightning' by Hokusai for it to be clear that the colour-woodcut is capable of the highest forms of creative expression in art.

There is nothing in the medium itself that should make its productions in the least alien or oriental. Its qualities are those resulting from the use of plank and knife, and are not in any way incompatible with the Western outlook and tradition in art. It just happened that in the West our scientific bias led artists in their prints to a preoccupation with form. They expressed themselves in line and shading rather than in colour and surface pattern. Compare a Durer with a Kiyonaga. In the East the artists' aims were not so complicated by scientific or representational considerations, and they were free to develop a more abstract form of art. This more abstract attitude is now increasingly usual in Western art, and a development of a medium such as the colour-woodcut may be expected in order to embody this tendency.

The forms of printing in colour which have been developed in the West are the mechanical trade methods, such as the three-colour process. But these are not, and cannot be, artists' media; nothing can ever be invented by means of them, they can only make reproductions of a picture thought out in another medium and, owing to the usual reduction in size, a falsification of scale results, which discounts their value. They have no character of their own, whilst what the artist needs is a medium with a marked character which he can explore and exploit. A work of art cannot exist without this emphasis of its character; it is the translation of the subject-matter into the language of the medium.


The very first practical step which must be taken by anyone who wishes to produce colour-woodcuts is to get a clear realization of the characteristics which grow out of the way they are made. Considerable variety of treatment is indeed possible; nevertheless, to think that a work of art will result from making a facsimile in one medium of a picture conceived and carried out in another is fundamentally unsound. To use the colour-woodcut to reproduce, for instance, a finished water-colour is entirely to miss the real opportunities of the medium, and block the way to true development.

In whatever medium the artist is working, he surrenders his design to its technique and bases the 'treatment' on what it does best. This is evident if we examine for a moment some other printing media.

In a wood-engraving, a graver is used on the end grain of the wood. (A clear distinction must be made between it and the woodcut, which is done with a knife on the plank.) The natural use of the graver is to produce a white line with one stroke. The knife used in the woodcut does not spontaneously produce a line; its use more naturally leads to the definition of a mass. In wood-engraving all half-tone masses must be produced by engraving away lines or dots. This, together with its solid blacks and pure whites, produces its rich ornamental character.

In line engraving, the line is incised on metal with a graver, but the process of printing produces a black, instead of a white, line leading directly to the modelling of form by means of shading lines. Its character therefore tends to the sculpturesque. Local colour is usually ignored.

In etching, the line as first drawn is of uniform width throughout, but areas of lines can be darkened during the process of biting. Delicacy of draughtsmanship and suggestion of detail are characteristic of etching. As in line engraving, all tone masses used must be built up of a multitude of lines.

The characteristic of aquatint, though it is technically allied to etching, is its use of a range of directly printed flat tones, so here mass design effects are appropriate.

Lithography in monochrome or colour expresses remarkably closely the artist's personal handling. Its greatest charm is shown when subject and treatment preserve this spontaneous personal touch.

In the light of this brief review of the pictorial qualities which result from the technique of various printing media, it will be seen that, both in his selection of subject-matter and in his manner of expressing it, the artist will be guided by what will fully utilize the particular characteristics of his chosen medium, and he will rigidly exclude effects which are unsuitable to it.

The characteristics of the colour-woodcut may now be examined.

The method of making a colour-woodcut is, in its essentials, quite simple. The design is cut on the plank with a knife, the parts which are to print, whether line or mass, being left in relief, and the rest of the plank surface slightly hollowed away with a gouge. Each colour is printed from a separate block, the pigments being applied with a thick, wide brush, and impressions obtained on absorbent paper by hand pressure, rubbing with a round, flat pad. The essential characteristic of the colour woodcut is that it is made up of shapes of flat or gradated colour, emphasized when desired by line.

The colour masses being defined with a knife on the surface of a plank, have a clear-cut decisiveness of form. Colour and tone masses are produced direct without the use of hatched lines; in fact, any use of shading lines destroys the beauty of the medium. The surface of the paper, being unobscured by the transparent pigment, and showing a slight imprint of the grain of the plank, retains a natural quality of surface (see pages 35 and 38). A full palette of colour is available, and the tone may range from untouched paper to the rich black of Chinese ink.

Gradations of colour over wide areas are readily produced (note sea in 'Mullion Cove', Plate VI), and have a directness and spontaneity unique to this medium. Enveloping effects of light and atmosphere can be beautifully suggested by these gradations, and the relief of one plane from another (see 'Brixham Town', Plate I, and 'Two Shells', Plate XVIII). The clean-cut character of the flat colour masses leads to a definiteness of form; the gradations provide a gracious element.

The line, being cut with a knife first on one side then on the other, may be made of peculiar value in expressing form; the outside cut emphasizes the general shape, the inside cut can express interior modelling.

The width of the line can be varied to any extent and is thus essentially different from the line produced by a single stroke of the graver or etching needle. Moreover, it can be printed in a range of tones from the palest grey to black, or in colour (see 'The Echoing Shore', Plate III).

From the foregoing it will be seen that in the colour-woodcut we may expect a telling and dignified type of design and powerful colour combined with unusual delicacy of surface. It induces the use of typical form rather than accidental, and an abstract rather than a realistic attitude towards Nature.

In order to realize to the full what can be done in the colour-woodcut, the intending colour printer should make himself familiar with the masterpieces of this medium. This he can best do by spending some time in the Department of Prints and Drawings at the British Museum - studying the work of the great Japanese masters of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. Up to the present the most complete mastery and understanding of the medium has been demonstrated by the Japanese. Among the colour-print artists of the great period, examine first the work of Harunobu, Kiyonaga, Sharaku, Utamaro, and Hokusai.

Work by contemporary colour-woodcut artists may also be studied, in the original, at the British Museum, in the Print Room at the Victoria and Albert Museum, and in many municipal collections.

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