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Colour Woodcuts

John Platt




The colour woodcut as a wall decoration - Notes on design - The portfolio print - conclusion.


THE kind of design appropriate to any medium arises mainly out of the technique used and the function of the finished work.

The technique of the colour-woodcut leads to a considered form of design, broad and decorative in character yet capable of much delicacy.

The main function of the colour-woodcut seems to be that of a wall picture for the room of moderate size.

Although the medium is not suitable for making individual prints larger than about quarter imperial, it lends itself to the expression of those qualities of design which make a picture effective on a wall-mass pattern made up of carefully designed yet frankly printed silhouettes of clear colour, broad yet delicate gradations, vigorous line, strong contrasts of tone, and so on. Indeed it will be found that the pictorial idiom of the colour-woodcut is remarkably in accord with the present-day interior, with its unobtrusive furniture and fittings, restrained colour, and dependence on architectural proportion rather than on ornament. The charm of the colour-woodcut lies to some extent in the beauty of the natural materials used, so these should be fully recognized and brought out in the design. Their value will be all the greater by contrast with the synthetic substances and artificial finishes with which they may be associated in a modern interior. In passing it may be mentioned that, except for this matter of synthetic products, our small modern room bears a definite resemblance in general appearance to the rooms the Japanese prints were made to decorate.



A few suggestions follow as to some of the ways in which design suitable to the 'mural' function of the colour-woodcut may be attained.

In all pictures which have a mainly decorative intention the rhythmic relation of the forms, lines, colours, and tones is strongly stressed in order to bring them into accord with equivalent rhythms in architecture. The attractiveness of the general pattern of a picture depends much on the rhythms of the mass forms, their size, shape, and disposition. The necessity in this medium for a fully realized working-drawing gives opportunity for deliberate working out of such rhythmic elements. Rhythm may come from the designer's innate sense of metrical stress, by the use of such technical methods of design as the geometrical subdivision of the picture space, by the organized sequence of tone and colour relations, by the emphasis of the calligraphic qualities arising out of the free and responsive movements of the trained hand, or by developments from the rhythm suggested by the nature and organic structure of the object portrayed. The colour-woodcut depends, not on naturalistic representation, but on rhythmic coherence.

The attitude of the artist to Nature will be selective; he will use only those aspects of natural appearances which are helpful to the expression of his conception of his subject, and will eliminate the rest.

The drawing will be of the kind which will suggest the solid form of things through an understanding of their relation to fundamental geometrical shapes, and of the anatomy and mechanics of living and organic forms.

As to subject-matter, the single-motif picture is suitable to the fundamental simplicity of the medium, though, like the sonnet, its composition is not simple. Mural value is well realized by the isolation of a single forcible and striking statement. A crowded design, including many and varied incidents, will need careful control to obtain the essential breadth.

Readability is of much importance in mural design. The selection of a typical view of each object and the avoidance of troublesome perspective and complicated overlapping will help towards this.

Clear-cut contours have great value on the wall. Any over-assertiveness in these will be guarded against by the play of sharp edge and soft gradation, and by subtlety of tone.

In order that the print may take its place quietly on the wall and be in accord with the unity of the wall surface the recession within the picture will be strictly controlled, and limited to few and clearly defined planes. Gradations permit planes to emerge from or retreat into the background with breadth and simplicity.

The expression of a colour scheme under the conditions of printing from a limited number of blocks, and from flat surfaces cut on the plank, makes for orderly control, clear statement, and the reiteration of a few selected pigments, all qualities tending to mural character in colour. Attractive surface quality is given to the pigments by the wood and soft paper.

If shadows are used it should be because they form part of the design, not because they might chance to be there in Nature. Likewise any shading produced by gradations should be used to express volume and solidity, not to attempt to imitate 'light and shade effects'.

The tone scheme should be planned in relation to the panel as a whole, not be dictated by the lighting of the objects. The eye should be led over the picture, from one point of interest to another, by a rhythmic sequence of tones. This scheme of light, half-tone, and dark is so important to a design that it is worth while making a monochrome rendering of the design for its special consideration.

Although gradations are so readily and beautifully produced in this medium, they should be used sparingly or the design will be weakened. It should be realized that the gradation suited to the colour-woodcut process is an intensification, not a change of colour. Each different colour is printed from its own block. Blending two colours on one block introduces a 'painting' technique contrary to the directness of printing. For the same reason no attempt should be made to 'model' a form by following round a varied contour with the brush. The wide brush should be taken straight across the printing surface. Gradations which cannot be obtained by this straightforward method should be avoided; they will only result in vulgarity of effect.

The scale of the design will be largely determined by the mass forms. The use of plank and knife leads to large, bold forms useful in mural decoration but these need to be associated with smaller and refined forms in order to keep the work in scale. The scale should not approach that of a poster, which is intended to be effective out of doors.



For both traditional and practical reasons the Japanese almost invariably relied upon the use of line in their designs. Their early prints were translations of brush-made line drawings in Chinese ink, so a tradition of line treatment remained. Moreover the key-line was a technical necessity in the production of their prints to ensure that the component parts of a colour-print designed by one artist, but cut by several hands, should register when assembled in the final print. Neither of these conditions applies to us to-day. We do not inherit their tradition of line treatment, nor is a key-line technically necessary when the artist cuts his own designs. However, as an expressive and varied line is readily obtained, it is appropriate for it to form part of the design, according to the subject arid treatment. It is too valuable a resource to be neglected and the artist should make himself practically acquainted with its use. The line may be a main element in the design, or no more than a few accents of drawing, but whichever it is, the line block should never be a thing complete in itself; it must leave a due share of the design to be expressed by the subsequent blocks or either it or they will appear redundant.



We have a free hand as to the use or omission of line. This will be decided by the personal preferences of the artist. In certain modern European colour-woodcuts and in some Chinese examples (probably made as copies of paintings, but nevertheless useful to note) the key-line is omitted. I sometimes substitute what I call a 'key-mass' (see 'The Red Bull', Plate V, and 'Lapwings', Plate XIX). This tends to produce a kind of design suitable to the medium. Incidentally it may also serve the purpose of transferring the design from block to block during cutting.

Where line is omitted, solidity and interior drawing are supplied by the introduction of tones to emphasize changes of plane (see 'Two Monkeys ', front).

Whether line is used or not, on the whole the design should consist of an assembly of flat patches of colour, as happens naturally when the plank is used for printing.

Lines or forms, cut out of the colour masses, are a valuable means of obtaining interior drawing ('The Jetty', Plate II, and 'The Horse', Plate XVII) and pattern effects ('The Echoing Shore', Plate III).



Apart from its use as a framed picture the colour-woodcut offers opportunities for further development as a print for the portfolio collection, on a finer scale and specially accentuating the great refinement possible in the medium. All the materials used are attractive in themselves. The paper, made from the young shoots of the mulberry or willow, has a silky yet matte surface. This, being soft and absorbent, is further enhanced in quality by the variety resulting from the different pressures required in printing, and by the imprint of the grain of the cherrywood blocks. The use of powder colours, mixed with the simplest of vehicles, allows the nature of the actual pigments to be realized, and gold and silver can be introduced. The cutting of line and patterns can be of great delicacy. In the portfolio print, held in the hand, without the obstruction of glass, such qualities can be fully appreciated. These prints should aim to satisfy the desire we have for things which show expert and ungrudging care in their finish and would be somewhat similar in their intention to the exquisite Japanese surimono prints.



The colour-woodcut has its own contribution to make to the progress of art in our time. Its great past was in Japan, but the aesthetic impulse to which this was due is long since expended. Our design, in any case, could not be developed on lines alien to our Western outlook and contemporary environment. The revival of a past tradition in design, even in the land of its origin, is an uncertain venture, whilst in a different time and country a fresh start is absolutely necessary. Nevertheless the great tradition of high achievement behind the colour-woodcut medium should give the artist confidence to see what he himself can do in it. He can advisedly study the Japanese prints for those universal principles of pictorial design which were realized and expressed so effectively in the East, only taking care to distinguish between what is universal and what is particular to racial outlook. In addition he should study all forms of art, of whatever nation or time, which are specially mural in character, such as fresco, early heraldry, low relief sculpture, as well as those works of contemporary art which are concerned with the expression of aesthetic ideas held in common with the colour-woodcut.

On the technical side there is nothing alien in the use of plank, knife, and wide brush, and there seems little need for deviation from the methods of cutting and printing perfected by the Japanese, and by which such beautiful results were obtained.

The development of the colour-woodcut with us depends on our keeping in mind two things: (1) the opportunities offered by its technique for a fresh interpretation of Nature and the expression of contemporary thought in art; and (2) the presentation of these in pictorial form in accord with our rooms and architecture. If its design is approached with the intention of properly exploiting the innate character of the materials and processes used, the essential style natural to it will emerge. True style is developed from personal practice in a medium. It is the artist who is engaged in the practical operations of cutting and printing his own designs, necessarily exploring and experimenting, who may hope, through the insight thus attained, to discover new forms of loveliness and to establish and develop a growing tradition.


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