Ichikawa Danjuro

How could I have come this far in my Surimono Album series - well into the fourth year - without making a kabuki print!? When you consider that prints of actors were one of the most popular of all ukiyo-e genres, it seems that I have been somewhat remiss by ignoring them until now. But perhaps there is enough life and energy in this print to more than make up for my oversight!

Even if the actor's name wasn't inscribed on the print, nobody with any knowledge of the kabuki theatre could be in any doubt at all as to just who we are looking at - the large 'mon' (actor's crest) in the shape of three concentric squares tells us that this is the famous Ichikawa Danjuro. Ukiyo-e researchers seem to be divided as to whether this is Danjuro I or II, just as they are divided as to the identity of the man who designed this print. Some say Kiyonobu, some say Kiyomasu ...

I don't have too much interest in such details. We know next to nothing about any of the men of that era, so which particular person's name we attribute the print to just doesn't mean much - all that matters is that one day, some particular man sat down at his workspace, picked up his brush, and in a few quick strokes, created this masterpiece - a simple, but extremely vivid design.

I wish that I could say 'a few quick strokes' for my part in making this print! As usual, I kept my internet webcam running while I was working, and I received a number of emails from friends asking pretty much the same thing: "Dave, what are you doing? Why are you painting instead of printing?" Yes, the colours you see on this print are not applied in the usual way by being printed with a baren from carved blocks, but instead are painted on with a brush. I haven't given up woodblock printmaking - it is simply that this print is from an era (the early 1700s) that predates the introduction of colour printing. It is the type known as tan-e (red picture). The black outlines of the image are carved and printed in the usual way, and once that part of the work is done, the colours are then painted on.

Of course I kept to the original techniques when making this reproduction. I knew when I started that I was in for a long month's work, and I was right - painting in all the colours by hand takes far longer than printing them on. Many of the old tan-e are quite roughly and quickly made - the colours are just roughly smeared on. But the print that I reproduced is made quite carefully; the colours don't fit exactly within the outlines, but they are close. So I too had to work to that same standard, and it was a long haul.

As far as possible, I used pigments that matched those that would have been used on the original. For the yellow I used the pigment known as seki-o, and for the red, actual tan. Both of these pigments will alter considerably as time passes; even over the first few months there will be a change in the appearance of this print, and you will be able to see it take on a more pleasing tone quite soon.

These pigments are also quite poisonous, containing sulphur, arsenic, and lead, among other things. You the owner don't have to worry about this, as these poisons will not be released into the air from the paper, but I had to be somewhat careful to avoid excessive contact when working with them. They are very difficult to obtain these days, as they can no longer be simply purchased in a shop, and I was lucky to have been given some small quantities of them by some other printers.

It has been an interesting experience making this print; step by step I am getting familiar with all the wide variety of traditional printmaking techniques. Am I nearly 'there'? Not at all ... I have decades of learning still to go!


July 2002