Fuji from Tago Bay

After the previous rather minimalist print, I wanted to work on something a bit more full-blooded this time! I've been trying to include a shin-hanga print in each recent album; from a living designer when I can, from a public domain source otherwise. Japanese copyright laws stipulate that works are protected for a period of 50 years after the death of the creator, so as the designer of this print - Tsuchiya Koitsu - passed away in 1949, his works may now be reproduced freely. (In recent years there has been a move - particularly in America - to legislate extensions to copyright terms; large corporations are having laws changed in order to try to hold onto their copyrights indefinitely. If this trend catches on in Japan, it will put an end to my work, at least as far as the shin-hanga genre is concerned ...)

Printing the colours on a shin-hanga design is infinitely more difficult than working with an older style of Japanese print. An ukiyo-e design is for the most part all 'visible'; the outlines are clean and sharp, and the colour areas are clearly defined. The essence of a shin-hanga design though, lies in its multiplicity of colour blends and overlays, and it can be very difficult indeed to determine just what block layout was used to make any particular print. I of course have no access to the original block set, so have to work through a sort of 'reverse engineering' process to try and establish how this print was 'built'. That is only half the challenge though, because once I have a set of blocks ready, test printing begins, and this brings with it a whole new set of decisions that must be made.

In a famous set of prints he produced in the 1920's, Hiroshi Yoshida showed how a single set of blocks could be used to make an entire series of prints of dramatically different appearance. A sunlit scene, a misty scene, a night scene ... by altering the application of pigment to the wood, all these variants could be produced. This is a blessing and a curse for the printmakers; of course the designer enjoys a wonderful flexibility, but with a literally infinite range of possibilities available - nearly all of which look beautiful - proofing can be a long (and expensive) process before a 'final' version is pinned down.

And for the printer, what a difficult job he then faces in trying to make the entire edition match the proof copy! The tiniest adjustment in the way he blends the pigments will alter the entire mood of the print ... the depth of the water, the glow in the sky, the mist ... all these things are infinitely adjustable, and extremely difficult to control. Before I started proofing work, I used the internet to inspect a number of different images of this design; these were all issued by the original publisher, at intervals of some decades apart, and were of course all printed from the block set owned by that publisher. They are hugely different - a bluish lake/a greenish lake, sunlight on the tree trunk/no sunlight on the tree trunk ... practically every part of the image is changed from sample to sample. Some of this will have been due to changing fashion as the years went by - the more modern examples are quite garish - and some will be due to the printers being not quite so careful in following a proof copy. Click here to popup a window with these images ... (the first six images are the older ones, the seventh is my version ...)

Which 'sample' did I follow? Well, none of them actually. Because the original publisher issued so many variants of this print, I myself felt quite at liberty when creating this one; I looked carefully at the block set, studied those older images for quite a long time, and then came up with what you see here. I am pretty happy with it, and almost feel I am right there at Tago Bay when I look at this ...

And that reminds me there is something else I should mention about this print - regular collectors of my work know that I usually insist that the prints in my albums look better when seen close up and held horizontally in the hand, but I have to admit that this one - based as it is on western principles of design and perspective - looks much better when placed vertically and seen from a bit of distance.

Please enjoy your trip to Tago Bay!


February 2004