In the days long before the convenience of offset printing and the sophisticated inkjet technology of Giclée prints, artists who wanted to create more than one copy of an artwork had to utilize printmaking techniques that were often elaborate and time consuming, though somewhat less so than creating multiple originals.
These days many of these same processes are still used by artists who make works involving multiple copies, both to set them apart from the more commercial process of having images of the work reproduced by photomechanical printing, and because they have a passion for the printmaking process itself, in spite of the work involved.
I suspect that love of the process accounts for a lot in the case of Tokyo based woodblock printer David Bull, who works in the painstaking methods of traditional Japanese woodblock prints.
In addition to his own work as a printmaker, Bull has created an maintains an extensive website at woodblock.com.
The opening page of the site is arranged to allow you to access the multiple facets of the site, involving different projects, as though they were different, independent websites. I found this arrangement a bit confusing, and to me his “front page” makes a better entry point and serves the purpose of a more traditional home page, with introductory material and more thorough navigation.
Those already interested in printmaking, if they aren’t already familiar with the site, will find hours worth of material to get lost in, both about Bull’s own work and technique and more general features, including a “Woodblock RoundTable” (discussions of the process in a blog format), a mini-site devoted to the woodblock prints of John Edgar Platt and a “Handbook of Japanese Printmaking Techniques” to which Bull continues to add material. Though somewhat awkwardly arranged (the intention is to have two windows open, using one for navigation), the Handbook has one of the most thorough descriptions of the process I’ve ever encountered.
Those of us whose appreciation of woodblock printing is more as observers than participants will find some fascinating highlights, notably a slideshow of the process of printing his piece “River in Summer“, which slowly animates through the sequence of impressions, or can be navigated manually with controls the pop from the bottom on mouseover.
Color woodblock printing involves multiple impressions, in which differently carved blocks, each painstakingly cut to leave a certain area in relief to receive ink, are printed over the same sheet of paper in precise alilgnment, each carrying a particular color of ink to areas of the image.
This printmaking process is hundreds of years old and is the fundamental basis of modern printing technology; except that, instead of discreet areas of solid color, images are broken into a series of dots using photographic screens, the arrangement of which, like Seurat’s pointillist paintings, combine in the eye to form larger areas of various colors. Plates are made using (usually) four colors (cyan, magenta, yellow and black), and printed in sequence on the same sheet or roll of paper, creating an image with the illusion of a much wide range of colors. Underlying it all, though, is that same idea of multiple impressions of separate color plates on the same image that is central to color woodblock printing.
It feels like some kind of weirdly poetic circle closing when reading about the continuation of this centuries old method of creating multiple images via the electronic “publishing” system of the net. For some reason, I just love that.
The woodblock.com web site also contains a more detailed step-by-step description the color woodblock process for Bull’s “River in Summer” print (images above left) that goes through the individual impressions (which, to my surprise, begin with a blank impression to prepare the surface of the paper), and shows the print in each of it’s 31 stages (impression #17, above, second image), along with images of the individual impressions printed separately (impression #17 shown alone, above, third image) all the way to the finished piece (image above, bottom).
Bull’s detailed description of the process will give you a deeper appreciation not only of his own work, and color woodblock printing in general, but of the work of some of the wonderful Japanese printmakers I’ve featured in the past on lines and colors, like Katasushika Hokusai, Hiroshi Yoshida, Kawase Hasui and Ito Shinsui.