The Purpose of this Book
This book was conceived as an introduction to the basics of mokuhanga for creative artists outside Japan. While it includes some information about professional practice in Japan, it is written with the belief that this flexible technique can be adapted for use by individual artist-printmakers. With experience, artists can develop an approach to woodblock printing that reflects their particular situation, technical ability, and available resources.
In addition to the step-by-step chapter that outlines how a print is made, the book includes a chapter on tools and materials, and a chapter on washi, handmade Japanese paper. The materials used to produce mokuhanga were developed in Japan during the country’s evolution from a feudal agrarian culture with rice as the medium of exchange into an urban money-based culture. An understanding of the special materials developed during that time allows artists to use them most effectively. The manufacture of paper and sumi ink for calligraphy, introduced from China and Korea, set the stage for the production of woodblock multiples using the same materials. The especially sharp cutting tools used for woodblock are forged from the same kind of bonded steel used in samurai swords and are sharpened on the same kind of water stones. These materials provided the foundation for the rise of mokuhanga during the Edo period.
The refined techniques of mokuhanga, developed by experts in specialized workshops, give the craft a complexity that takes time to master. Professional printers created sophisticated methods that took them many years of practice to perfect in order to print a wide variety of books, prints, and advertisements. Creative artists pursuing distinctly different goals can learn many technical details about carving and printing from these professionals that will help them make prints in their own studios.
Making mokuhanga prints since the mid-nineties, I developed the skills I needed to print my own images, working as simply as possible to make creative rather than reproductive artwork. When I began doing research for this book, I looked beyond my own practice to find additional information about the working methods of professional Japanese printers. My respect for these specialists has only increased over time, and yet I believe there is an important place for artists who develop an individual way of working that reflects their aims as creative printmakers. I remain convinced that contemporary artists can learn the basic technique well enough to use mokuhanga for their own work. I have tried to convey some of the flavor of the impressive work of professionals, but this book focuses on making the technique accessible. Maintaining sensitivity to materials is the one essential key to using this technique successfully.
In my research, I was surprised again and again at the intimacy with the natural world evidenced in the approach to materials used in mokuhanga. The craftsmen of Japan paid careful attention to working methods, and also to the plants and animals around them. Often I had to check the binomial names for plants that were used for color, for paper, and for many other functions in the world of woodblock. Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus (1707–1778) developed scientific taxonomy during the same period that ukiyo-e prints evolved. His binomial nomenclature is the foundation for a systematic understanding of the natural world. The Japanese use of materials that evolved during the same time reflects a similarly systematic impulse.
A note about language use: I have used the English convention for Japanese proper names, with family name last, to be consistent with the many Western names in the text. A variety of translations for Japanese terms exist, and I have tried to use the most common spelling. For example, the word “mokuhanga,” while composed of three characters, is most commonly used as a single word. Where two versions exist, I have opted for a hyphenated use so that the structure of a compound name is most clear; for example, the registration chisel is kento-nomi. I have avoided pluralizing Japanese terms. Sizes of prints are all approximate.