Japan so far…🍱

I’ve been in Japan now for 3 weeks, and so far it’s been fantastic! I started my trip with a couple of days in Tokyo being a tourist, then made my way to the Mi-Lab residence in Fujikawaguchiko to start the artist residency learning ‘Mokuhanga’ (Japanese woodblock printing).

The residence is in a really beautiful spot – near Lake Kawaguchi, overlooked by Mount Fuji (Fujisan!). It’s been cloudy for the last couple of days so he’s been hiding, but when he does pop up it’s as if out of nowhere…turn a corner and suddenly there he is!

The first week was very intensive, being taught all the basics of the Mokuhanga technique by Chihiro Taki – a Japanese printmaker who makes the most beautiful woodblock prints. (I recommend checking out her website: http://www.chihirotaki.com)

To start off we all did a little presentation about ourselves and our work, which was an opportunity to get an insight into each other’s art practice, and an understanding of why we were all there. Taki San then presented some of her work, and seeing her prints in the flesh really blew us all away – such subtle colours and textures. She then gave us a brief history of woodblock printing, and we got straight on with the technical stuff – covering ‘Iruwake’ (colour separation), the ‘kento’ registration system (the best, simplest and easiest way the register prints!), and introducing us to the tools we would be using to carve the plywood blocks – the ‘Hangi-toh’ knife, the ‘Maru-toh’ gouge, and the ‘Kento-nomi’ knife.

Taki San then went on to demonstrate the printing process. The block is inked up with watercolour or guache paints, using ‘Maru-bake’ and ‘Te-bake’ brushes, along with ‘Nori’ (rice paste- very important in the process). The damp paper is placed on the block, (prepared the day before), and a ‘baren’ is used to apply pressure on the back to transfer the ink to the paper. (This mainly happens through absorption – the fibres of the kozo paper ‘drinking’ up the ink from the block.) She also showed us the different effects you can get if you alter the amount of ink, water, nori and pressure used – including ‘gomazuri’ (sesame effect), ‘mokumizuri’ (wood grain effect), and ‘bokashi’ (gradient).

Phew! It’s a lot to take in, but so much fun and a it’s so exciting to be learning something which is so different from the kind of printmaking I am used to. Being here has made me realise that I haven’t had this much time dedicated to learning and creating work since university – 13 years ago!

This is the first post I’ve managed to write since being here, as I’ve been trying to spend as much of my time as possible just sitting at my desk and making….but I will try to post again soon, as It’s a good way of reviewing what I’ve learned.

I’ll leave you with a few images from the last few weeks. Thanks for reading 🙂

P.s. My apologies if I’ve spelled an or the Japanese words wrong!


Re-working a stone

After printing my first stone, my next task was to re-work the image. This means that once a stone has been drawn on, processed and proofed, you can go back to it and make amendments by adding to or deleting the drawing.

Some amendments can be done during the proofing stage, and the stone can continue to be printed straight afterwards. However with others the stone will need to be gummed up afterwards and left overnight before proofing again. This all depends on whether the method you use is abrasive or not.

Non-abrasives: The stone can be printed straight away after using these techniques.

– Etching the image back. This has the effect of increasing the contrast in an image, getting rid of the lighter tones and tending to leave the darker tones. Using a strong-ish gum etch, (a few drops of concentrated nitric acid in gum arabic), paint the etch onto the areas of the image you wish to alter. If you don’t want to have a harsh line where you paint the etch, apply plain gum first and them work into it with the strong etch.

– Soap Wash. This method creates painterly marks which will print very dark with a slightly grainy effect, almost like an aquatint. Using a bar of ordinary household soap and some water, paint the soap onto the stone using a paintbrush. Use as little water as possible and dry thoroughly with a hairdryer, before quickly damping the area with a sponge and rock first of all with a non-drying black nap roller. The rocking ensures that the soap is not picked up and transferred to other areas of the stone. Keep rolling until the painted area is fully visible. This technique, as I have found out, takes a fair bit of practice to avoid the soap wash migrating and smearing everywhere when it is damped and rolled. If the area is too dark, a strong etch can be used to lighten it. Or, if a soap wash is used over an area of existing drawing, it can then be etched back to reveal areas of the original drawing underneath.

Abrasives: The stone will need to be gummed and left overnight after using these techniques, as areas of un-processed stone have been revealed.

– Scraping back the image. This deletes areas of drawing. Using the side of a scalpel blade, scrape away parts of the image. It may be necessary to scrape quite hard and create some dust!

– Pumice powder. This has the effect of lightening areas of drawing. Damp a nylon kitchen sponge scourer, dip into the pumice powder and scrub the areas to be lightened. The ink will be scrubbed off first, so keep going a little bit further after that.

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Stone before re-working

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Stone being re-worked, with a test stone, and gum etches behind.

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Areas of soap wash before being rolled with ink.

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Re-worked stone, with areas of soap wash, etching and scraping.

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Stone Lithography – Experiments with transfer paper.

It was the 4th week on my internship at Leicester Print Workshop this week, and I learned how to transfer a drawn image to a litho stone using transfer paper. I’ll attempt to show the step-by-step process…

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Transfer paper is made by painting a 50/50 solution of gum arabic and water onto paper, leaving to dry, and applying another layer if necessary. The paper is then drawn onto with litho pencils, crayons, rubbing block, etc.

The drawing on transfer paper is taped to the stone using gum strip. Depending on how thin the paper is it may be necessary to run through the press a few times at this stage to flatten the paper, (ensuring a protective piece of polythene is laid between the stone and paper so that the drawing is not transferred yet).

The drawing on transfer paper is taped to the stone using gum strip. Depending on how thin the paper is it may be necessary to run through the press a few times at this stage to flatten the paper, (ensuring a protective piece of polythene is laid between the stone and paper so that the drawing is not transferred yet).

The stone is dampened with a clean sponge, the image laid onto the stone and run through the printing press 3-4 times at a pressure slightly lighter than normal printing pressure.

The stone is dampened with a clean sponge, the image laid onto the stone and run through the printing press 3-4 times at a pressure slightly lighter than normal printing pressure.

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The paper is dampened on top quickly and gently, before running through the press a further 3-4 times. This process is repeated until the gum on the underside of the paper is wet and fluid enough to transfer from the paper to the stone, along with the greasy drawing. A corner is lifted up to check, and when the image is successfully transferred, the paper is lifted up to reveal the drawn image on the stone.

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At this stage the drawing is much more fragile than if the drawing was made directly on the stone, so heat is applied the encourage the grease to absorb into the stone.

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A second drawing transferred to the stone.

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Detail of the stone. This drawing was made on transfer paper using a hard litho pencil.

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A final third drawing is added to the stone. The stone is then gummed and processed. This will be my next step – I’m looking forward to seeing the results!


Thinking within boundaries, working within constraints.

So I’ve got a bit of news – in January 2013 I’m going to be starting an Internship at Leicester Print Workshop in Stone Lithography! It’s one of the only printmaking processes I’ve never had a go at before, and I’m really excited because it’s one which relates the most, in my mind, to drawing. One of the things which made me apply for it was doing a print swap recently with artist Lisa Hecht. I sent her one of my artists’ books – ‘Corners’, in return for her beautiful lithograph ‘Blue Damask Bed’, (above – sorry for the not-great photo). I think it’s actually a photo-lithograph, but it was the quality of the print which captured my attention – the way the ink sits on the paper is different to any other printmaking process, and the layering and colour really inspired me.

Over the past few days, as the news has had a chance to sink in, and as I’ve been in the process of editioning my print for this year’s 20:20 print exchange, I’ve been thinking about my last blog post, and what I said about choice of technique to suit the idea being a large factor in the success of a print. I still think this is very important, however, there is something to be said for working within the boundaries and constraints which a particular technique provides, whether it be drawing onto stone, carving into wood or lino, or etching a metal plate. This seemed particularly relevant as the print I was editioning was a very small, simple hard-ground etching which I made a while ago, as a tester for a series of small etchings of items of household fixtures and fittings. The drawing sits just within the boundaries of the metal plate, confined, almost restrained by it. But there is a certain domestic comfort in that.

The finished print, hard-ground etching on zinc, inked in yellow-brown with a colour roll-over and printed on off-white hahnemuhle paper.

It might be that an artist chooses a particular technique for the very reason that they want to be constrained – they want the process to determine the outcome of the work, to take them on a journey. The outcome may not be one which is expected or anticipated, but that’s what makes it so exciting! Printmaking for me is a constant process of inquiry, discovery and repetition, and the more I learn about it, the more ideas for new work I get, so I’m proper chuffed to have this opportunity to develop my skills further!

I’ll be posting regular updates on here from January detailing the progress of the internship, so keep checking back!


Thoughts on what makes a good print…

Working in a print workshop means that I inevitably spend my weeks having conversations about printmaking with a variety of different people. It’s interesting the way the same topics of conversation seem to arise again and again.

Recently it has been the question of what makes a good print. Of course there isn’t a definitive answer – it’s purely subjective – but for me a big part of the success of a fine print lies in the choice of technique. It’s a consideration which in my opinion is too often overlooked.

Perhaps it comes from having a reasonable knowledge of some of the main printmaking processes, but usually when a print really stands out at me, it is either because I can see a strong connection between the subject matter and the process used to create it, or because that particular image could not have been created in the same way using any other technique, thus adding to its unique quality. There is a huge contrast between prints where you can see the technique has been been employed and manipulated by the artist in a creative, thoughtful, individual way, and prints that have been made with a particular technique purely for ease of reproduction. (Although with this statement I seem to be heading towards the territory of ‘what is an original print’ which is a hot topic of debate among printmakers, and one which I may attempt to tackle in due course.)

When I start a new piece of work, it is usually because a particular image or idea has appeared in my head, and while spontaneous, sometimes frantic preliminary sketches are extremely important, I still try to find the time to stop and ask myself questions about my original idea. What is the most important thing I am trying to communicate? What process and materials are best used to communicate this idea and why? Is it the process of making the print, or the finished outcome which is more important? Is it important that it is a multiple at all? These are questions which need not always be answered, but if it is apparent from the print that the artist has considered these aspects, it is likely that the viewer will also ask these questions – and in my opinion that usually makes for a very interesting piece of work.