DCA Print Studio A-Z: J is for Japanese Woodblock Printing.


16 July 2018

As part of our ongoing series the A-Z of Print Studio, we're delighted to bring you J for Japanese Woodblock Printing! We caught up with tutor Campbell Sandilands about this ancient artform, his time learning the art and what you should expect from our Japanese Woodblock course...

First up, could you give us a quick overview of Japanese Woodblock Printing? 

The basic techniques for Japanese woodblock printing originated in China, and spread from there through Korea and eventually into Japan around the 8th century. Buddhist temples were where most of the early black and white prints were made - mostly religious images and texts, but also texts on farming and medicine. It would be many hundreds of years before full-coloured printing would be developed. 

In the 1700s and 1800s, there was a sophisticated collaboration between publisher, artist, carver and printer. The publisher would often commission the artist, whose brush-drawn drawings were pasted face-down onto the block. The introduction of the kento, the registration marks, allowed the carver to create multiple blocks which the printer would use in sequence to create exquisite, excellently registered prints for the publisher to offer for sale. However, the full-colour technique used in this era was often to make exact copies of paintings, not unique images in their own right. 

The art of woodblock printing almost died a death with the introduction of new techniques like lithography and photography in the years after Japan opened up to the West from the end of the Edo period in 1868. It had somewhat of a resurgence in 1910, when two new woodblock groups were formed: Shin hanga (new prints), inspired by traditional ukiyo-e wooodblock prints and the continuation of the collaborative relationship of artist, publisher, carver and printer; and Sosaku hanga (creative prints), where artists looked more to the world beyond for inspiration, and went through the full process of designing, carving and printing the block. Following on from the latter tradition, artists in Japan and around the world today use woodblock in a range of creative ways, from pure woodblock to one element in a finished multi-media print, or a touch of woodblock in a painting. 

You studied this technique whilst living in Japan, can you tell us a bit about that experience? 

My introduction to Japan was at Language University in Osaka, where I spent 6 months trying to get to grips with the language.Then, I moved to Tokyo where I did my Masters Degree over 2 years at Tama Art University. The students in my department were using woodblock in a looser manner, whereas I was interested in starting off with the traditional techniques. Just by chance, I went to see a retrospective exhibition by the late Hiroshi Yoshida, which was very inspiring. I met his son Toshi, then in his late 60s, and his son Tsukasa and wife Kiyoko. Through this chance meeting, I enrolled in classes at the Yoshida Hanga (printing) Academy every Saturday. Although my Japanese language was pretty poor at the time, as soon asI saw the Yoshida family printer demonstrate, it all started to make sense - this visual language of the artist. So, I felt I had the best of both worlds, the cutting-edge creativity of the art students, and the more restrained techniques of the set-up at the Yoshida studio. And all these years later, I am still in close touch with the Yoshida family, exhibiting with them and other former students in their annual exhibition. 

"This is an early print from my time in Tokyo, inspired by my travels amongst the hill tribes of northern Thailand. The drawn elements are done with lithography, while colour has been added with carved woodblocks. "

As traditional woodblock designs were drawn in sumi ink with a brush, I too wanted to learn how to use an oriental brush competently. To this end, after finishing my studies in Tokyo, I moved to Kyoto, where I studied Japanese brush calligraphy (sho) for four years with Shingai Tanaka, a master of the artform. As a result of this study, I was able to express forms within my work, both painting and woodblock, using various oriental brushes. 

How did you get into teaching these (and other) classes at DCA Print Studio? 

I spent seven years in Japan, and then a year in the USA before coming back to Scotland.I spent a couple of years finding my feet while literally building a wee studio/flat in the countryside. After this period, I ended up doing work experience at the Seagate Printmaking Workshop and Gallery in Dundee, framing artwork, hanging exhibitions and working and teaching in the print workshop. When the workshop moved home into the new DCA building, it was only a matter of time before I started doing classes there, and in the early days, I helped to install exhibitions too. 

The techniques used  are described as eco-friendly, can you tell us about what makes them so? 

The traditional techniques especially are eco-friendly, and whereas printmaking techniques have really cleaned up their act in recent years (even from Seagate days, where one or two of the old boys would have their fingers in the acid when etching plates!) there is no hard-to-dispose-of waste after doing woodblock. The pigments are water-based, the oriental papers for woodblock are produced primarily by hand. There’s no need for a cumbersome press in order to print. Instead, you pick up the baren, the hand-burnishing pad, whenever you like in order to print - you are not restricted to a print studio. So, you could literally find a fallen tree branch, split it and plane the surface with your axe, carve and print it at the exact point where you found the branch. Now, you can hardly get better eco-credentials than that! 

What sort of results should participants expect from Japanese Woodblock Printing course? 

Masterpieces of course! 

"‘Inconstancy’ is a unique print, woodblock combined with woodblock collagraph. This is the kind of  combination of techniques which participants on the advanced course can try. "

Can you tell us how the advanced course differs? 

Enlightened creativity! 

What should participants bring along to this course? 

Their good selves and an open mind. 

Anything else you’d like to add? 

The art of mokuhanga (woodblock printing) has been a lifetime’s journey for me. If you are lucky and have that same draw to woodblock or another form, it will continue to surprise and delight you, and just when you think you are on top of it all, it surprises you with a lesson in humility when you realise there’s still so much to learn, more challenges and joys around the corner. 

Thanks Campbelll! We know that there's only one place left on both Introduction to Japanese Woodblock and Advanced Japanese Woodblock...if you're keen to give this fascinating form of printmaking a go, don't fear - our next Get Creative is just around the corner! Look out online and in DCA at the beginning of August to grab a copy. 

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