Travis and I went to visit the Legion of Honor last week. I'd forgotten how beautiful the landscape is there, even when it is about to storm.
The exhibition we went to see was Japanesque, which explores Japanese printmaking and its influence upon 19th Century and early 20th Century Europe and the United States.
On this particular day, Tomoko Murakami, who I remembered from my days working at the Palo Alto Art Center, was demonstrating Japanese ukiyo-e printmaking techniques.
Each of us had the opportunity to carve a tiny block of wood. In ukiyo-e, cherry wood was traditionally used for its hardness and capability of holding fine lines. However, it is so hard that a hammer and chisel are required.
For the purposes of the demo Murakami used a softer wood called Shina veneer. It is so soft that it can be carved very quickly, which is nice if you have young students or not much time. Also you can use regular woodcutting v-gouges rather than the hammer and chisel.
I was in an impatient, stormy mood so I carved a rather odd mini-tornado in the wood.
Though I had read about it, I had never seen ink applied to woodblocks using brushes, only rollers. The brushes she used were very stiff: one is used to apply the ink and the next is used to spread it on the carved block. Traditionally, the brushes are rubbed against sharkskin to open up the bristles so that they may better absorb the ink. Tomoko also suggested using house paint brushes, trimmed down until they are stiff, as an affordable alternative. She uses one per color.
Each of us tried printing with the ink and brush. We used Akua water-based inks, some thinned with rice paste (which can also effectively slow down the drying time). I was surprised by how easily they spread. What's nice is you can also put ink on part of the block and then blend it with water, creating those gentle gradations of color found in ukiyo-e prints, often in the sky. Which reminds me, she wet the wood with water and wiped it before inking it (otherwise the wood just absorbs the ink). She explained that if you have a large block, you will want to wet both sides to prevent warping.
There was a video about carving, inking and printing techniques that was pretty fascinating. One thing that amazed me was the use of a hanging jug of water next to a light bulb to concentrate the light on a particular area of the wood so that the carver could really see it clearly. Considering the fineness of the lines (especially in the representation of women's hair), this made a lot of sense. It also appeared to be a brilliantly economical way to illuminate your work area.
Tomoko Murakami will be teaching classes at Kala Institute this year. Here is the class schedule.