It’s very very hard to explain to people, and still harder for most people to imagine how the delicate, ephemeral, jewel-like images on Japanese woodblock prints can be made from great thick chunks of timber… or how the sharp hair’s breadth lines on the image of a delicate piece of cloth or the leaves on a distant tree can be made by carving with a hand tool. Because I suspect that even using a modern CNC machine it would be hard to best the great skills of some of the very best block carvers of nineteenth century Japan such as Hori Shoji. Compare the exquisite delicacy of the carving in the print below by Kuniyoshi, with the modern, computer driven efforts.
The great chunk of wood at the top of the page is an original wooden block that has been used to produce an edition of prints for the artist Kunichika. It’s the block for just the black, keyline that prints all the outlines around the colours. You can make out the figure of an actor in the role of an Edo era samuari, at the top of the block is a square cartouche that contains the image of another actor probably from the same performance or the same play. Below, on the detail of the block itself you can easily see where very large, scoop shaped chisels have hewn the delicate close grained cherry wood away. The strokes become subtler as they approach the outline and the features rise like islands seen from above beneath a choppy sea.
The making of prints was a complex business involving many different skilled people. Generally speaking, a publisher would approach an artist with an idea for a print or a series of prints. The artist would draw a same size design in black ink on thin, washi paper. The paper was then glued to a block of wood and the block carver would carve away around the outline until only the lines themselves remained proud. Slips of the hand were expensive and hard to repair. A print was made of the key block and sent back to the artist, who then painted in or wrote on it the different colours and effects that he envisaged. Up to maybe sixteen separate blocks were then made to correspond with each colour and texture, some carefully thought through in order to obtain blended, or shaded effects of incredible complexity. The blocks were then printed in each of the colours, in the correct order until finally, the original key block was printed, locking the colours together. Blocks like the one above are very rare because after the print was made the block was planed off so that it could be used again. Below is a print made with several colour blocks from just such a piece of wood,
It’s useful when looking at the extraordinary precision of a piece like this to remember that each colour, each pattern represents a separate chunk of wood, each line is carved from such crude beginnings to such a delicate conclusion. Twenty four of these masterpieces are at the Toshidama Gallery for five weeks from the 14th of September in the exhibition; Actor Portrait Series in Japanese Woodblock Prints.