Accompanying text to “Ten Canadian Colour Woodcuts” by Walter J Phillips
It was inevitable, when the craft of chromoxylography was revived thirty years ago, that its western exponents should fashion their methods upon those of Japan, and utilize the tools and materials perfected there. Now their colour-prints manifest an almost complete emancipation from Japanese influence. Not that it was every apparent to any great extent in treatment of subject, for the conventions and characteristics of Japanese graphic expression are at variance with ours, and while imitation may be the sincerest form of flattery it is the antithesis of sincerity in art. We cannot deny the supreme quality of the old prints and the modern equipment of Nippon. We would use there tools and materials with pleasure if we could get them. How we would appreciate good mountain cherry-wood, specially cut, selected, and seasoned, knives and chisels so hard and finely tempered that they rarely need sharpening, horse-hair brushes of the right shape, or paper made from young mulberry-shoots or mallow-tissue,—silky-surfaced, stout and durable. We have not yet found a perfect substitute for the baren (the flat disc of corded bamboo-leaf and horse-hair, sheathed in bamboo, with which to rub off impressions). They are hard to get in Jpana since the great earthquake, when many of the most skilful makers perished.
Our emancipation is not complete while we use Japanese papers Hosho, Torinoko, Kochi or Goyu. Length of fibre is essential. Our own machine-made papers are short-fibred, and will not endure the hard usage inseparable from hand-printing. The last European long-fibred papers were amde prior to the fourteenth century.
I felt relieved when I signed the last of these twenty-five hundred prints, after three months’ steady work. The creation of a colour-print involves a great deal of monotonous mechanical labour, so monotonous that at times one is sustained only by the quest for a technically perfect print, which, of course, never materializes. There are pleasant moments, from the adventure in beauty that suggests it to the first proved print.
I have painted landscape on three continents, and each country in my mind has its characteristic colour. For example, England’s is a misty green, Africa’s a tawny yellow, and Canada’s an undertone fo purple and green unrivalled in intensity and brilliance. The clear atmosphere demands an uncompromising definition of form in art, to which demand the wood-cut is peculiarly sympathetic. no other landscape attracts me so much, and no medium seems more adequate for its intepretation than this. Even unpromising days reveal its beauty. he sketches from which “Lake of the Woods” and “Cathcart’s Island” were derived were made in heavy rains, and that for “The Moutnain” records a momentary flash of sunshine which was a suficient though solitary reward fro a painful climb and half a day’s journey.
Visual thrills are dependent on one’s own receptivity as well as on their rarity or sheer beauty, and the sketcher often finds himself at a loss on a colourless day, and paints subjects to which his reaction is more academic than emotional. A good subject often as not finds him unprepared. I saw the towering blue mass of Cathedral Mountain against a citrine sky through which the sun had lately passed, from the stoop of the C.P.R. chalet at dinner-time. My paints were a mile away. The effect was momentary. The colour quickly lost its purity. It was the most memorable event during a three week’s stay in the vicinity. I had to paint it afterwards, and now I have made a print of it. “Wild Cherry” recalls another exalted moment at Lake Muskoka. After the eternal green of a long summer the varied colour of autumn is a welcome contrast, and provides many thrills. Smoke-haze and still air on this occasion lent more interest to the golden tree. Not colour alone, but beautiful arrangements of lines, pleasing shapes, or combinations of shapes, have power to charm, and though a picture must have all these, and other things, they rarely occur together in a chance rectangular section of landscape. Good arrangement is often achieved in a sketch but it can be improved always. To make the best possible arrangement of the subject is the first step in print-making.
Now the colour-print need not be a reproduction of a painting. Differences of technique among other things make this impossible. The subject must be studied in terms of tone and colour. Each colour and each tone is printed eventually from a different block of wood. The only possible variation from a perfedtly flat tone in each is a broad gradation.
I decide on so many colours, and select one which seems to define the subject best. I make a tracing of this, and paste it face down on my wood-block. The wood is Canadian cherry. I send to the nearest lumber yard for a plank, cut it into the required shape, and plane it on both sides as perfectly as possible.
The tracing is made plain by oiling the paper. Since it is the surface of the wood that prints—like type—all portions not occupied by the colour under consideration are cut down to a convenient depth, first with a knife (around the edges of the colour-shape) and afterwards with a gouge. At the bottom corners a notch and a line are cut, into which a corner and a side of the printing paper are easily slipped. These permit the correct registration of the several colours. When the first block is finished it is brushed over with pigment, and a damp piece of printing paper is laid over it. The back of the paper is rubbed, and an impression obtained. This print, and others, are pasted face down on the back of this block, and on others, and serve as guides for cutting the remaining colours. In each case the registering notch and the line are cut to the proper corner and edge of the pasted print.
Printing is the most exacting part of the whole process. Even the artisan printers of Japan, who are brought up to it, find it so. According to Mr. Urushibara who began his career as one of them, they are addicted to singing the plaintive couplets that follow:
Could I print without fouling,
Or register without failing
I might have run away
To be a master ere this day.
I use Japanese paper—whatever kind I can get. The variety used for these prints is Goyu—a very soft paper. i treat it with a gelatine size both back and front, cut the sheets to the proper size, dampen fifty or more of them, before I am ready to print
The pigments used are powders which I grind in water and apply with a small quantity of starch or flour paste to make them stick to the paper. The block must be damp so that the colour will not dry on it too quickly. The pigment is applied with a brush, and gradations are made in the same way as on paper with watercolours. Paste is brushed on with with the paint. A sheet of paper is applied quickly, adjusted to the registering marks, and rubbed with a disc of wood ribbed on the face. It takes me from twenty seconds to two minutes to print one colour—one impression, that is. The smaller prints were done in batches of one hundred, one colour at a time. That is the whole process described briefly.
The difficulties cannot be appreciated until you try to make a print yourself. Then they begin at once. It is the nature of wood to shrink and expand, to crack and warp. The block for the water in “Water-Lilies” I had to cut five times. The triangular shape of the excavations caused a curious surface warping which eventually made printing impossible. Unless you use wood from the same plank for one set, the blocks are liable to shrink unequally.
In cutting, a slip of the gouge or the knife often destroys a good day’s work, but most of the casualties occur in printing. Cleanliness and concentration are absolutely necessary. A print is easily fouled, damp paper sags, and is apt to pick up paint from waste areas—an invisible grain of grit under the baren will cause the paper to rip from top to bottom. At all times the paper must be evenly dampened, and to the correct degree, and the proportion of paste and water must be accurate.
A good print is worth all the trouble. It has a unique beauty of surface, an indescribable silky quality comparable only with that of a fresco painting. Few artists attain it in perfection. The texture of the wood is apparent throughout. Wood-grain prints readily and is often useful. In “Muskoka Sunset” it is hardly an asset, but in “Water-lilies” it gives pertinent variety to the water, and in “The Mountain” lends interest to otherwise monotonous spaces. Gradations such as the sky in “Muskoka Sunset” can be accomplished by hand-printing only. A machine print will give an approximation with a multitude of minute dots in varying proximity. it will be observed that the colour not only rests on the surface but also impregnates the whole body of the paper, and becomes incorporated with it.
The prints may be detached from the mounts by leaving them between two damp sheets of newspaper for a few hours. The print should afterwards be put between sheets of cardboard under a weight so that it will dry flat.
W. J. Phillips