A DISSERTATION on the Art of Printing in Colours—the Western Discovery of the Japanese Method-Craftsmanship in Modern Art—How to Cut Colour Blocks on Wood-Certain Kinds of Paper, Their Qualities, History and Influence—The Unnecessary Framing of Pictures.
THE original prints contained in this portfolio are called wood-block prints, block-prints or (illogically) wood-blocks, colour wood-cuts, or wood-cuts in colour or, more clumsily still, chromoxylographs. Of all these inelegant, cacophonous compounds, not one is used universally in preference to the others. If we had a name as euphonious, and as apt, as etching, their popularity conceivably might be sudden and immediate, but in spite of all handicaps, the colour print is becoming known and, of all the processes in use, that based on Japanese practice is gradually displacing the rest. In ten years such prints have advanced from obscurity to a state of importance wherein open print exhibitions contain nearly as many of them as of etchings. In the 1928 International Print Exhibition at Los Angeles, there were 103 wood-cuts out of a total of 360 printed in all media. Howell Brown, the Californian etcher, commenting on the situation said: “We are developing a number of fine cutters, artists who have conquered their tools, and can cut as fine a block as was cut by the best men at the time the wood-cut was in its glory.”
The period of chromoxylographic glory was in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries in Japan and every modern artist owes something to its influence. From Byodo, the traditional inventor of printing from wood-blocks two thousand years ago, to the present day, is a long call, covering many phases in the development of the craft, periods of activity and also periods of stagnation like that of the late twentieth century which was littered with the iniquitous oleograph and the three-colour machine-print. The search for a method of printing in colour, as successful as etching for pure line, has been continuous but curiously the Japanese method has not been examined until now, since its deterioration nearly a hundred years ago.
In the early eighteenth century, Le Blon made prints from three mezzotinted metal plates, exploiting Newton’s three-colour theory. Mezzotints in colour became popular and, with the discovery of lithography, horrible crimes were committed in the name of art. The odium inseparable from the oleograph still besmirches the very name of colour-print. Further investigation led to the discovery of the three-colour photographic process which, with a colour added, is still with us.
None of these processes, however, are of much interest to artists. As processes for reproduction they were faulty. The vast quantities of prints produced, the repulsive viscosity of the inks used, the objectionable glaze of the paper and the inexactitude of the result, did not help to commend these prints as works of art.
During the whole of this machine-period, wood was in the hands of the mechanical reproducers also. The only medium left to the artist for the fabrication of original prints was the etched copper plate.
An original print, let me say, is one designed, engraved and printed, by the artist. It is hard on the artist, but only in that way can unity be achieved. The Japanese print was the joint production of three men and the modern machine print of a great many more.
It was more than thirty years ago, that a few western artists began independent investigations into the Japanese method of making colour-prints, with the view to adapting it to their own needs. As early as 1857 however, Claude Monet had purchased a bundle of colour-prints from the Zaandam grocer who was using them to wrap up his butter and cheeses. At that time, Monet, Degas, Whistler and others, were content to derive inspiration from them, but they were not curious as to the means of their production. The first modern investigators were J. D. Batten and F. Morley Fletcher of London, Emil Orlik of Prague, and Helen Hyde of San Francisco. The two last-named actually went to Japan and sought instruction from the available masters. Helen Hyde, who first went to Japan in 1899, became so expert in brush drawing that a group of enthusiastic Orientals urged her to found a school. She won prizes in Tokio in competition with native artists. More than seventy wood-cuts are catalogued in Bertha Jaques’ valuable monograph on this artist, published in 1922.
“Although Miss Hyde learned to do this work herself,” writes Mrs. Jaques, “she preferred, for economy of time, to leave it to the Japanese cutters who are experts in wood-engraving…………. Muratta san, her printer, presented himself at her studio with a deep bow and prepared for the fray. With his legs neatly tucked away beneath him, Muratta san seated himself on the floor and was nearly lost to view behind piles of paper, blotters, printing blocks, a whole batallion of old blue and gray bowls and brushes. He was supposed to carry out faithfully Miss Hyde’s colour scheme, but the Japanese art sense rebels against dull repetition.”
Fifteen years’ residence in Japan enabled Miss Hyde to produce a large number of Japanese subjects, but there are Chinese, Mexican and one Indian subject to her credit also.
Professor Orlik was perhaps the least imaginative of this group of investigators. With him the process was always exotic, never digested, never used for personal expression. Nor did Batten and Fletcher allow themselves much latitude in technique or expression. They followed the Japanese tradition as well as they could although it involved them in difficulties. They found there was no literature concerning the craft, except Tokuno’s monograph published by the Smithsonian Institute at Washington. They sought out a Japanese printseller in London who amplified Tokuno’s instructions. It was an ingenious idea to employ a wall-paper block-cutter, although unsatisfactory.
William Giles, president of the Society of Graver-printer in Colour, attended one or two lectures by Fletcher at Reading, but this method of blind adherence to a craft indigenous to another land, did not commend itself to his inventive and energetic nature. He made a few very successful prints from wood-blocks and then perfected a method of printing from relief metal plates that had been tentatively considered by the great William Blake, an ancestor of his wife’s. He did a great deal to emancipate the European chromoxylographist from the influence of Nippon by providing substitute tools, and by abandoning the black line tradition.
Fletcher, however, is the apostle of the craft. Most of its English exponents were his pupils. He taught in London, at Reading and Edinburgh, and now he is in charge of the art school at Santa Barbara, in California. His book, “Wood-block Printing”, published in 1916, has had a wide circulation.
The earliest products of the revival was “Eve and the Serpent,” which belongs to the years 1894-95. It was the joint work of Batten and Fletcher and the wall-paper block-cutter. A year later, Mr. Fletcher cut the blocks for Mr. Batten’s print, “The Harpies,” and also made his own first original colourprint entitled, “Meadow-sweet”.
In the Original Colour Print Magazine, Mr. Fletcher deplores the flood of crudely made and badly printed wood and linoleum cuts that threatens to submerge us now. The question naturally arises: is clumsiness really an asset in Art? The precision that goes with perfect craftsmanship is often decried and is often repulsive, whilst fumbling brushwork, muddy colour and an imperfect or grotesque realization of form is admired in modern oil-painting; half-finish is the popular style in water-colour; and a wood-cut must bear evidence of complete technical ignorance in the artist and suggest the use of a pick-axe instead of an engraving-tool in its perpetration.
In justice I must confess that I too am demoralized, inasmuch as there are many viciously clumsy prints in my own collection and I admire them, quite frankly. What is the matter with us?
Etchings alone, have escaped this pernicious plague of clumsiness. Its patrons are much too well trained to permit any defection.
This contempt among certain young artists for craftsmanship has its compensations. Their paintings will most likely fade, crack, and suffer general disintegration, whilst similar manifestations on paper will suffer materially in other ways. A good deal of knowledge and skill is needed to make pictures that will withstand the ravages of time. The Guilds of the fifteenth century inflicted fines on artists who used poor materials or who scamped their work.
I have described so often my own methods of print-making that I am loathe to do so again. But since the craft is daily finding new patrons to whom the process is somewhat of a mystery, I may be excused for giving once more, a brief account of the operations. The original picture being completed, a tracing is made of one colour in the design, which may be a black outline, the green in a landscape or the gray shadows in a street scene, and is pasted face down on a block of cherry-wood. Other woods may be used. In England I might use chestnut, in New Zealand Kauri pine, but here in Canada cherry-wood is easily obtainable, and possesses the desired qualities of close and even texture and comparative hardness.
Since the surface of the wood is to print, as from type, all those areas external to the first colour, which is marked on the tracing, are removed or lowered. The tools used for this operation are, first, a knife of a shape suited to your individual requirements but necessarily pointed, and second, gouges such as used by wood-carvers.
The finished block is brushed over with colour and a little paste to make the colour stick, and damp paper is placed over it and rubbed with a corrugated disc of wood. An impression results which is pasted face down on another block of wood. This is scraped and oiled until the impression is clearly visible, and that gives, or aids in determining, the contours of a second colour-shape, which is cut as the first was cut. As many colours as are necessary are subsequently cut on other blocks of wood, with the aid of impressions from the first (or key) block. Then the several colours are printed in rotation. To make the colours fit is an easy matter. On the very first block a right angle is cut, into which a corner of the printing paper may be insinuated, and also a short line, as far away as possible, to accommodate one edge of the paper.
You do not see your picture grow as in painting, consequently curiosity keeps you going, and your first proof provides a real thrill, either of joy or disgust as befits your temperament and your skill.
We are still bound to use Japanese papers, for our own conservative papermakers refuse to accommodate us. The Goyu paper I have used for six of my prints is, of course, hand-made. No two sheets are alike, particularly in thickness. There are sometimes pieces of grit embedded in it which are apt to rip the paper across in the process of printing. There are more in the Shoji paper, upon which I printed “Mount Cathedral”. Shoji is a tissue paper. Imagine the difficulty of handling it in a damp condition. Only extreme patience and, failing that, a superb vocabulary, is capable of coping with it. It is a fine paper though, for it picks up pigment from the wood beautifully.
The influence of paper on Art and on Life too, is not generally appreciated.
I have sometimes used Korean paper in which is incorporated arboreous remains that testify to its origin and to its admirable length of fibre. It is said that this paper has been made continuously for 2,000 years, with no change of method.
Europe made its first sheet of paper in the thirteenth century at Fabriano in Italy. The Nuremberg mill was founded in 1390. The workmen were Italians sworn to secrecy under pain of death. How the Arabs coaxed the secret out of Chinese prisoners of war and how it spread gradually through Asia Minor, Northern Africa and Spain, is a romantic story. It is hard to believe that eleventh century Cairene tradesmen wrapped up their wares in paper, or that it was so essential a commodity at that time that mummies were shorn of their wrappings to provide linen for its manufacture. All early Arabic papers were made from linen and cotton rags and were sized with animal glue. Oriental papers were, and are still, made from vegetable fibres; those used for printmaking from mulberry or mallow fibres.
The quality of surface that it is possible to attain in a colour print made with powder colours and paste on Japanese paper, is a source of pleasure to anyone who knows something about these things and can appreciate them. The colour lies sweetly on the surface of the paper, yet it is incorporated with it and has a bloom comparable only with that of a fresco painting. You may notice that, if you face the light and examine the print as it lies on the table before you, the colour is somewhat opaque and lifeless. But, if you move round the table until the light is at your back, and look again, you will see the colour vitalized. The same thing occurs also with minerals and is termed dichroism. Mr. Giles has investigated this phenomenon and has recorded his findings in the Original Colour Print Magazine.
Prints such as these are intended for the portfolio rather than the frame. They are too delicate for the latter purpose and may not carry across a room. If you insist on a frame, however, I would suggest that you consider plain maple moulding enamelled with a colour that is present in the print. A wash-line on the matt always helps in isolating the picture and in concentrating the attention of the spectator upon it.
A large number of estimable people stick pictures all over their walls, all they like and may contrive to acquire, and they rush to the framers whenever they come by something new and admirable. They are like the lady who wears all her dresses at once.
A picture that becomes a mere unit in a scheme of decoration, loses much of its individual charm. A small picture, especially a print or a drawing, loses everything. It is properly viewed at arm’s length. When it appears on an opposite wall fifteen feet away, it tantalizes rather than charms; it becomes unimportant, even contemptible, when a stiff-neck or a bent back is the price you pay for a closer view of it.
In your own home, familiarity soon dissipates its appeal; the element of surprise, which adds so much to our sense of beauty, soon vanishes. Eventually, it is taken for granted and excites no emotion whatever. The Japanese custom of changing their hanging pictures periodically is as necessary to us as to them; but I know of no one who does it, excepting only artists who are obliged to. Even at that, I would see too much of one picture. The portfolio, or the solander box, is the thing. You get it out only when you are in the mood to enjoy its contents. You sit in comfort and your enjoyment is perfect, because you have achieved perfect conditions.
Walter J. Phillips