The ideal of a water-color woodcut is no longer a feeble parody of the Japanese color-print that ceased two centuries ago; that color-print was the outcome of a democratic demand, and owed its success to its cheapness, though, strange as it may seem, elaboration sometimes brought it under the ban of the sumptuary laws.
Towards the close of last century, the reproduction by woodcuts in color of the Chinese and Japanese Masterpieces of painting contributed to an extraordinary development of the craft, which compels our admiration and wonder. The creative artist, however, did not avail himself of the greatest technical knowledge to express himself in this medium. Picture-reproduction and literal transcript have always had a pernicious influence on art. It brought about the ruin of "white-line" engraving invented by Bewick.
In Japan the early color-print was the result of three men collaborating -- the artist, the woodcutter, and the printer. The second phase was the reproduction of the Old Masters; here the artist's guidance being removed, the woodcutter and the printer alone remained to imitate as faithfully as they were able the example before them, even the accidents of time and decay being literally copied.
They achieved supreme execution, but their work was devoid of originality. Finally, the color-print, at first he labour of three men, was reduced to two, when only imitation was required. In the West the artist who desired to make color-print was forced to do everything himself, as trained craftsmen did not exist, he was seriously handicapped by the want of technical knowledge, but unity of purpose tended to originality; nevertheless some artists, indifferent to this, and only requiring replicas of their work, have not scrupled to go to Japan and employ her craftsmen to reproduce their work, and in so doing have acquired much false glory. This evil practice is fatal to the true cause of the color-print.
The inherent charm of a water-color print is its elusive directness of execution. In painting, the artist has to struggle with three aspects simultaneously -- his idea, form, and color. In the woodcut the two former, design and drawing, respectively, can be disposed of at leisure, which leaves the artist free to concentrate on the perfect harmony of color, and then imprison it for ever, without correction, on the beautiful silky surface of Japanese paper. The directness of water-color print is akin to fresco painting -- neither the one nor the other permits of a false touch or desecrating correction. Both have a virgin quality of surface similar to the undefiled freshness of fruit and flower. The broad silhouettes of form, and gradations of color, make the water-color print the decorative equivalent in our homes to-day of what the fresco was in the palace of yesterday.
Needless to say that the skill requisite to realize this demands a knowledge of the materials and the essential technical details, which will enable the artist to express his visions with unerring certainty -- of all the difficulties to be encountered the beginner will find printing the most formidable, and in this matter no one is better qualified to instruct us than Mr. Phillips, who has a complete mastery of his craft. He has the practice in addition to the theory. His prints are not the chance survivors from countless failures. I have had the privilege of watching him print on many an informal occasion, and can speak with confidence, happy in the thought that it was just such prints which had brought two strangers together.
Some ten years ago I produced a score of bad etchings which made me, and many others I have no doubt, very unhappy. My thoughts were in color; consequently I had little sympathy with the convention of line as a means of expression; I came to abominate the cold unresponsive nature of metal, the smell of acid and oil, and the dirtiness of printing inks. I meditated sadly upon the fact that if Meryon had not become afflicted with color-blindness, he never could have forsaken canvas for copper, and that Michael Angelo must have love color, though he never had much time to pay with it, for Vasari said that he was so pleased with Martin Schongauer's print "St. Anthony tormented by the Devils" that he set himself to color it. Then I recalled an article in "The Studio" by Allen W. Seaby on printing from wood-blocks, re-read it, and the mutation from desire to accomplishment resulted. A magazine article on such a subject may be inspiring, as this was emphatically, but its brevity precludes its use as a manual. I had, therefore, all the fun of experimenting blindly more or less, which perhaps fired my enthusiasm. Morley Fletcher's book unfortunately did not come my way until recently, or I would have been saved many pitfalls. However, he inspired Allen Seaby, who activated me, so that he merits my acknowledgements. I tender very grateful acknowledgments also to my fellow color-printers William Giles, Allen W. Seaby, Y. Urushibara, and Frances H. Gearhart, for sympathy and generous contributions in an interchange of ideas, and to the three first and to John Platt, A.J. Musgrove, and Martie Hardie of the Victoria & Albert Museum for permission to reproduce their work or prints in their possession.
W. J. Phillips
Winnipeg, Feb 28. 1926.