Mokuhanga: a short week in Glen Arbor

Currently, I’m riding back from 3 days in Glen Arbor, Mi. I was in a 3-day mokuhanga workshop at the Glen Arbor Art Center. Reflecting on those days’ learning and experimenting with Mokuhanga (moku: wood + hanga: print). Linda Beeman was the exceptional teacher for the group of 6 of us. It was an outstanding experience.

Glen Arbor Map courtesy of Google Maps

Mokuhanga is a style of woodblock printing originating in Japan since the early 1600s. Similar in some ways to woodblock printing as known in the West, it uses water-based inks to produce the final image on a substrate. Using multiple blocks and a unique (kento) registration method, you can get a mix of colors and effects.

It’s said to originate with Buddhist temples in Japan. Woodblock printing was more mature in Buddhist communities in China. As my instructor, Linda Beeman, told us as Japan opened its borders to the rest of the world, the practice of mokuhanga was nearly lost to printmaking techniques considered more modern.

First, we needed to decide on a design. I had 2 options: a poppy and a pond of koi. Linda suggested the koi would be do-able in the 3 days. (spoiler: she was right) So started day 1.

Design of the blocks

With a simplified drawing of my fishes I started to break down the image into 4 of what would essentially be colors. Orange for the fish, blue for every other water ring, purple and red for the bubbles. I could probably come up with something more interesting, but I liked this combination, and the decision kept me from getting stuck.

Key image with all the expected colors: 4 blocks needed

Carving the blocks

Part A: Now that I had distilled the image into 4 colors (and blank for white), I needed to color in the drawing (making 4 copies first) with all the appropriate colors. Blocks can also be used to emboss the paper if desired. That’s probably it’s own block? No matter, I was able to see some areas where I’d want to overlap the transparent colors too. Using that as the key image, each color needed to be colored onto its own line drawing and numbered. In some images, where there might be the possibility to merge two or more separate colors on to the same block, but only if the colors didn’t overlap. By a lot.

Kento registration measuring guide

Part B: With each block essentially mapped on its own line drawing and numbered, it was time to get going on cutting, carving.

A piece of tracing paper with all the shapes was used to transfer the design as appropriate to each block. I used a colored pencil in the chroma I wanted to see each shape printed in to add that color’s set of shapes on its block.

Fast forward, color coding and numbering was a real plus as it helped keep the appropriate shapes on the appropriate blocks. Carving commenced.

Block for bubbles and fish eyes

Dampening the paper

Getting the paper ready to accept the printing is pretty simple, but important. Creating a damp pack of mildly damp paper (spritz each sheet and stack, like usual.) Put the papers smooth side down between 2 blotter papers, wrapped in plastic, let it hang out overnight. Yep, normal damp pack operations. In my limited experience, the papers aren’t as heavily saturated as when preparing them for intaglio type of prints. The process tends to use papers made of kozo, mitsumata, bamboo, gampi and paper pulp being the usual ingredients, aka non-cotton based papers.

“Inking” the blocks

Inking the blocks is just as straight-forward, but uses watercolor pigments, or really any water-based pigments and (rice) nori paste (about a maple syrup consistency).

Printing the blocks

Dampen the block so it can accept the ink. A spray bottle works great for this. Wiping the pigment and nori on the appropriate areas on each block with a split hake gets the job done for inking. Using a piece of parchment protects the damp paper from the friction of the buren. Push, swirl, brush, you might even see some of the nori-ink bleed through the paper. Check the absorption and decide if you need more: rubbing or nori-ink. Add more of either if needed and check again. Happy? Pull the layer and add it to the done pile and move on to the next sheet. When all of the sheets are printed with a block, move on to the next block and color. Turn the papers over and prepare to start again. Keep going in this fashion until you have all the blocks and colors printed on each sheet.

printing block #2, keep damp in the plastic pack

Look over your completed print and exhale with a little pride. Another masterpiece to sign and set loose on the world! Size of the series is up to you. Unless you’ve done something really out of the ordinary, it would be a good idea to keep notes on how you printed, inks, and all. That way, if you need to print more, you can. Maybe you want to print more, but in a different color/effect combination. That’s ok, you can. It’ll be a new series.

“Key Koi” final print… Kool Koi 🙂

That’s one of the great things, these are wood and unless you’re really rough on them, you can keep printing (or not) as you please in combinations.

A note on Proofing: It may take the first 4 sheets of your set to get the blocks properly charged and able to execute a pseudo-standard layer of paint-ink for the rest of the series. Those are your proof sheets. Look at them closely, what needs to be adjusted? This is your opportunity to refine and improve the block. Patience is a virtue that cannot be understated at this stage. These are handmade products and deserve your TLC and attention.

They’re not perfect, there are some obvious mis-registration bits. But “oh well”. These are handmade jewels and are made by a person, a human; they may show some of that humanity. That’s what makes them precious. Enjoy the journey, enjoy the process. Share with the world. Revive an art form.

In gratitude… Robin

More about the history of mokuhanga:

Mokuhanga – The Art of Japanese Woodblock Printing

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