Sunday, 18 September 2011

Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints III - Mica

Printing With Mica (Kirazuri)

You may have come across Japanese prints which are described as having mica as a feature of a special or deluxe edition. There was a craze for mica prints in the late eighteenth century, most famously by the enigmatic and little known artist Toshusai Sharaku who was mysteriously active for one year only from 1794 - 1795. His caricature prints of actors of which only 140 are known have deeply pigmented and mica strewn backgrounds, so dense that the few prints that remain are invariably cracked and crazed with the effects of decades of rolling and creasing. Sharaku is one of the most expensive ukiyo-e artists; a single print by him was sold at auction in 1997 for $296,000. Utamaro (1753 - 1806) also used this difficult and time consuming technique.

Fewer deluxe prints were produced during the nineteenth century, presumably because of high demand and therefore pressure on production, but as the popularity of ukiyo-e declined from the 1870’s onward, the deluxe edition became popular again amongst aficionados and collectors. Mica prints remain some of the finest prints that were produced in Japan. Not only did they shimmer with reflective dust, they were printed onto thicker paper with complex designs and other expensive techniques such as embossing or burnishing.

Printing with mica (and sometimes metallic powders) was a difficult and highly skilled technique. The nature of the glue and the way it held the fine powders when mixed together was such that it tended to adhere to the block rather than transfer neatly to the paper. Consequently the block was firstly prepared with gum arabic, then dusted with mica using a fine brush. The paper was then printed, transferring a sandwich of glue and dust to the required area. Alternatively, the gum was printed directly onto the paper (sometimes through a stencil) and the mica powder was sieved onto the wet glue to be dusted off when the glue had dried.

Woodblock prints with a lot of mica still present are rare because of the tendency for the powder to wear off with time, as the gum becomes brittle and less ‘sticky’. Kunichika was particularly fond of mica in his prints, particularly on series such as the 100 roles of Baiko and the 100 roles of Ichikawa Danjuro. The very fine Danjuro print illustrated below has some of the best preserved kirazuri I have seen. This print and others by Kunichika are at Toshidama Gallery from the 23rd of September 2011.

Friday, 2 September 2011

Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints II


Gauffrage, or Embossing.

I wanted to write these short explicatory notes to help people appreciate the terms and the techniques they might come across when viewing Japanese woodblock prints perhaps for the first time. It can be quite off-putting to tackle the specialist terminology, which is why at Toshidama Gallery we usually use plain words to describe process. Gauffrage is a case in point. It is common for a print to be described as having fine gauffrage on the cuffs of a jacket or the collar of a kimono but what does this French word have to do with Japanese prints?

Gauffrage is a hybrid word; French in origin, from gaufrer which means to emboss. This in turn has its origins in gaufre or honeycomb or waffle. In English it turns up as goffer which is a seventeenth century word meaning to crimp or plait in costumery. The word is used in the context of printmaking to mean blind embossing, a raised area of the print that is not necessarily coloured. If using a word in English other than embossing it might be better to choose the Japanese, karazuri which simply means ‘empty’ or ‘done without ink’.

The technique is simple enough, a carved area of the block is created as normal and the damp paper is laid over it and rubbed very hard with a smooth object or ‘burren’. This produces a sharply defined, raised area on the paper that will appear more or less apparent depending on the direction and source of the light. The effect is to bring life and dimension to the print - as your eyes move in relation to the surface more or less detail is revealed to you.

The technique is most common in Japanese prints of the Meiji era (1868 - 1912) although it has been used in manuscripts and other items as far back as the twelfth century, but it was really the enormous popularity of ukiyo prints in the late nineteenth century which allowed publishers and artists the license to produce lavish effects such as these.

The photographs here show three uses of embossing on a single print of Zi Luo reading by Moonlight from the series One Hundred Phases of the Moon by Yoshitoshi of 1888. In the first picture the series cartouche is deeply and sharply embossed with intersecting hexagons against which float the calligraphy of the title.

A quite different technique has been used to emboss the sack of rice that Zi Luo is carrying. It is possible that the texture was derived from stiff hessian material rather than carved wood since the embossing technique could employ any resistant textured surface as a pattern.

In the final example, the rough texture of the paper is used in the lower half of the print to evoke the rising mist. It appears that the rest of the paper has been flattened to create the contrast and hence the higher, raised edge.

In addition to the differing effects of the embossing, Yoshitoshi has used the most delicate gradations of shading and effects of colour to add realism, depth and surface incident to the composition. The result is a fine evocative print which seems effortlessly to demonstrate the range of the woodblock artist. This print and others by Yoshitoshi will be available in our new season show: 4 x 4 Giants of the Ukiyo Scene from September 23rd.