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.

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