Thursday, 21 July 2011

Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints Part 1 - Shomen-zuri

Burnishing, or Shomen-zuri

Woodblock printing in Japan, ukiyo-e, was quick to develop from the single-colour outline prints of the early eighteenth century and their hand-coloured counterparts into the multi-colour block prints of the nineteenth century. Sometimes described as embroidered pictures, these mid- and late-century prints present us with rich polychrome surfaces, pictures which use multiple coloured blocks that are double-printed, over-printed, shaded, burnished, embossed and sprinkled with shiny, reflective mica. I want to look in more detail at these techniques in the coming weeks through these short blog posts starting with a frequently used technique of burnishing or shomen-zuri.

The first picture (shown above) is a magnificent triptych portrait of the actor Ichikawa Danjuro IX by the artist Toyohara Kunichika and it dates from 1894. It’s quite a big image at 72cm x 38cm. The enlargement of the print shows the intricate carving of the lines of the hair and the masterful massing of the imposing figure set against the nearly empty background. However carefully shot though, something from this fine portrait is missing. Looking at the next image which was shot on the slant a sophisticated pattern of filigree flowers and leaves is revealed, this beautiful black on black design only revealing itself when held at an angle to the light. The pattern here has been burnished onto the background printing of the black tunic; this technique is what is called shomen-zuri.

To gain the intense black of the tunic, it is likely that a first ground of black would have been printed and then a second layer printed on top, possibly containing rice glue or gum. A block with the pattern carved in relief would have been placed under the printed area of tunic and the surface of the paper rubbed with a smooth, hard object - the preferred item being a polished boar’s tusk, or spoon. The constituents of the ink would encourage the shiny pattern to appear on the surface of the print. This technique was most commonly used on black areas and it lends the prints a great deal of depth. It has to remembered that in nineteenth century Japan there was not the same tradition of framing art and hanging it on a wall. Prints were designed to be held in albums or passed around; this way the different techniques would catch the light as they were being handled.

Techniques such as this were time consuming and therefore expensive to produce, and consequently are most commonly found on deluxe prints rather than playbills or large series. This beautiful portrait and others of Danjuro are available at the current exhibition at the Toshidama Gallery, Personalities of Edo: the Cult of Celebrity in Japanese Woodblock Prints until August.