Thursday, 20 October 2011

Techniques in Japanese Prints IV - Bokashi

Bokashi (shading)

Probably the most common advanced technique in woodblock prints is termed bokashi which means shading or transition. It is so universal in some artists' work that it seems barely noticeable but it nevertheless provides extraordinary variety and depth to a print as well as naturalistic tones within the grid of the black key lines and other colours.

The strip of dark blue sky at the top of most Hiroshige, which fades to sky blue and then white as it approaches the horizon is maybe the most identifiable use of bokashi. The technique is almost a signifier of Edo period landscape prints - so much so that it loses its primary purpose of naturalism and becomes a design motif or signifier of sky and recession.

Elsewhere in ukiyo-e, the method of shading is more subtle, less obvious or staggeringly complex as in the case of the illustrated Kunisada Secret Meetings by Moonlight. Normally, the woodblock itself is inked evenly (a skilled operation in itself) so that the raised and carved surfaces receive a uniform coat of ink. The block is first dampened, the ink applied and then carefully brushed to achieve even distribution. In bokashi the ink is applied in greater quantities where the strongest colour is desired and then subsequently less heavily where lighter shades are required. The brush marks and abrupt edges are then smoothed aside by gentle brushing in multiple directions. The whole process is made more difficult since the printer can barely see the progress of his work because of the dark colouration of the wood itself. When the desired shading has been achieved the paper is laid down and the print is made.

In some cases, several colours can be blended together at once to achieve what might be called a ‘rainbow’ effect as in the beautiful print of a musician by Kunichika illustrated here. Looking again at the Kunisada, the night-time grisaille effects produced by the overlapping gray shades, the delicate woodgrain and complete fading away of architectural detail in say the window bars is truly astonishing. It is very hard indeed to try to deconstruct the printing process, the order of the separate applications of ink and the number of separate tones achieved by overlapping the different inked blocks. This is one of the best examples of the technique that I have seen, the more so since the intention of the process and its role in the design and the meaning of the print are so important.

Bokashi was mainly a product of the nineteenth century boom in ukiyo-e, the process not being common in prints prior to that. Deluxe prints from the 1840’s onwards took advantage of this and the other specialist techniques to produce truly extraordinary prints that shimmered and sparkled with mica and metallic inks, complex shading and embossing on thick, luxury papers. For collectors, these luxury items are now highly sought after objects and with justification, because of the endless complexity of design the new techniques offered to the artist.