I have spent an exhausting but rewarding couple of days learning traditional Japanese printmaking with Laura Boswell hosted by the RHS at Wisley.
Laura started the course with an extremely interesting introduction to the history of Japanese woodblock printing explaining its origins in the mass production of text and image. Prints became very popular with the emerging middle classes and were produced in bulk in a production line system with skilled craftsmen working on each process, the designer, the carver, the printer etc. Originally, there was no concept of a fine art process or editioning. With contact with Europe in the 19th century, the style of prints changed to include perspective and less idealised subjects. At the same time, Japanese prints were traveling west and greatly influencing European artists such as Van Gogh and Gauguin.
During the first day, Laura taught us how to transfer a design making effective, thrifty use of wood and how to cut our design. Holding and controlling the tools, especially the dagger-like hangito, requires concentration and practice. At the end of the day we each had about four plates cut ready to print, complete with kento registration slots. Laura gave us a demonstration of the inking methods to set us up for printing the next day.
In the morning we started to ink our plates and print on to paper which had been prepared by damping and leaving overnight between pads of damp newspaper inside plastic sheeting to conserve the moisture. We used watercolour paint which was combined on the plate with nori, a paste cooked up from rice starch and water. These were dabbed on the plate and worked with Japanese ink brushes to a silky gloss. The paper was positioned against the kento slots and then pressed down and rubbed with a baren. For a stronger colour this could be repeated several times.
We proofed our complete prints doing a print of every plate and colour onto damped decorating lining paper. Laura showed us how to adjust the kento for any registration errors. She also showed us how to produce effects with the ink such as bokashi where the ink is graduated, deliberate baren texture and printing wood grain texture. We then reproofed and printed our plates in order, for a small edition. Everyone worked so hard and intensely that hardly a word was spoken and the excellent lunch got scant attention.
At the end of the course, I had produced about eight prints, experimenting with different effects and trying out Inktense colour instead of watercolour. My prints were pretty poor, but then instant expertise isn’t to be expected in a technique which took years to learn in a traditional workshop. I loved the craft element of producing the prints and am already working on my next design.
What an excellent course; the venue was stunning with lovely refreshments and lots of space. Laura was extremely professional, covering a lot of contextual and technical information. She was most generous with her time and knowledge, and I learned more than I would have thought possible in the time. Her handouts were detailed and comprehensive and her website includes lots more information.