Printing Ukiyo-e

March 25, 2011

I went to the National Gallery of Victoria International on Monday for a workshop. I had time before it started and decided to revisit the Asia gallery. I wandered the gallery, lingering in front of the beautiful negoro lacquer, its layers of black showing through the red. My mind was on the Japan disaster and it must have been visible on my face because as I left, the gallery guard, looked at me, hesitated, and then said, ‘Have a good afternoon’.

One of Hiroshige's 100 views of Edo

I did. The workshop I had signed up for was learning the art of printing an Ukiyo-e woodblock print using traditional methods. Thanks to the Consulate-General of Japan and the Sakai family from the Japanese Ukiyo-e Museum (JUM), it was a free one-and-a-half-hour workshop offered to the public. Printmaker Ito Tatsuya explained the process with the help of translator Yumi. The image we were colouring, one of Hiroshige’s 100 views of Edo showing Ueno Park, had 17 colours that each had to be added separately. We were going to try three colours only.

We were given the basic underdrawing, the hanshita-e on mulberry paper. One of the most important things to get right is lining up the paper on the woodblock so that each layer of colour is applied exactly where you want it. We were able to practice for a while before getting down to inking the woodblock.

Colouring the cherry blossom

Our first colour was a pale pink for sakura (cherry blossom).  Ito-san wet the woodblock a little, explaining that usually the paper would also be a little damp but was more difficult to work with like that. For beginners, it was better to keep it dry. Then he added a few drops of pink paint, a drop of nori (glue), and using a circular motion, spread it over the relevant area with a wide brush. Then he placed his paper onto the woodblock and pressed it down using a baren, a flat round instrument for that purpose. He lifted the paper and voila, the sakura had bloomed.

Adding the blue water

Ueno Park’s blue water pond was added using the same method but the yellow tint for the horizon was a little trickier. For that we had to add paint and glue in one spot, then sweep the brush back and forth so that it created a graduated colour.

Ito-san has been a printmaker for 26 years. His movements were deft and sure. As with Japanese calligraphy or ikebana masters, I could have watched him carry out his craft for hours. He patiently explained the process and answered our questions. He gave us feedback on our attempts, pointing out where we missed the placement a little, or where we might not have kept the baren absolutely flat, and praised our attempts. Considering it was the first time the workshop members had made a woodblock print, everyone did a very good job.

The graduated yellow horizon

Turner and Tohaku

June 25, 2010

I watched a documentary on JMW Turner recently and was surprised to learn that he left his collection to the British nation – that is, 300 paintings, 3,000 watercolours and 20,000 sketches. Turner was accepted into the Royal Academy as an apprentice at the tender age of 14. He made a name for himself from a young age, travelling around England, often on foot, to draw and sketch. Even though he started painting and drawing professionally at such a young age, and lived until he was 76 years old, 32,000 is still a shockingly large number of works to bequeath. This is not even his life’s work, as it doesn’t include all of the works he painted on commission or sold in his lifetime.

During Turner’s time (1775–1851) it was common for artists to begin by copying the Old Masters until they had, well, mastered them. I can’t help comparing this style of education to the Japanese way of learning. Even today, to become competent in shodo (calligraphy), ikebana (flower arranging), or chanoyu (tea ceremony) you begin by copying your teacher’s work over and over. This repetitive form of education, while tedious, is meant to instill the skills deep within, until they become muscle memory and something akin to instinct. It is only after you have spent years learning the rules that you can break them and experiment. This style of teaching doesn’t appear to align with contemporary society. In fact, it seems to have been lost in contemporary Western culture completely. People want to master skills as quickly as possible and I think this is to the detriment of art as well as other areas of life. As head of the Honnoji ikebana school told me, “You can do a short course in ikebana, one or two years. But it is like fast food – it is not good for you.”

Turner continued to work until late in life, and in his later years he experimented more and more with style and technique. His works focussed on atmospheric skies and became more abstract. Rain, Steam and Speed – The Great Western Railway is a good example of his depiction of ephemeral light. It is as if he is attempting to paint air. I can’t help but compare this to the work of Japanese artist Tohaku Hasegawa (1539–1610) who was painting almost 300 years before Turner. In his famous work Pine Trees he deploys empty space to depict the mist – what Tohaku called “expressing without painting”. It seems that both artists came to the conclusion that less is more, and they appear to be striving for similar things – depicting that which is beyond our reach, something we can’t quite grasp.

Art flower workshop

April 25, 2010

Yesterday I did an art flower workshop at my favourite Kyoto clothing designer, Pagong. There were only three of us in the class. I arrived early, having cycled across Kyoto to get to Pagong’s head office in the southern part of the Nishijin quarter, so I had time to shop – dangerous! The two other women for the class came slightly early too, and when one of them found out I was intending to do the class she said, ‘Kowai’ (she was scared). I’m not exactly sure what she was scared of – perhaps I have more of a presence than I think.

We were shown upstairs and greeted by Endou-sensei, a glamorous woman with carefully curled locks, perfect make-up and decorated nails. She told me her husband makes lacquerware for the temples.

My classmates had obviously done workshops there before as they got into selecting their fabric straight away. Nishimura-san calls herself a ‘wa-designer’ (‘wa’ means Japanese-style or peace and harmony). She was the more vocal of the two, asking me questions and arguing with the sensei. In fact, Nishimura-san was such a chatterbox that I never discovered the other woman’s name.

After selecting our fabric, in this case silk printed by Pagong, we started bending our wires into our desired petal shapes. Then we chose a centre bobble and glued it together. Using a little glue, we had to stick the wire petals onto the fabric and cut them out, leaving a 5mm trim to be folded under and glued. The gluing and cutting took the better part of the lesson. Once that was all done we had to arrange the petals in a desired configuration, glue them altogether, cut off the stem and hot glue it to the corsage pin. They all praised me on my good taste and told me I had a Japanese sense but I think they were just being polite. Still, if you see me wearing a large flower, be kind.