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



September 4, 2010

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About three weeks ago a new Japanese shop opened in Fitzroy. Ura has a distinctly Kyoto feel to it and is everything I love about Japan. The atmosphere is warm, relaxed and cosy with traditional tansu (chests of drawers) and wooden display tables. Owner Yutaka Matsuda’s concept for the shop is to stock ‘treasures’ that customers will discover and fall in love with, hence Ura sells a mixture of seemingly random items—pottery teacups, second-hand clothes and kimono, Japanese school badges, noren and tabi socks. But perhaps the most exciting product Ura will be selling from September are jika-tabi, the traditional Japanese-style shoes with the separated big toe. The jika-tabi are made by a company I know well, Sou Sou, from Kyoto.

Sou Sou prides itself on the fact that its goods are designed and made in Japan. The Sou Sou design concept is based on traditional Japanese clothingshirt collars influenced by the crossover kimono, wide sleeves, side ties and simple flowing lines. Designer Wakabayashi-san says that designs have to be useful so Sou Sou aim to retain the convenient aspects of traditional Japanese clothing but create something modern. ‘We want to upgrade the kimono, like you would upgrade your computer.’ The fabric patterns are modern Japan—funky flowers, hiragana letters, dots and stripes, mon, colourful stylised chrysanthemums. Wakabayashi-san says that Japan has a history of making things that suit the environment, designs that depict the seasons and the physical world. He also points out that Japanese are collectors, a fact very much reflected in the eclectic mix of contemporary Japanese fashion and style. ‘[You can find a] world museum in Japan.’

As a company, Sou Sou is not interested in being a fashion brand. As Wakabayashi explains, they see fashion brands as mostly short-term trends because 90% of fashion brands fold relatively quickly. Sou Sou is in it for the long-term, and have collaborated with other very well-established names such as Louis Vuitton, Burberry and Le Coq Sportif. However, for me, their best product is the jika-tabi. This kind of footwear have a mixed image in Japan. Often, the only time the young wear them is when participating in festivals. Older generations are reminded of traditional workmen’s shoes, especially construction workers who used the tread on their jika-tabi to help them climb the bamboo scaffolding poles on building sites. It’s still possible to see construction workers today wearing jika-tabi and the baggy genie-style trousers that go with them. The basic design of Sou Sou’s jika-tabi is based on these Taisho-period workshoes, but the fabrics and molded soles definitely give them a radical upgrade. So, if you are keen to get the iPad-equivalent for your feet, check out Ura.

28 Johnston St
Fitzroy 3065
Ph: 9416 4503

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.