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