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Explore Japanese Woodblock Printing With April Vollmer

Japanese woodblock printing with April Vollmer.

Thanks for joining us once again for another free art lesson with Golden Road Arts. Last time, we looked at how to adapt children’s art education for diverse learners.

In this latest video, American artist April Vollmer demonstrates the basics of Japanese woodcut printing, also known as mokuhanga. Watch as she carves and prints a two-block design of a kingfisher and discusses the possibilities of this creative art form.

The Traditional Japanese Art of Mokuhanga

See the process of carving the intricate details of a kingfisher into a wooden block and applying water-based inks to create a unique print.

Materials Used in the Mokuhanga Lesson

  • Shina plywood blocks
  • Water-based inks
  • Dampening brush
  • Printing brush
  • Carving tools
  • A baren (printmaking tool)
  • Paper

Scroll down and view some images from April Vollmer’s mokuhanga demonstration.

Learn About the Art of Mokuhanga and Its Role in Japanese Culture

Read along using the video transcript below for an overview of Japanese woodcut printing and its significance in Japanese art and culture.

Hello, my name is April Vollmer. I’m an American artist and I specialize in Japanese woodcut. I have a Master’s Degree from Hunter College in printmaking, but it wasn’t until 1995 that I found someone in New York City, Bill Paden, who could teach me the basics of this technique. I found it very difficult to find enough information to translate it into my creative work. I felt there was so much missing information in the American printmaking world. I was dedicated to printmaking – I love the logic of it and the way it helps you focus your ideas through these stepwise processes.

I finally went to Japan in 2004 with the Nagasawa art program, and I returned to Japan a few times since for the International Mokuhanga Conferences, each time learning a tremendous amount. And I felt there just was not information available about this wonderful Japanese technique. So, I wrote a book about what I had discovered. The part I feel most proud of, most happy with, is that I included the work of about 50 contemporary artists who do Japanese woodcut. And that was an attempt to sort of open people’s eyes to the creative possibilities of Japanese woodcut.

So now I’m going to do a demonstration of some of the basics of the technique. This is the print I’m going to be demonstrating this morning. It’s a kingfisher, and it’s made from two blocks. It’s printed water base with just a little Sumi ink. A pale block and a darker block. And here’s the two blocks that I’ll be using. This is the pale one that I’ll print first. And this is the darker one that I’ll print second.

So, a brief overview of the tools. You can see the Kento registration here. This is unique to the Japanese technique. So, when I print, this block is dry now. Now when I print, I’m going to fit the paper into these little marks so that I can register the two colors. And my paper is all set up here.

If I was doing an edition on good Japanese paper, I would dampen them with my dampening brush. Dampening brush is different from the printing brush. Dampening paper brush Mizu Bake would dampen the paper like this. It’s soft. The printing brush, Hanga Bake, I guess, is for printing and they’re stiff, coarse-hair brushes. So I’m going to be printing like this.

But before I dampened the block, I wanted to show you a little bit about the tools. This is shallow carving. And it’s been carved with the Hongi To, the knife for the sharp edges and details like these little thin parts in the tail. It’s held like this in the fist, so that you can control (it) and pointed to (the board)  with the index finger of the other hand. And then it’s cleared with these fan-beveled chisels. I have a whole series of chisels, including these little ones that are called Aisuki and the big ones called Soai Nomi. These are the most useful for clearing, and they’re unique to the Japanese toolkit. In the West we have a lot of U gouges and V gouges which are in Japan too. But these guys are special, and the one I find most useful is this one here, the Aisuki.

You see, I’ve already carved the details out with the knives and the small gouges, particularly the big areas. You really want to smooth it out, so it doesn’t emboss into the paper. And I found when I printed this block earlier, these margins were embossing into the paper.

You notice I have both hands on the tool. You also notice I’m standing square. And my mind is on the tip of the sharp tool, so I have the maximum control. Both hands on, even, let me back up a little, even with this tool, I have both hands. The power comes from one hand. But I’m engaging the other hand by pointing at it for the detail. So, this one is used like this.

Okay. So, this is the dark block, I’m going to set it aside to print after I print the pale block. So, what I’m going to do to prepare it. It takes a while for the moisture to move into there. For the block to become conditioned and wet enough to print smoothly. And I’ve already prepared this one for printing. It’s already a little bit damp.

So, let me set aside my tools. I’m going back and forth a little. I didn’t show you the Kento Nomi.  This tool is a chisel. And this tool is only used for the Kento. Can you see the Kento? This block is pretty clear. I’ve outlined it in red, so I don’t miss it. And it’s cut specifically with this tool.

Okay. So, I’m going to just maybe fold that over so it’s not distracting me and I’m going to do a printing. Two colors with water and a little paste. And this is called Nori and it’s so easy to use it out of a jar or out of a tube, but you can make it yourself from refined rice flour. You can buy a bag of it for relatively cheaply. The problem is it doesn’t keep, so this stuff has a little bit of preservative in it, so it keeps longer. If you mix it yourself, you heat it up on a double boiler. And it’s very nice, but it’ll only last a few days.

And a little bit of Sumi ink. This is just standard calligraphy ink.  You can get better qualities of ink depending on how much money you want to pay, but for the demo I just have a little standard. So, this is going to be a pale color, right?

Which Baren should I use? Should I use the really lightweight one? Or the synthetic one? This is a Murasaki Baren. This is a Hon Baren, which means it has a coil made from this sheath, this bamboo sheath that’s covering it. It is sliced into strips and braided/coiled for the interior here. And this is the strongest one. Ball bearing Baren. But it kind of crushes the paper, so you want to hesitate before you use this one. So, I think for this print it’s a big flat area, so I need a little bit of pressure.

It’s good to wait a little while after you dampen to get the block saturated. I’ve got two brushes here. Okay. So, let’s see which one did I say I was going to use? So, that’s my first color, pale, because it’s a lot of paste and just a little ink. That’s the first go around, so we set it over here. I’m going to put my nice brush away because I didn’t dampen the paper just for a demo. It’s a little easier. And this paper is soft enough, so it’ll print okay without being dampened.

Another thing I like to emphasize about Japanese woodcut, you can’t do just one. Once the block is warmed up, brushes are moist, everything’s all set up, you know what Baren you’re going to use, it’s important to keep going. So I’m going to print four in sequence, and you see how quickly it goes once you’re set up.

Let’s see, little water, a little paste and a small amount of color. I’ll bet this one is going to be darker, though. So, during the warmup, you’re getting the amount of color adjusted. Slide it in there, that’s the Kagi Kento, and this is the Hikitsuki  Kento.

Now, this time I’m going to hold it down. So, I’m going to do a little more here, here, here and here. With my second brush, I’m going to bleed it out into the flat area. So, without moving the block, I’ve added a little gradation on the tail and the shoulder. And I’m going to keep these over here. You can just pile them up on top of one another. That is a huge savings in doing Japanese woodcut unlike oil-based.

Okay, so I’m trying to adjust the amount of color so that I get the same each time and you have to go through a lot of printing to get there. So, some of that and then this time I’m not going to add color because I already added some with that gradation printing and I want the first one to be kind of pale.

You want it to be damp, but not wet, no puddles. No dry spots, and no puddles. Like this thumb on this Kento, let it drop. Oops. Decided this was the best one for this print. And then, something heavy like it just. Just a very small amount and I’m using a different brush just to gradate that out. Let it drop. And is this, okay?  Let’s see. Now I’m trying to get it the same as this one. Really hard to keep them consistent. Okay and I have one more, one more block, one more print.

Yeah, ideally, you want the paper humid and lying flat and limp, limp and absorbent, but not wet. So, I don’t know if you can see I’ve got like a thin layer of ink and paste on there. This table is slightly low. I want a stable table so you can lean into it. I always carve sitting down, but print standing up. Because you need to get your back into it. You’re really pressing but covering every part of the image. See, a little too dry there, little too wet there. It’s always balance. Stay there.

Okay, let’s see where we are now. So, they’re gradually getting to a point where it’s evenly moist and I have a better sense of how much I need to add each time. And I get the little gradation. Ok, so that’s my pale color.

Now, I’m going to switch to my dark color. Always rest your block vertically so it dries evenly on both sides. I have another print on the other side. You can use these both sides. And I tend to use the Shina plywood, because it is so light and flexible. And it doesn’t warp when it’s wet. Of course, you can use any kind of wood for woodcut, but the Shina is very easy to work with. Now this block I’m going to have to start dampening it again.

And what would we do without McClain’s? Most of my tools are from McClain’s, too. If you’re fortunate enough to go to Japan, you can sometimes find good Japanese woodcut tools. But the key resource is McClain’s and has been for many years.  Let’s see a little more water. And it doesn’t make sense to buy plywood from Japan because the shipping is so expensive. Even though I’m going to Japan for conferences, those are special opportunities. Here in the U.S., we rely on McClain’s a lot.

Okay, so this is a darker block. I’m going to go back to my bigger brush. This brush is the horsetail, also from McClain’s. The horsetail is stiff. Remember, the water brush is soft. I think it’s goat hair, and this is a stiffer brush. This still feels a little dry. The humidity makes a difference, too.

This technique developed in Japan, particularly in Tokyo, which is very humid. So, I want a little more color this time. See, the preparation takes all this time. And now I’m going to change Barens and use this one this time, this one’s stronger. This is a Hon Baren. Hon means true. So, this is the Baren made from the bamboo sheath. So, it’s stronger than the one I used for this lighter one.

Okay, I’m going to prepare my paper. If I was using good Japanese paper, this would be wrapped in plastic. Remember, I’m printing upside down, so I’m going to set up my papers upside down. I just happened to have my Kentos on this side block. Let’s see, I’m going to move this. I think I did degradation on this one as well. Along the shoulder, just to get it really even. But first I’m doing the darker color all over. And, okay, let’s see what we got. And I’m going through the same sequence and remember the first one didn’t have any graduation. So, let’s see what we got with this one.

I want to do the same gradation that I did on the other. Yeah, I think it gives it a little more dimensionality. Here’s my small brush. Okay, it’s getting there. But now that I’m set up, I want to keep going. And once your set for your edition – you get your paper, you’re selecting your Baren, you’ve made any correction to the block, it’s good to just keep working. Because your block is going to be nice now.

It requires focus. Okay, so I’m getting there. See this stripe? That’s in the block itself. So, I’m like, I don’t want to emphasize it, but I kind of like that you can see that it’s made with natural materials. So, I don’t fuss about that too much. Not too dry, not too wet. And then I’ve got to do that gradation. Just a little bit, using a separate brush, so I don’t get the colors mixed up. See, it’s getting darker. It’s getting a little bit richer each time. So, one more. Both hands again. The whole body is engaged. You know you can’t print like that. You have to really focus your energy on getting the ink up into the paper.

Okay, so here’s the final one. This should be the best because my block is warmed up and I’ve like figured out how to adjust it. For myself personally, this is only the first step. Recently I’ve been working on cutting, cutting them out and pasting them on digital prints so I can combine some architectural themes that I’ve been working on. I also can multiply the image by printing it in different orientations, like remember where we started. This one is printed twice on the same paper, but I could print it four times. I could print it over another image.

Japanese woodblock gives you incredible flexibility for combining and recomposing. And it’s also given me access to an international group of people who are interested in this technique, and I’ve made friends in Japan who are happy that I’m promoting this Japanese technique and Japanese culture more generally.

This is, this is a really important part of Japanese culture I didn’t learn Mokuhanga until 1995. I’ve been doing it a few years and every year there are more and more. Even now, I mean I still feel like a beginner, always more to learn about this technique. It’s very deep. I mean you can get the basics down. But once you get the basics down, it is easy and flexible. It’s good for kids. I mean it’s ink and paste and no toxic chemicals. You can do so much in a small space.

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Mokuhanga art created by April Vollmer.

Hon baren tool for Japanese printmaking.

April Vollmer carves kingfisher woodblock prints.

Japanese Woodblock Print Workshop book by April Vollmer.

Kingfisher woodblock print by April Vollmer.

April Vollmer showcases mokuhanga art.

Mokuhanga printmaking lesson with April Vollmer.





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