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Mokuhanga – The Art of Japanese Woodblock Printing

Modern Japanese woodblock printing can trace its origins directly to China where it was invented in antiquity. The technique replaced seals and stamps for making impressions and writing by hand for longer text. Early woodblock printing was used to print text on textiles and then later on paper, the earliest surviving examples from date to before the Han dynasty (206 BC–220 AD).

Woodcuts prints made their way across the East China Sea from China to Japan, the earliest known prints made in Japan date from 764-770 AD. When Empress Shotoku commissioned one million small wooden pagodas containing short printed scrolls to be distributed to temples across the land. In China, Korea, and Japan, the state involved itself in printing at a relatively early stage of development, as initially, only governments had the resources to finance the carving of the blocks for long works.

Buddhist temples were among the first to use the woodcut technique in Japan, printing books of sutras, mandalas and other Buddhist texts, before later printing images. The process was only adopted much later for secular books, a Chinese-Japanese dictionary of 1590 is the earliest known example.

In Japan, woodblock printing is known as mokuhanga, moku meaning wood and hanga meaning print. It is best known for use in the ukiyo-e genre of Japanese art.

Mokuhanga artists of the past rarely carved their own woodblocks for printing. Production was divided: the artist designed the prints; the carver cut the woodblocks; the printer inked and pressed the woodblocks; and the publisher, financed, promoted and distributed the works.

Although similar to woodcut in Western printmaking, the mokuhanga technique differs in that it uses water-based inks, as opposed to western woodcut, which often uses oil-based inks. The Japanese water-based inks provide a wide range of vivid colours, glazes, and transparency. As printing was done by hand, printers were able to achieve effects not possible with machines, such as the subtle blending or the gradation of colours.

The wood block is prepared as a relief pattern, which means the areas to show ‘white’ are cut away with a knife, chisel, or sandpaper leaving the characters or image to show in ‘black’ on the original surface level. The block was cut along the grain of the wood. It is necessary only to ink the block and bring it into firm and even contact with the paper or cloth to achieve an acceptable print.

The content prints in reverse, a mirror-image, a consideration when text is involved. For colour printing, multiple blocks are used, one of each colour, although overprinting two colours may produce further colours on the print.

Buddhist temples were among the first to use the woodcut technique in Japan, printing books of sutras, mandalas and other Buddhist texts, before later printing images. The process was only adopted much later for secular books, a Chinese-Japanese dictionary of 1590 is the earliest known example.

Yoshikazu Tanaka

Wetpaint gallery is delighted to represent contemporary artist Yoshikazu Tanaka. He creates modern designs, but continues the Japanese tradition using traditional techniques.  His work is minimal and delicate, capturing trees at night with a sense of timelessness imbued with moods created by washes of colour.

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