Japanese Woodblock Printing ( Moku- hanga : moku = wood, hanga = graphic or print )
"The print form I work with is a traditional Japanese method of printmaking, which was originally primarily associated with the Edo Period (1615 – 1867) in Japan.
Mokuhanga for mass printing:
A woodblock print was at that time a product of a co-operation between individual craftsmen, with individual styles and qualities: the artist, or print designer; several craftsmen (copyist, block cutter, and printer); and the publisher.
Generally blocks were cut from maple, sycamore or cherry, the paper made from the fibre of the mulberry tree, and were produced in large numbers in a few recognised popular formats, with traditional themes such as festivals, geishas and flowers, and often as triptychs.
These prints, known as ukiyo-e (‘prints from the floating world’), were hugely popular with the growing urban population of Edo (present day Tokyo – even then a vast city), and very large print editions were often issued (up to 20,000 impressions of Hiroshige’s Tokaido series, for example). As such it was an early form of mass produced images. With the introduction of moder printing methods, mokuhanga almost disappeared as an art form.
Revival of Mukohanga
In the early 1900’s, as a result of the interaction between Japanese and Western influences, especially the Impressionists in France, a movement known as ‘sosaku hanga’ ( ‘creative print’) reinvigorated this traditional art form. These were prints produced by the artists themselves, a radical idea at the time, and now there is a huge range of work produced using the technique of moku-hanga (often in combination with other print methods such as silk screen and etching). Editions are much smaller - mine are usually only about 20!
Methods and techniques
The methods I use to carve a block and print it are very similar to the original way of working: I use Japanese tools (brushes, barens, blocks, chisels), the kento registration system, and Japanese handmade papers. I handprint with a baren, and use water based pigments. I am experimenting with making my own natural pigments. The wood I use for my blocks tends to be lime, but I also like to use different woods like Japanese ply and pine.
Each picture is usually made with more than one block, each one carved for each colour, and often overprinted with slightly different colours, tones or hues, and perhaps using a special inking up or printing technique, eg. bokashi, which results in graduated colours.
I ink up the blocks using special brushes, and print the blocks, a process which is done by hand using dampened paper and a baren (a pressure pad faced with a bamboo sheath, which is rubbed on the back of the paper as it lies on the printing block, in order to fix the impression on the paper).
The kento marks (the registration system unique to moku-hanga) on the corners of the block itself hold the paper in position. Multiple impressions align correctly when the paper is placed in the correct position on the kento marks. Layers of colour can be built up to create an intense and luminous quality to the print. The pigment is taken into the body of the paper in a particular way, due to the unique qualities of Japanese paper and the fact it is printed while damp.
Each print is an original, editioned print. Because of the handprinted nature of the method, there can be variation across the edition.
The technique is low tech, safe, clean and accessible. The materials are nontoxic, natural, inexpensive and readily available, making this an ideal printing technique for home and studio.
I enjoy teaching and promoting this eco printmaking method and run classes from my studio near Ledbury.
For more information about mokuhanga and my work, please see my website,