Some Bokashi Printing Considerations

beach takashi hiroshigeBokashi or Graduated Printing (as many of you know) is a very distinct feature of Japanese woodblock printmaking (mokuhanga) that was developed during the ukiyo-e Edo period. It can be intimidating to the beginner and it’s not the easiest thing to do as the technique involves several additional variables beyond beta (flat tone) printing. Bokashi works really well by itself, but also as an overlay on flat printing.

To the right are examples of bokashi in Hiroshige’s “The Beach at Takashi in Izumi Province”, 1853. The deep ultramarine blue pigment you see in the water is reminiscent of many landscapes of the ukiyo-e period. I am guessing that the central double sided bokashi band of blue you see in the bay was created from two passes- one for the top and one overlapped in the middle to create the lower gradation. There are additional bokashis (I count twelve in total): the far shoreline, near hill, far mountains, beach, two in the sky, and even on the house rooflines. Curved or irregularly-shaped bokashis are particularly difficult. I have posted an earlier entry using a jig for such an animal.

Bokashi is great to create a natural illusion of depth- so much so that it’s sometimes difficult to spot their use. However, this technique is generally more time consuming and requires extra skill and patience, but worth it!

Basic Technique

Here is a video of me explaining one way to print a gradation for my print #6 (Maryland) from my Appalachian Trail series:

Other than a hanga or maru bake (printing brush) and baren, another tool- the zokin is really handy thing to use. Translated as “rag”, a zokin is a wood block that is covered with a small piece of fabric- preferably white cotton from a t-shirt. Here’s some pictures of mine.

Stretch the cotton fabric taut, use flat pushpins to secure. You need at least 2 layers of fabric
Size of block 2″ x 2.5″ of wood (notice that I rounded the corners and edges) and the piece of cotton fabric 6″ x 8″
  1. The zokin is saturated with water and drawn beyond the surface of the block will be inked. The amount of water on the block should be slightly reflective- certainly not a puddle. The water helps the pigment to spread, the paste helps the pigment to remain in suspension resulting in smooth printing. The idea is that in order for the ink to be printed smoothly as a fade, there cannot be a sharp distinction between the dry and moist areas of the woodblock. Do this several times in the beginning to let the moisture penetrate the wood.
  2. Most printers apply the ink and paste in a line to the block. I do this also- especially for large gradations and it helps to gauge the correct amount of paste and ink. It is important to do this several times also before you use your good paper. The ink and paste needs to also penetrate the wood to create a smooth gradation. I use copy paper to help force the pigment/paste mixture into the wood and to get the amount of color I desire. If, after you saturate the block with ink, you see unwanted woodgrain, use a woodblock wrapped in very fine sandpaper to knock down the raised woodgrain. This really can make the printing a lot smoother!
  3. My printing brushes have a color dot on one end. That helps the printer know which end is for the paste and which end for the ink. It’s easy to get the ends reversed which can pollute both ends of the bokashi area. If this happens, you must stop and clean both the block and brush thoroughly before resuming printing. It happens to everyone and it teaches the printer’s mind not to wander.
  4. As you can see in the video, instead of adding the paste or nori (I make the paste for this kind of work quite watery, btw) and ink directly to the the block, another way is to add the paste and ink directly onto the brush. The advantage of adding the paste and ink to the brush is that I find there tends to be less tamari (accumulation of paste around the edges of the carved areas). The disadvantage with this as opposed to the adding to the block is that it is hard to see the amount of pigment and paste on the dark brush hairs.

    Print #6 “Raven Rocks Shelter, Maryland” containing 4 bokashis.
  5. My color is pretty dark- the lighter the color used in the bokashi, the more difficult it is to be consistent. For very light pigment, use a white tile and mix a small amount of paste into the light color, then tap the color end of the brush into the mixture. Very fine and subtle effects can be created this way.
  6. In the video I am using a smaller brush than the length of the bokashi. In order to ‘extend’ the usable area of the brush, I initially tilt the brush toward the pigment end while I scrub onto the block in a slight circular motion working down and tilting toward the paste end. In my design (the tree area), I want a small amount of pigment to bleed down to the bottom. If you want the bokashi to go from pigment to completely clear paste, you might want to use a brush that is roughly the same length or greater than the length of the bokashi.

It’s really easy for the bokashi gradation to get away from you- to ‘migrate’ or change widths while you print- especially for large editions. 

It helps to use a Sharpie® marker in the carved recesses (not on the printing surface!) of the block to indicate where the color range should be or at least to have a print next to you in order to compare.

Since my print is an edition of 120 copies, I feel that this ’tilting’ method has helped the gradations to be more consistent.

Either way, I hope this entry gives you some additional tips to create a nice, clean, and consistent bokashi!

ADDENDUM 6/12/19:

I have been experimenting with trying to make the smoothest bokashis– I’m not the only one, I know so I hope this adds to your idea toolbox.

Here are some additional tips to place the pigment, paste and water:

bokashi inking2
Light blue= water, light yellow= paste, medium blue= pigment. (1) To concentrate the pigment, create a pyramid (2) with a large as possible brush create sweeping motions across the grain (3) eventually, the water, paste, and pigment mix. Try to feather it very slightly and watch paste buildup (tamari) along the edges. You can clear this by lightly scrubbing up along the sides of the block shape/s.


I have also found that to get smooth printing, you need to attack the rubbing with the baren VERY quickly.

I learned this the hard way by letting the paper sit on an inked block for a couple of seconds to answer the phone- the effect is very similar to gomazuri- or blotchy “sesame seed printing”. I believe that what happens is that if the paper is placed on the wet block too long, the textured surface of the paper (which makes contact without pressure) absorbs the ink, then swells which compounds creating a textured look. I have learned to carefully place the paper into the kentos and VERY vigorously print- and print HARD.

Another consideration: I tend to print the sky blocks at one time- although this is counter to what I’ver read, ‘wet’ printing seems to make things quite smooth- the only drawback is that wet printing makes the colors appear darker because of the water content, so I tend to print slightly darker which lightens up after drying. I’ve lately waited for the paper to dry some before I print the ‘sharp’ blocks- keyblocks, etc. Once again, normally the keyblock is printed first. I like a dark keyblock and the sumi tends to bleed when overprinted. Since I do printing proofs, I’m not worried about the keyblock registration and can wait until later. In fact, it helps to wait until later since the dark keyblock tends to obscure the delicacy needed for light colors…


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