Bokashi 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!
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.
- 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.
- 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!
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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!
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:
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…
Now that my semester is winding down, I wanted to get some serious printing done. As you might know, I’m in the process of printing 1,600 copies of 14 designs fo my Appalachian Trail print project. Right now, I’m finishing up 200 copies of my first design, “Springer Mt”.
While I was proofing the prints earlier this year, I naturally learned a lot though trial and error plus observation. I had watched other printers use two barens before- it looked as if several simply used one (presumably the weaker baren) to smooth down the paper onto the block and following up with a stronger one for the real work.
While printing very fine-lined blocks in Japan, I noticed that it doesn’t help to always man-handle printing- fine lines (both positive and negative) need finesse unlike large flat areas. This makes sense: When printing fine and/or sparse lines, the pressure from the baren is concentrated into small areas. Too much pressure and the paper is too deeply embossed, under too much pressure, the paper tends to wrap around the inked lines causing blurred edges, etc.
So, I’ve made a video showing a good example of why printers may want to use two barens- the block I feature has both fine lines and large flat areas.
Getting thick stacks ready
In extension to the paper prep entry I posted a few weeks ago, I mention a way to allow for more ease in grabbing paper from the “to be printed stack”by slightly staggering the stack’s leading edge. To do this, gently bend the face-down stack inward in a slight “U” shape. Gently squeeze with one hand and let the sheets naturally stagger. I’ve seen the trick in China where bankers handle stacks of thousands of yuan bills to make it easier to count.
Don’t use this technique with newly-dampened sheets of paper. Dampen them and let them relax for many hours- overnight is preferable before you bend them as newly-dampened sheets tend to stick to neighboring dryer sheets.
This post kind of confirms (and consolidates) several techniques I have learned from other people in order to prepare paper for mokuhanga.
1. Go with the Grain
While I was printing in Tokyo, I was having a terrible time with registration issues while printing the “Heron and Crow” design by Koryusai (1735–1790) . Dave Bull cut to the chase and asked how I had cut the paper.
I explained to him that all I really ever considered was to be most efficient with the dimensions because of cost and mitigating waste.
I was embarrassed to hear that I should always cut the long dimension with the grain (see diagram for reasons why). Apparently, the Heron and Crow paper grain was at odds with the wood which compounded problems greatly. I also mixed and matched in that I had the grain going horizontal in some and vertical in others which amounted to insanity. Dave explained to recognize the grain direction and just “go with it” for all of the printing steps.
2. Protect the Corners
When prints require numerous colors- my current prints average 20 impressions, the corners that fit into the kentos (registration guides) take a beating. When I watched Dave Bull print in Ōme, Japan during Dec., 2002, he showed me a trick for printing shin-hanga– using nail polish to strengthen the corner. I use two coats of SuperDry® nail polish from the local DollarTree store- 95¢ and is DA BOMB!
I must admit that fingernail polish aroma adds a certain ‘je ne sais quoi’ to the studio.
3. Keeping Track
I also number the prints on the verso using pencil. I can’t tell you how many times this was come in handy- especially during printing the first impression which allows me to orient the paper correctly since there is no previously-printed image as a guide.
4. FLAT is Where It’s At
I have come to the conclusion that conditioned maru bake brushes are good, smoothly-ground pigments are very nice, and a good hon baren is a treasure, but second to using a quality paper- having flat woodblocks and flat paper are the key to getting smooth impressions.
About year ago, I have discovered (and extolled) the virtues of a flat wood block. An uneven or unsmoothed block allows for splotches and woodgrain (unless unintentional). In a nutshell, my prep process is as follows: (1) planing (2)rough orbital sanding- 120 grit (3) fine sanding -1500 grit (4) wet sanding (5) fine sanding-1500 grit (6) bluffing with rouge to a near-mirror finish.
As a printmaking grad student, I heard about flattening the paper to prepare for printing, or, calendaring. I thought at the time that that must be a complete waste of effort. I later heard letterpress printers talking about the presses “kissing” the plate- meaning that the paper made a gentle contact with the inked block to retain sharp printing. Such finesse just couldn’t happen with a a rough paper.
To get a good impression with Japanese-style woodblock, the same is true- if not more so.
“In mokuhanga, a smooth paper is even more important.”
Apparently, washi– even the highest quality- is getting rougher as the years go on. The planks that the paper is dried on are eroding without easy replacement and instead of planing them smooth, the old, rough boards impart their rough surface to the paper.
A not-smooth paper gives a non-directional blotchiness similar to goma-zuri (sesame printing) that results from light printing and not using paste.
If you want a pronounced goma effect, you might print the goma first, then calendar the paper- although this may stretch the paper resulting in bad registration… maybe- I’ve never attempted it…
Initially, I had first smoothed the prints with a beta (clear color impression) block using a ball bearing baren. This worked OK, but really didn’t get the paper very smooth and I ran the risk of baren suji (printing marks).
While working at Mokuhankan for a month, I saw David Bull use an etching press. I tried this recently and yes, I don’t think that any human can compete with the utter silky smooth results.
Here’s a video of me calendaring paper (with a groovy trip-hop soundtrack):
The process takes a while, but unlike the ‘younger me’, I am sure that it will save time in order to get smoother impressions.
NOTE: I would also add that several folks over-size (re-coat the paper with animal glue and alum) with dosa. The present John is too chicken to do this.
Sorry that I’ve been pretty ‘mum’ about any prints lately. Since December I have been very busy designing and printing a series of hand-made fourteen 5″ x 7″ (8″x10″ paper size) shin hanga– style woodblock prints featuring an image from east state along the 2,100-mile Appalachian Trail. This is at least a 2.5 > 3-year project for me!
I was a thru-hiker back in 1980. 38 yrs later and counting, I continue to re-hike sections of the trail which conveniently starts at Springer Mountain- which is about 30 miles from my home in the North Georgia mountains.
Basically, my idea with this project is to combine two of my interests: backpacking and woodblock printmaking. I’d like to think that it mirrors other historical pilgrimage print series such as Hiroshige’s Tokaido Road.
As an added connection with the trail, I am taking soil samples from each site and integrating the actual dirt with the ink!
Proofs are in the pudding
Here are my printed proofs of the first 7 prints. I hope to finish with all 14 proofs by Dec., 2018 (fingers crossed). The remaining images to be designed and proof printed (the last half) are: NJ, NY, CT, MA, VT, NH, and ME. After all of the 14 prints are proofed, I will then print 100-200 copies of each design– no small feat as the average number of impressions for each design average around 20 colors each- the number of blocks are averaging around 11 each design. The 80+ laminated cherry blocks are stacking up already with an anticipated total number of 165 by the time I am finished. The paper is Iwano Kizuki from Kitaro Washi which will cost at least US$5,000 for the final editions…
It’s interesting to note that this printmaking process has been similar to long-distance hiking- planning is important, but mainly keeping moving with one step at a time and ignoring distractions are the key.
The final edition will be 1600 prints: 14 designs, 20 passes each which equals to 32,000 impressions! My guesstimate is that this will take around a total of 140 8-hour days to print- and at least 3 weeks to bind them- about the same number of days it took me to hike the 2,100 miles of the trail. I’m interested to see which is more difficult…
The ultimate goal is to market 100 sets of these 14 prints to hikers and trail enthusiasts- in 2019 to an institution that I hope is interested. At some point, I will make presentation cases to contain them.
As one of my friends once said “I don’t need luck, I have patience”.
It’s getting a bit more efficient and my turn-around time (while working full-time) for a design from start to proof has gone from around 3 weeks to 9 days! I’m pretty pleased at my ability to accurately print the values and coloring of my initial computer designs.
-COMPLETED PROOF PAGES & PRINTS- as of 6/15/18
at flipbook1– .pdf document similar to the animation above.
I’ve always wanted to to an irregular bokashi or gradation– (yes, my desires are irregular).
The classic example of such a thing is Hiroshige’s Sudden Shower Over Shin-Ohashi. The problem with irregularity is consistency of ink application within an edition.
Last week, Shimoi-san of Ukiyo-e Reproductions showed how he recreated the dark rain clouds while he was printing “Sudden Shower”. I asked him if he used a jig and he said “no, jigs didn’t work as well” and posted a few pics showing his technique of directly inking which is probably the traditional way to do it. However, I’m not good enough to trust myself with placing the pigment, brushing, and printing consistently.
I had remembered David Bull using a jig in 2009 to create a very smooth bokashi arc for a fan print he was working on. He used a Lazy Susan to help with the brushing- I thought that was pretty ingenious.
I cannot imagine how someone in the Edo period could brush freehand that cleanly and I’m sure there was another trick at the time. Anyway, Dave’s print really looked nice and I squirreled that information away.
I am printing a third print of a series of 14 (much more on that much later) and wanted to capture a rainstorm in the mountains.
You can see the similar effect as in Sudden Shower that I am looking for: A dark, foreboding cloud just as the rain has started, but not as undulating as Hiroshige’s design.
For this print, I am using 11 blocks with 17 impressions in the shin-hanga style. The rain, incidentally, is printed with gofun, or Chinese white. The rain is my first attempt of Kyoto-style printing: Unlike the Tokyo/Edo ukiyo-e transparent style (like the rest of the print), opaque pigments require more pigment- under very light baren pressure. In this case, it’s the last thing to print.
I’m at the proofing process and wanted to get everything ‘just so’ for a much larger edition. I know how gradations tend to ‘creep’ over time- a little or too much there cumulatively can lead to a little or a lot too much there. So, to that end, any fluctuations in the bokashi would render the edition too variable and I wanted some help.
I remembered Dave’s jig and made one of my own, albeit not as clever.
Here’s a few pics:
Given using the zokin, nori, and hanga bake correctly (note in the above photo, the black dot indicating which side of the brush is loaded with sumi), the jig worked well- I had to keep the brush at a consistent angle, but overall, I’m quite pleased with the relative consistency!
Thanks to both Yuya Shimoi and David Bull.