Mokuhanga


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Back in November, Marc Donaldson of The&Partnership agency got in touch with me about an exciting project for the Japanese car manufacturers, Lexus.

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The brief was to highlight the deep beauty of making something by hand, looking at the physical knowledge and near super-human skills honed over a lifetime of practice, and link it to the use of AI and digital manufacture. Essentially, it was a reminder that despite the inexorable increase in the digital world, ultimately it is humans who have a lifetime of knowledge who are still in charge.

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They had already commissioned a gorgeous film on the subject, called Takumi. This film follows several artisan makers talking about their craft and displaying their skills. Takumi is the Japanese word for artisan, a term earned for exceptional skill achieved after 60,000 hours on the job.

Marc’s vision was to create a Japanese woodblock poster from cherry wood that would use hand printing to embed traditional pigments into hand made paper, based on a design which he had created in the computer.

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I have to say that while I trained in Japan in Japanese woodblock, and printed large prints for several years, I found this commission extremely challenging…

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Japanese woodblock technique relies on a harmonious combination of humidity, speed and response to simple changes in the basic materials. The wood absorbs paint, and then releases it to damp paper. Too much ink, too wet paper, too much pressure, and the paper bleeds; too little, too slow, too much glue and the paper is patchy.

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Photo by Feng Ho

However, the air pressure, sunlight, temperature, the number of previous printings, the absorbency of the wood, how much glue is used, the number of brushstrokes and humidity in the brushes, the consistency of paint, the speed of brushing, the precise way the paint sits in or on the wood, all these factors vary second by second, hour by hour.

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Photo by Eoin O’Flynn

The colour had to be coaxed onto the page, like a dance of wills.

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Photo by Feng Ho

I have to admit, my first 50 prints were a disaster. It took a lot of determination to keep going, as each print took an hour, so it was days and weeks before I’d made a passable layer of colour. Having made linocuts for the past few years, it was a shock to be a beginner at a technique again.

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I had to learn how to ink up generously on the block with an almost foamy layer of ink, without leaving a drop of ink anywhere near my table, in order to keep the edges of the paper clean when they were placed face down.

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I made my own homemade recipe for ink, combining gum arabic with nikawa and pure pigment, a blend of graphtol red and ruby red, and added a tiny drop of sumi ink to help the colour depth.

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I learned to hold my elbows out a certain way to fix the edges of the paper on the registration marks accurately, and how to trust that registration mark when each poster needed two or three printings to achieve the required depth of colour. Every now and then, the registration would be out by a fraction of a millimetre, and the print would fail.

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Photo by Feng Ho

I learned that a lovely intense colour field would leak through the damp paper in the last stage and mark other areas, so I developed a way of protecting the paper with a spare sheet of newsprint to stop this from happening for the final layer of ink.

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As this technique needed solid day light and it was during the winter months that I was printing, I’d skip lunches to maximise the hours of printing. I rigged up the ceiling light to a scaffolding to give myself a bit of light boost. There were no short cuts. I didn’t get faster. I had to keep moving, at a slow pace, and enjoy the process.

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I learned to relax and enjoy the meditative brush strokes and listened to quite a few absorbing but calming podcasts to keep my mind occupied and body in the flow.

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Photo by Feng Ho

After a mere 100 hours on the job, I cannot call myself a Takumi by any stretch of the imagination, but have a renewed respect for the masters of the field!

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I thought it would be funny to make very purely digital images in Japanese woodblock technique. 01_smileyrock_drawingdesigns.JPGThe contrast in time couldn’t be greater

02_smileyrock_planningblocks.jpg one tap of a button for the computer

03_smileyrock_carvingwood.JPGtranslated to a long time to carve some wood

04_smileyrock_woodblocks.JPG then get paper dampened, 06_smileyrock_soakingpaper.JPGthen patient printing by hand, 08_smileyrock_paint_palettes.JPGinvolving a gradual building up of colour over a few hours to days…

10_smileyrock_prints.JPGSmiley Rock 1

It was entertaining, and laborious, and then just a little bit overwhelming.

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After a while I wanted to record the actual process rather than the final images

and then I started to worry about why I was trying to make perfectly registered images each time, when really the process of making the prints would naturally generate interesting frames.
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So the eyeballs swivel around and then bounce out of the head, and I made some dark lashes and a kind of fluttery blink…

Smiley Rock deconstructed

All in all I made 51 prints, but there are many more photos as they also record the build up of colour on each piece of paper.

Smiley Rock on the bedIt’s still very rough round the edges. I’m working on a new version with musician Eliot Kennedy, who has made a really upbeat and jolly tune!

Check out the vimeo file here

OR if the link isn’t working you can type in https://vimeo.com/237974015