What the Western world has traditionally viewed as a high-end collectible, Japanese woodblock prints are a true piece of Asian history, an example of creativity at its peak. In addition, Japan has given the world many gifts both artistic and culinary: ink painting (sumi-e), Noh drama, haiku poetry, flower arranging, matcha tea, sake, sushi and sukiyaki.
While many an art aficionado can identify different types of woodblock prints and ink paintings, few know how to make their own versions of these artistic beauties. Fortunately, worldwide interest is growing among Asian art enthusiasts who wish to learn the craft of woodblock printing and sumi-e ink painting.
The beginnings of woodblock and sumi-e art
Woodblock printing had been popular in China for several centuries before it became the primary way of creating artistic scenes and book pages in Japan in the early 1600s. The Japanese used water-based inks in order to widen the range of colors, and this practice led to a golden age of art. After moveable type replaced block-printed books, the woodblock method never died out as a way of making large, colorful murals and prints. Even today, many of Japan’s most prominent artists use the woodblock and a handful of other “ancient” techniques to create all kinds of art works.
The monochrome brush paintings of the style Japanese call “sumi-e” also originated in China, and became popular among Buddhist monks in Japan in the 1300s. For several centuries, black ink paintings and woodblock prints were two of the dominant artistic styles within Japanese culture.
Both sumi-e and woodblock art are derived from Buddhist traditions that emphasized simplicity and mindfulness. In fact, sumi-e artists still enter a contemplative state before picking up a brush.
Modern practitioners of sumi-e and woodblock printing spend many years perfecting their crafts. However, a large contingent of amateurs has arisen both within and outside Japan. Many Western artists have incorporated both woodblock and sumi-e techniques into their own paintings, sculptures and other creations.
Make your own work of Japanese art
You don’t need to be a professional artist to learn the basics of woodblock printing and sumi-e ink painting. Here are some tips for beginners, students and amateur Japan-ologists who want to get learn a bit about these ancient practices.
Woodblock prints: Making an amateur woodblock print is simple and fun, but you need to assemble all the equipment before starting in order to avoid making a gigantic, inky mess. Decide what size print to make. A “medium” piece, about 4-by-5 inches, will require a piece of wood that size. Boxwood, lemonwood or maple will do, in that order of preference. Boxwood has the tightest grain, which makes for wonderfully detailed prints. You’ll also need a bottle of water-based ink, a piece of glass for spreading the ink onto, a roller, a carving tool, several large pieces of printing paper, and a surface on which to do the carving.
Find a simple drawing and transfer its outline onto the wood block. Use the carving tool, or “wood chisel,” to carve the outline of the drawing onto the wood. Add as much or as little detail as you like.
Place a blob of ink onto the glass and rub it in several different directions with the roller until your roller itself has a thin, even layer of ink covering it.
Now, gently place the roller on the wood block and run it lengthwise, then sideways in order to get an even layer on all the non-carved surfaces of the wood. Be very careful not to let ink get into your carved crevices. That defeats the whole purpose of the technique.
Put the block face-up (inked side up) on a surface, and then place a single sheet of paper over it. Rub the paper to the block with a spoon or art knife, again being careful not to rub ink into any of the crevices.
Take the paper off the block and let it dry. Examine it for imperfections (most of which will be a result of not covering the block with enough ink or not rubbing the paper to the block completely). Practice re-inking the block and re-pressing more sheets of paper to it. After they all dry, you’ll notice that some are much crisper and detailed than others.
As your skills naturally develop, experiment with more detailed images and larger wood blocks. This style of art can be addictive, but it is also educational and quite fun.
Sumi-e ink painting: Sumi-e monochrome brush painting is sometimes called “painted haiku.” Something of a mix between calligraphy and watercolor, sumi-e can be a deeply spiritual process, and is said to bring an inner calm even to amateurs who try it for the first time.
You will need a bowl of black ink, several saucers with about 2 ounces of clean water in each, a few pieces of felt that are slightly larger than your drawing paper, several paint brushes of varying sizes, a few pencils with erasers, thick drawing paper (thicker than standard printer paper but not as thick as cardstock), a quiet place to work, a large tabletop, a very comfortable chair.
Decide on a simple drawing that you would like to create in ink. This inspiration can come from your mind or from an actual work of art. In the beginning, the simpler the better.
Lightly outline, in pencil, the basic sketch you want to recreate in ink.
Place one of the papers on a felt surface to begin. Choose a brush and put ink on it.
Using thick and thin brushes alternately, recreate the image, improvising as you proceed. (A simple, single-stem plant is a good image for first attempts). Add as much detail to the scene as you want: clouds, background images, grass, mountain outlines, etc.
Set the paper aside and let it dry (while still on the felt), and begin another painting. Remember that you can vary the darkness of the ink by diluting it or using it full-strength. You’ll be surprised at the amazing range of “color” that can come from simple black ink mixed with water.
Ikebana (flower arranging), karaoke, matcha tea, sumo wrestling, karate and Zen Buddhism are some of the better-known Japanese exports; but woodblock prints and ink paintings were among the first cultural artifacts to attract Western attention more than a century ago. As these two crafts continue to be rediscovered by art enthusiasts worldwide, Japan’s ancient art proves once again that it is culturally indestructible.