The Art of Print Making
By Amy Hand
Hello there art lovers!
Welcome to our December blog inspired by our wonderful block printing box that turned up on your doorstep this month! I hope you’re going to have fun exploring this new medium and learning a little bit more about where it came from.
Of course, there is a full description of what block printing is and its origins included in your brochure, but very basically, block printing involves carving an image into a block of wood or lino, covering that in color, and printing it onto paper. The great thing about this style is you can reuse your original carved piece to make multiple prints in different colors and mediums like ink, paint, or pastels.
As I’m sure you’ve seen from our brochure, block printing has been around for 4,000 years and originated in China so this is an art style that has truly stood the test of time. Art of this kind, that is one that can be printed again and again, has done a lot for spreading art across the globe and making it available to everyone, not just the elite.
This month we are going to be diving into some block print artists to give you a really good look into how block printing has been used in art over the centuries. To do this we are going to look at two different artists; the first will come from the days of mediums rise to fame while the other is a contemporary artist you can even find on Instagram.
I’m really excited to show you how much this medium has changed yet stayed the same over the years and how it has helped spread art across the world. So, without further ado, let’s jump into some printmaking wizards!
Hokusai (1760-1849) was a Japanese artist that produced work during the Edo period. From his birth, he always had creative influences around him as his father was a mirror maker who would hand paint details on the mirrors’ surfaces. It will come as no surprise then when I tell you that he started painting at the age of 6.
He was first introduced to woodblocks in the form of books that he read as a child but his initial education would start when he apprenticed under a woodcarver when he was 14. He then went on to study formally at the Katsukawa School.
After leaving school the great artist launched his career as an ukiyo-e artist, which is a style of woodblock printing that directly translates to “pictures of the floating world.“ Initially, this style mainly focused on portraiture specifically of courtesans and kabuki actors around the city of Edo, modern-day Tokyo. In fact, Hokusai’s first series of woodblocks in 1779 depicted kabuki actors. He would later go on to expand the style to include landscapes and animals. It was this shift that launched Hokusai into the public eye. Previously prints of celebrities and the high born were the in thing but Hokusai helped bring the public attention around to a new kind of artwork; scenes of famous places throughout Japan. These works even became popular tourist souvenirs for those traveling through Japan.
The Great Wave Off Kanagawa
The Great Wave Off Kanagawa is probably the work from Hokusai that is the most recognizable and celebrated even to this day. It forms part of a woodblock series called Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji that was first printed in 1830. This series set about showing Mount Fuji, a great symbol in Japanese culture, as viewed from many vantage points, through the eyes of different people going about their everyday lives. But of this entire series, it was the Great Wave that would make the biggest splash.
The piece depicts a tumultuous scene set in Sagami Bay with Mount Fuji in the background. This great mountain is eclipsed by an enormous wave in the foreground that is poised to engulf three fishing boats at its foot. The piece is dynamic and dramatic; managing to capture the dynamism of a real wave in a way that had, up until this point, not been achieved in this medium. The piece is finished with a traditional vertical title in the left-hand corner with Hokusai’s signature alongside it.
The process of getting a print like The Great Wave made involved a whole team of skilled artisans to execute, even though the print size is only 10x15”. It would start with a publisher who would commission an artist to make the work. The artist, in this case, Hokusai, would then work on the drawing for the piece and produce a final sketch. Then the sketch would be sent to a woodcarver who would transfer the sketch (shita-e) to a block of wood with glue and rub back the remaining paper until only the impression of the image remained to be carved. Only the most skilled wood carvers were trusted with Hokusai’s work due to its level of detail and his fame. One woodblock would be carved for each layer of color so the work was incredibly painstaking. Then the piece would finally be printed, each layer printed by hand and allowed to dry before the next layer was added. This piece may already be regarded as an important work but knowing the process behind it just truly goes to show the depth of its beauty.
An estimated 5000 copies were made of this print until the original woodblocks started to show wear and tear. The fact that this could be repeated over and over is probably part of the reason that the Great Wave has become one of the most recognizable artworks in the work. It is so famous it is even going to grace the 100 yen note in 2024.
Now it’s time to come back to the present and take a look at a contemporary printmaker. In the age of social media, art has become so much more accessible. Art is not reserved for fancy art galleries and museums anymore! Great artists can become part of your Instagram feed and that is exactly where I found Jennifer Zee.
Zee, who goes by the professional name Ginkgozee, is an Asian American printmaker and scientific illustrator based in San Francisco, California. She has graduate degrees in Biology, Art, and Museum Studies, whose influence you can clearly see through her portfolio. She mainly focuses on nature prints of marine life and insects in particular. When she posts a new artwork on social media each piece will be accompanied by a detailed description of each creature and sometimes even process images and photos of the linocut itself. Her work manages to enthrall you visually while educating you at the same time.
Zee even has her own homage to The Great Wave which shows how pivotal the artists that come before us are and how much Hokusai has influenced this medium of art. She cleverly took inspiration from the claw-like caps to Hokusai’s wave and made the form part of the water dragons. The prints of this piece as part of a fundraiser called Printmakers Against Racism.
An element of her work that I found absolutely fascinating is her use of multi-part blocks that allow her to apply layered detail to the piece in a very clean way. From looking at how The Great Wave was printed we can clearly see the influence of Japanese woodblock prints that have inspired her work. Though, unlike Hokusai, she does all the steps herself without a whole team to back her up.
Unlike the traditional prints, however, Zee makes the format smaller and, instead, focuses on the finer details of the piece. She builds up each piece by collaging and collaborating a series of small linocuts with one another until she creates a symmetrical masterpiece; as opposed to the full block prints that would make up traditional Japanese prints. She is quoted saying that she enjoys the “tedious details” which is obvious in her work. It’s these tiny details that make her work stand out so strongly.
A piece of hers that really caught my eye was her Monarch Mandala because it uses that collaging technique with such skill. The piece is created with a number of lino blocks that all come together to create this symmetrical exploration of a butterfly’s celebrated lifecycle. She artfully plays with diamond blocks of butterflies, a caterpillar, a chrysalis, and plant life and prints them in a way that is symmetrical and organic all at once.
From ancient China to modern-day America, block printing has come a long way while still paying homage to their humble beginnings so long ago. This is a legacy that will be continued by artists into the future, evolving as we do to help tell our stories through the medium of art.
Now, if this beautiful work doesn’t inspire you I don’t know what will! We hope you are looking forward to digging into your December box. We can’t wait to see your creations!