Exploring the Japanese Woodblock Technique

Japanese woodblock printmaking originated in ancient China to print prayers by means of a simple black and white relief carving on a cherry wood plank. Along with Buddhism, the technique was introduced to Japan in the 6th century. By the 17th century, the Japanese had radically expanded the process, multiplying the number of colors by using numerous blocks and an ingenious registration system. In the 19th century these new prints, with their luminous color and design, took Europe by storm, deeply influencing many artists including Mattise, Monet, Degas, and Van Gogh, who were laying the foundations for modern art.

In the Edo era of 18th century Japan, the artist was the spark of a three part team. Once the artist designed the print, all the required same size wood planks were prepared. A team of professional carvers pasted the outline drawing to a 'key block' , which was then carved by the master carver. Prints of this were pasted onto all the color blocks ,and apprentices cut simple areas away, leaving complex work for more experienced elders. Once all the negative areas were carved away from all the blocks required for the different shapes in the image, they were sent to the printers.

The professional printers first prepared a small number of sheets of handmade paper by carefully dampening them and leaving them under a weight overnight. The next morning, with moisture stabilized thruout, they began printing each step. Pure powder pigment mixed with water is applied to the block, sometimes with a dab of rice paste to control viscosity. This is carefully brushed out evenly, often with complex gradations of color. A sheet of the moistened paper is laid gently onto the surface. Choosing a "baren" (a flat dish shaped hand tool whose lacquered backing holds a coil of one of a variety of tightly knotted bamboo fibers) the back of the sheet is firmly rubbed until the pigment for that step is absorbed by the lightly sized paper. The type of baren, amounts of ink, rice paste and rubbing pressure may change at each step, depending on the effects required. The first sheet is removed, laid carefully aside, and the block re-inked for the second sheet. The remaining sheets are done in the same manner and the process repeated for each step, with its new color and appropriate block. Some blocks are used over 20 times, overprinting areas to build up intense harmonies of color.

The characteristic lush color of wood blocks is dependent on the special mulberry papers used. Unlike the best European papers, whose cotton or linen fibers are short and opaque, the mulberry Kozo fibers are long and translucent. This length permits paper of amazing tensile strength, able to withstand repeated hard rubbings when damp, treatment that would destroy a European paper! The translucency of mulberry fibers, and the relative lack of sizing to seal the paper surface, allows both light and pigments to impregnate this kind of paper deeply. Instead of bouncing off the surface of an opaque paper, light enters the Kozo paper and reverberates up thru all the layers of color, each a separate step of printing. Wood block seems intrinsically suited for complex atmospheric effects, unobtainable with any other media.

For twenty five years, I've spent more and more time on each woodblock. Lately it takes me most of a year to design, carve, and then proof the print with my husband and printer Sam Rogers. Over those last long months we make seemingly endless adjustments, changing color, placement, printing and carving until we have perfected a final proof. Sam then begins many months of hard labor, printing up to 40 layers of color, from 10 or more carved blocks, onto each print in the edition. The meditative discipline required has been good for the soul!

Most contemporary artists design and carve their own work, printing it themselves or working with a master printer. I'm particularly fortunate because Sam has concentrated on our work only, so that between us we've been able to develop new techniques to realize visions that would have been beyond us individually.

I find the materials seductive, pure natural pigments, handmade papers bleached in cold mountain streams, honed edges of Japanese steel, and the glowing surface of the wood. We depend entirely on traditional craftsmen who have been refining their skills for many generations. The knife makers, the wood block planers, the brush maker, the baren makers, and the papermakers. My knives, for instance, were specially forged for me by Shimizu Hamanoten, knife makers for over 500 years. Our papermakers, Yamaguchi Sojiro and Kinuko, inherited skills passed down in their paper making families during a millennium of making the imperial families paper. It has been very inspiring!

The alchemy of pigment, paper and water this technique offers has enriched my painting explorations. The fascination with the expressive energy in each wood grain has lead to a growing series of carved gold leaf paintings and mixed media reliefs.

Suezan Aikins


An original print is an image that has been conceived and executed solely as a print, usually in a numbered edition. Each print in the edition is an original, signed by the artist, and printed from a plate, stone, screen, block or other matrix created for that purpose. There is no one original print from which copies are made. Each print is inked and pulled individually; it is multi-original medium. The number of prints in an edition is decided by the artist, and each print is given a specific number (for example, a print numbered 10/200 is the 10th print in an edition of 200). Sequential numbering provides an accounting for the number of prints in the edition.


A reproduction, although often called a print, is actually quite different. It is a copy of a work of art conceived by the artist in another medium such as an oil painting, watercolor or computer. The reproduction is usually printed by photo-mechanical off-set or digital ink jet printer. Numbering and signing a reproduction does not change its essence; it is still a reproduction of a painting and not an original print.

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