Workshop Participants Create Their First Japanese Woodblock Style Prints

Workshop Participants Create Their First Japanese Woodblock Style Prints

Congratulations and thanks to Giana, Tyra, Jennifer and Fiona, my latest round of workshop participants who churned out their first woodblock prints! Each of their prints showcases the students own personal style, yet as a whole, each work contains characteristics of Japanese woodblock prints like overlapping shapes, tight registration, and multiple colors. 

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Image Production, Sans Computer.

I try to work without the aid of a computer as much as possible when transferring a drawing to woodblocks. It is true that using a computer can make aspects of printmaking easier, it is a personal goal for me when working with mokuhanga to create multiple images using only pencils, paper, carving tools, woodblocks and ink.

 I am by no means a luddite. Japanese have been creating sophisticated reproducible artworks since the 9th century. To me their process is just as much valid today as it was then because each mokuhanga print still feels like one of a kind watercolor to me.

Creating artwork without a computer in the room also increases mindfulness. When I am detached from the computer I am fully focused on the project at hand without the interruptions of social media, email, or any other notifications that may suddenly arise on the screen.

 For example: When creating a multi-colored woodblock print I need to be sure that the colors print in the right place. This involves carving the right areas on each block, which means I need to place the key image in the exact same spot on each of the blocks I need to carve. For three color blocks, I need the key drawings placed in the same position on each block to ensure that the color flats lineup when printed. To do this I need three key drawings that are the same, and this is a point where I can use computer technology or that of paper and pen to ensure this happens. With a computer, I can print out three exact drawings, and paste each onto the block in the same spot. Or, I can take a much riskier and longer route, and use carbon paper to trace one image three different times onto the block. The carbon paper takes longer, and each drawing will be a little different, but boy does it look beautiful. And I’ve recreated a key drawing without the use of a machine. The process still feels pure. 

Breaking the Komainu

Throughout my travels in Japan I visited many Shinto shrines. Each Shinto shrine in Japan has a pair of komainu (lion-dog in english) placed either at the entrance of the shrine, or somewhere inside. Symbolically, komainu ward of evil spirits. The two figures are almost identical, except in the case of the mouth: one statue’s mouth is shut while the other’s mouth is open. After doing some research, I found that the mouths are actually pronouncing the first and last letters of the Sanskrit alphabet. The open mouth pronounces an “a” sound, while the closed mouth makes an “um” sound. Together, the komainu chant “aum," a sacred symbol representing the beginning and end of all things.


The Komainu depicted in my image is broken from the head down and diaphanous. Many of the older shrines in Japan use cages to preserve the komainu statues, as they have weathered and broken over time. Cages can be interpreted in many different ways: protection, preservation, jails or barriers to name a few. I’m going for preservation in this work, and read the overall meaning of this piece as an attempt to maintain mindfulness of the present moment. I often find myself overly concerned with what is going to  happen in the future, or re-thinking situations in the past that might have gone a different way. This work is a reminder that the present moment can quickly fade.


Creating an image with both translucent and opaque areas that overlap would prove to be a technical challenge. To achieve the numerous effects, I printed with watercolors for the translucent komainu, and with gouache for the opaque rope and cage. To give the cage an aged feel, I added some German antiquated calligraphic ink I picked up when I was in Vienna.


Here are some photographs of the finished piece.