If you go down to the woods today…

Reduction Japanese woodblock printing experiment.

Bluebells, Wet Spring, now available in my gallery
Bluebells, Wet Spring, now available in my gallery

I often get asked about the difference between a reduction linocut and a Japanese woodblock. Reduction prints (apologies to those who know) are created from a single piece of material, the block being cut each time a colour is printed. As the picture develops so the block is destroyed. The process depends on a build up of ink, one layer on top of another and the entire edition must be printed at the same time. Japanese woodblock depends on the transparency of watercolour and so the print relies on a jigsaw of individually cut blocks which fit together, rarely overlapping. This preserves the brilliancy of the delicate colour and the editioning can be done in stages.

Of course things don’t have to be that simple and this summer I decided to mix up my approach: pushing Japanese woodblock to perform well using the reduction techniques I normally reserve for lino. I wanted to layer watercolour to see if I could exploit its transparency without losing its brilliance. I also wanted, and here’s the honest part, to complete a very complicated picture without cutting a huge number of blocks (huge is a relative number, I did still need to cut an awful lot). Besides I’d spent the whole of my open studios bigging up the print with all the enthusiasm of Kim Kardashian’s publicity team. Whole families signed up to my mailing list on the strength of seeing the finished print alone, thrilled by the prospect of all that ugly splintered builder’s ply morphing into the quiet beauty of a Buckinghamshire bluebell wood. (To watch a short film about this print click here)

So here it is, my ‘Bluebells, Wet Spring’. A print with multiple overlapping wood blocks, some printed as reduction. It is printed on heavy, blanket soft Fabriano Rosaspina paper which I have sized with a mix of fish glue and alum. The size hinders the paint so I had to use more strength than usual to print, forcing the watercolours into the paper. The trade off is the grainy effect of old fashioned fast analogue film which I think perfect for this particular image. By layering four different background blocks, each one reaching up to the top of the image, I’ve arrived at an increasingly ambiguous background. Normally a recipe for muddy disaster, it is this layering of green watercolour on watercolour that allowed me to play with building up the particular sappy, lush feel of a wet spring wood, misty and undefined.

I’ve also varied the tree trunks by cutting some out in some background layers and not in others while yet more are overprinted onto the background individually. Hence the mix of densely printed trunks with those that only have one or two layers of colour. I kept the silver birch trees entirely free of background paint, printing the grey bark in layers as a reduction onto the white paper, chopping into the woodblock for each layer. The same goes for the bluebells. Cutting bluebell shaped holes in exactly the right place across three of the four background layers is every bit as engaging as it sounds, but worth it in the final print; allowing the pure lavender blue of the bells to hum against the green background.

Did I plan all this? Only in so far as cutting the blocks and having a mind’s eye view of the finished image. Colour I always take as it comes, preferring to make my choices as I go. You can see that by the lack of it in my drawings and the difference between the proof and the print. Luck also comes into it: I’d run some tests on the rosaspina paper and had been annoyed by the result at the time, but remembered it and realised it was the very effect I wanted here. Did I appreciate how much my feet would ache by the end of printing the whole edition in one shot over three very long days? Not at all…

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