This weekend I spent printing one of my fourteen giant watercolour woodblocks for the Health Centre on the Isle of Wight. It was never going to be easy: Japanese watercolour woodblock is really designed for perhaps A3 or less, not for over a metre wide. However, the medium does, provided your nerves are steady and your arms long, allow for printing on any scale as there is no press to limit size.
The main thing, in my opinion, is to get the colours right. No good having a foreground dislocated from the background or lose the sense of distance in a squash of mismatched pigment. I’m stuck with doing this in my head as I go along because I find that the more I plan, the more the life of the print seeps away. To this end I have many, many little glass tea light holders (thank you IKEA. And while I mention the Norse god of home solutions, you can buy sheets of heavy glass with ground edges, perfect for mixing inks, for a song at IKEA just now. Just look for ‘Malm glass top’). The holders are filled with what my lovely Irish father-in-law describes as ‘Laura’s designer sh*t colours’. They get gradually more and more mixed up as I go and result in what I hope is a subtle print of correctly balanced colours. Not so easy this time with dozens of separate little abstract shapes – is it a bird, is it a plane? No it’s the back of a warehouse… You get my drift.
I do test colour and the way to do this with a Japanese print is to take a test sheet of paper (you will of course keep all the trimmings from cutting down your papers to size. Also good for posh shopping lists and guaranteed to impress when you go to pick up your sushi ingredients. Believe me, the Japanese will notice). Put a blob of mixed watercolour on one side of the paper. Take your finger and smear the blob across the paper. It is the smear, not the blob which gives the true result. You also end up with a neat reference sheet which, if you are a better person than me, you could make colour mix notes on as well.
There is a partner to the print here of West Cowes. No prizes for guessing that’ll be East Cowes and for that I have to echo the colours, though not in the matching handbag to shoes way. That would be too obvious. The trick will be to get the pictures to relate, not match. The good news is that there are fewer warehouses on the East Cowes side…
At Art in Action I met a chap called Chris from Hahnemuhle paper and was able to pester him about the bamboo paper his company makes.
I’ve gone on about paper before: in an ideal world I would be using traditional Washi paper for my watercolour Japanese woodblock printing. Unfortunately this mulberry bark paper is affordable in Japan, but quickly becomes unaffordable here. At the thickness and quality that I want, it would really be more economical to employ a Saville Row tailor to hand stitch fifty pound notes into printing paper.
So I thought that perhaps Hahnemuhle’s bamboo paper* was worth a go. Normally I use Fabriano, either Academia or Artistico (both 200g) depending on the size of my work. It works fine, but bamboo sounded so much more fun. Besides which, Chris was really kind and gave me a large pad for experimenting. Art in Action was in July and I have finally got around to giving it a go. I’m gutted: it doesn’t work. It really, really should work, but it doesn’t take the colour smoothly. This is akin to my disappointment over eating dhal: I love lentils, I love Indian food, but I somehow hate dhal. There’s something wrong with the world order somewhere…
However, there is a silver lining to the story. The bamboo paper, almost a thick card, takes the Intaglio oil based relief inks I use for linocut printing superbly well. For those who like the ease of oil based inks, but admire the matt quality of water based inks, this paper takes away the shine of the dry ink giving it a subtle sheen at most. The other really great plus is the reduced drying time. I do use a cobalt dryer to speed up ink drying, but the inks on this paper were dry within a couple of hours, allowing me to get two layers of oil based printing done within a working day. Coverage is good too, no extra inking, though as always I sanded the lino lightly before printing. It’s a great paper for a lush heavy matt print, though it will need a press.
I have also had a go with Fabriano rosaspina**, another heavy paper for printing with a slight feel of blotting paper. Not good for water based woodblock either: the same uneven inking as the bamboo. I ordered it because my mate Ian Phillips uses it for his marvellous hand burnished reduction lino prints (and because it so felt like the Washi I now realise was a rare and precious treasure that I walloped my clumsy way through in Japan). This also works really well for me with oil based inks using my Albion press with a matt finish similar to the bamboo. There is a note of caution though as the paper embosses with the normal pressure of the press. This will either work really well for your image or not, so factor that in. I couldn’t get a clean print without the slight emboss, but I have a dramatic winter scene in mind among other ideas where this characteristic will, I hope, be the making of the print.
Hahnemuhle bamboo paper 290g (90% bamboo 10%rag)