Principles and Main Considerations in designing Wood-block Prints—Their Application to Modern Colour Printing

Until one has become quite familiar with the craft of wood-block printing it is not possible to make a satisfactory design for a print, or to understand either the full resources that are available or the limits that are fixed.

In beginning it is well to undertake only a small design, so that no great amount of material or time need be consumed in gaining the first experience, but this small piece of work should be carried through to the end, however defective it may become at any stage. A small key-block and two or three colour patches may all be cut on the two sides of one plank for this purpose.

There is great diversity of opinion as to the conventions that are appropriate to the designing of colour prints. In the work of the Japanese masters the convention does not vary. A descriptive black or grey line is used throughout the design, outlining all forms or used as flat spots or patches. The line is not always uniform, but is developed with great subtlety to suggest the character of the form expressed, so that the subsequent flat mass of colour printed within the line appears to be modelled. This treatment of the line is one of the great resources of the work, and is special to this kind of design, in which the line has to be cut with the knife on both sides, and is for this reason capable of unusual development in its power of expressing form. Indeed the knife is the final instrument in the drawing of the design.

Typical examples of key-block impressions are given on pages 26 and 33: they show the variety of character and quality possible in the lines and black masses of key-blocks.

The designing of a print depends most of all upon this development of line and black mass in the key-block. The colour pattern of the print is held together by it, and the form suggested. In the Japanese prints the key-block is invariably printed black or grey. Masses intended to be dense black in the finished print are printed first a flat grey by the key-block, and are then printed a full black from a colour-block like any other patch of colour, the double printing being necessary to give the intensity of the black.

Although several modern prints have been designed on other principles, and sometimes a coloured key-block is successfully used, yet the convention adopted by the Japanese is the simplest and most fundamental of all. Outside its safe limitations the technical difficulties are increased, and one is led to make compromises that strain the proper resources of block printing and are of doubtful advantage.

The temptation to use colour with the key-block comes when one attempts to use the key-block for rendering light and shadow. Its use by the Japanese masters was generally for the descriptive expression of the contours of objects, ignoring entirely their shadows, or any effects of light and shade, unless a shadow happened occasionally to be an important part of the pattern of the design. Generally, as in nearly all the landscape prints by Hiroshigé, the line is descriptive or suggestive of essential form, not of effects in light and shade.

If the key-block is used for light and shade, the question of relative tones and values of shadows arises, and these will be falsified unless a key-block is made for each separate plane or part of the design, and then there is danger of confusion or of compromises that are beyond the true scope of the work.

It is generally safest to print the key-block in a tone that blends with the general tone of the print, and not to use it as a part of the colour pattern. It serves mainly to control the form, leaving the colour-blocks to give the colour pattern. There are cases, of course, where no rule holds good, and sometimes a design may successfully omit the key-block altogether, using only a few silhouettes of colour, one of which controls the main form of the print, and serves as key-block. Frequently, also, the key-block may be used to give the interior form or character of part of a design, leaving the shape of a colour-block to express the outside shape or contour; as in the spots suggesting foliage in the print on page 114. The shapes of the tree forms are partly left to the colour-block to complete, the key only giving the suggestion of the general broken character of the foliage, not the outside limits of the branches. The outer shape of a tree or branch is rarely expressed by an enclosing line in any of the Japanese prints. The key-block is often used to describe interior form when a silhouette of colour is all that is needed for the contour. The expressive rendering of the rough surface of tree trunks and of forms of rock, or the articulation of plants and the suggestion of objects in atmospheric distance or mist, should be studied in good prints by the Japanese masters. In printed work by modern masters—as, for example, the work of the great French designers of poster advertisements—much may be learnt in the use and development of expressive line.

The Japanese system of training is well described in a book by Henry P. Bowie on "The Laws of Japanese Painting," in which many useful suggestions are given with reference to graphic brush drawing and the suggestive use of line and brush marks.

As part of the training of a designer for modern decorative printing, the experience and sense of economy that are to be gained from the study of wood-block printing are very great. Perhaps no work goes so directly to the essentials of the art of decorative designing for printed work of all kinds. The wood blocks not only compel economy of design, but also lead one to it.

Even as a means of general training in the elements of decorative pictorial composition the wood blocks have great possibilities as an adjunct to the courses of work followed by art students. The same problems that arise in all decoration may be dealt with by their means on a small scale, but under conditions that are essentially instructive. Colour schemes may be studied and worked out with entire freedom by printing and reprinting until a problem is thoroughly solved. A colour design may be studied and worked out as fully by means of a small set of blocks, and with more freedom for experiment and alteration than is possible by the usual methods of study, such as painting and repainting on paper or canvas or wall; for the form being once established by the blocks, the colour may be reconstructed again and again without limit.

The craft has thus not only its special interest as a means of personal expression, but also a more general use as a means of training and preparation for the wider scope and almost unlimited resources of modern printing. The best use of those resources will be made by artists who have been trained under simpler conditions, and have found their way gradually to an understanding of the secrets of æsthetic economy in printing. One of the many paths to that experience is by way of the craft of the wood-block printer.