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May 1, 2020

Block printing: first steps

Have you already experienced digital saturation? When Zoom plus email plus social is just too much? I did last week, and I needed an analog break. So I tried something that I had never tried before.

But first, let’s talk about The Great Wave.

The Great Wave

Katsushika Hokusai's Modern recut copy of The Great Wave off Kanagawa, from 36 Views of Mount Fuji, Color woodcut. Although it is often used in tsunami literature, there is no reason to suspect that Hokusai intended it to be interpreted in that way. The waves in this work are sometimes mistakenly referred to as tsunami (津波), but they are more accurately called okinami (沖波), great off-shore waves.

Modern recut copy of The Great Wave off Kanagawa, from Katsushika Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji.

It is beautiful and terrifying, with dozens of foam hands reaching for the fishermen.

The blues are almost magnetic: Hokusai used 3 shades, including Prussian blue, that had to be imported from England through China. Debussy was so fascinated by The Great Wave that he put a copy on the cover of his score for La Mer, perhaps admitting an influence.

Of course, we’ve seen this piece everywhere (it’s an emoji!), but it doesn’t seem to lose its force.

I am writing about The Great Wave because it is both the way the World feels right now, and a stunning example of block printing (the piece required 7 consecutive layers!)

What is block printing?

Block printing originated in East Asia around the 2nd century CE. The idea is simple: First, a negative print is carved in a soft block (wood, linoleum, etc.). The block is then covered in ink and applied on the surface, like a stamp. Depending on the technique, one can also press the surface onto the inked block.

This video by the Art Institute of Chicago on Gaugin’s woodblock print process (no sound) is a good illustration:

Pre-Raphaelite brother William Morris used block printing for his iconic Victorian wallpapers. This video (again, with no sound! A museum thing?!) shows the process in detail:

The kiddie version

I needed to get my hands dirty, last Friday, and I asked my wife if I could borrow the equipment she uses when she teaches art to kids.

Instead of linoleum or wood, she uses styrofoam sheets that are easy to cut and carve. She also gave me some black ink, a reused styrofoam tray, and two brayers. I printed on 5.5″ x 8.5″ index cards.

Brayers are super fun.

I had no idea what I was doing, and that was the point. I let the material lead, and the first piece was, of course, botched.

I didn’t carve the details deep enough in the styrofoam, and they got drowned in ink.

For the second piece, I wanted an element of typography. The week before, I had showed the clear tape technique for image transfer to my kids, and that’s what I used to print some text. I cut a random shape and printed it multiple times. I didn’t even realize that I made what looked like a chain.

For the last piece, I used the rest of the styrofoam sheet and cut more shapes. I made a tiny stain while pulling the block from the index card. There was no way to erase it, so I covered it with a print of my pinkie. And I added two more. It’s funny how fingerprints suggest a direction.

It was a simple, impulsive process, and it felt great. Next, I’ll try with grown-up blocks.

What do I need to start with block printing?

Here is a list of supplies, available at BLICK (Note: I participate in their affiliate program):

Your turn!

Give it a shot. Don’t overthink it. Get your hands dirty and let them decide.

Have you made block prints before? I’d love to see them! Reach out on Twitter where I am @tdnvl.

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