Moku Hanga, Not a Coffee: Lessons in Japanese printmaking

april
April Vollmer demonstrates how to carve registration notches on woodblock.

April Vollmer recently taught a two-day Moku Hanga workshop at the Printmaking Center of New Jersey.  KU Prof Elaine Cunfer and I took the class along with five other students. I know a bit about Japanese prints, but had never tried my hand at the traditional Moku Hanga woodblock printing technique. April, a great teacher and printmaker, has travelled to Japan to perfect her skills. She has an extensive gallery of her prints online at aprilvollmer.com.

Moku Hanga print "Migration" ©2008 April Vollmer, from www.aprilvollmer.com
“Migration”  Moku Hanga print © 2008 April Vollmer

Moku Hanga is nothing like my prior printmaking experience. I am used to the down and dirty printing of Oaxaca or Tom Huck’s Evil Prints. Moku Hanga is far more refined. I came to class dressed in my ink-stained black shirt and raggedy painting jeans. I learned there is no need to dress like a hobo to print Moku Hanga.  The pigments are water-based and do not stain clothes like oil-based relief printing inks.

2 horizontal pattern prints © 2011 April Vollmer
2 horizontal pattern prints based on nature © 2011 April Vollmer

April suggests beginners might start printing with tube watercolors, but a more economical color can be had by mixing pigments. She uses the pigments from Art Guerra. For wood and carving tools she recommends McClain’s Printmaking Supplies. The wood we used was shina plywood, imported from Japan. The shina and carving tools are rather expensive. A small, 8 by 10 inch, piece of shina ply costs $6.35. April says the expense is due to the currency imbalance between the Japanese yen and the U.S. dollar. If you have never used real shina ply, it is a joy to carve. McClain’s will send you a free sample; find details here.

Ukiyo-e print by Utamaro, circa 1800, printed with mica  background. (Wikipedia)
Ukiyo-e print by Utamaro, circa 1800, printed with mica background. (Wikipedia)

April showed us master Ukiyo-e prints by the likes of Morunobu and Utamaro before demonstrating her technique. One of the secrets of the art is cutting a precise registration corner and landing pad for the printing paper. The best paper, naturally, comes from Japan.

Blue Vortex, woodblock, (detail) © 2005 April Vollmer
Blue Vortex, woodblock, (detail) © 2005 April Vollmer

More of April’s tips: Your work table should be about navel level. Printing is not done with a press, but by rubbing the baren, a light weight disk, on the back of the paper. Printing starts from a balanced standing position with a quick burst of energy using upper body strength. April says she can print faster with a baren than printmakers who use a press. She claims she can print an edition of 25 in one morning and I believe her.

McCloskey making prints of St. Francis. photo: E. Cunfer
K. McCloskey making prints of St. Francis. photo: Elaine Cunfer

She also demonstrated the proper way to hold the paper, set up one’s workspace, and sharpen cutting tools. There was one student who had no prior printmaking experience; even he came away with successful prints. We managed to do an edition of two-color prints with a single block of shina by carving the second color on the reverse side. If you have the opportunity to study with April Vollmer, you can learn a great deal in a brief amount of time.

April Vollmer pleased with her student's prints at Printmaking Center of NJ
April Vollmer seems pleased with her students’ prints at Printmaking Center of NJ

For more insights into the history and current state of Moku Hanga (also spelled mokuhanga) check out April Vollmer’s comprehensive essay in Art in Print. There is also a brief (4-minute) documentary video filmed by Dempsey Rice of April Vollmer at work, here.

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UPDATE: Dec.12, 2012: April Vollmer sent a note about the post above:  “I hardly recognize myself your review is so flattering, but it is great to have someone describe the class. I always have fun, and people learn a lot. I always talk about the history, and how the technique fits into Japanese culture. I do hesitate about the refinements, it can be overwhelming. But my printmaking career (if one can call it that!) has been about making mokuhanga accessible, less precious, but without throwing out the baby with the bathwater. Good tools and good paper are such a pleasure, and actually much more affordable than, say, coated digital paper, computer software, etc. I paid $120 for my large soainomi (fan-beveled chisel), but I have had it for 20 years already!

Printmaking in NY is very different from Mexico, and that is completely different from Japan…The shina (basswood) plywood from Japan is good not only because of its even grain, but because the glue between plys is very thin and waterproof. Printing wet makes more demands on the wood than oil base does. Shina is also very lightweight which I appreciate, having to carry it around all the time!”

She also noted that she has met the legendary Tom Huck and went bowling with him when they both taught at Frogman’s Print Workshop in South Dakota.

3 thoughts on “Moku Hanga, Not a Coffee: Lessons in Japanese printmaking

  1. This is very impressive and I love the artwork results with this technique, I’d love to learn it if I had a chance. 🙂
    I like so much “Migration” and “Ukiyo-e”

    1. Hi Maricela, if you click the link at the end of the blog to get to April’s essay you will love the image by Yoshitomo Nara called S.O.S.
      I did not feel I had to right to use it in my essay, but it is a nifty modern print.

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