My Workshop with a Master Japanese Carver

My Workshop with a Master Japanese Carver

Woodblock carving, or 'woodcut' is a relief printmaking technique. You can achieve very subtle gradient colours which almost look like they've been painted in watercolour. Having completed a day workshop with Master Japanese Carver Motoharu Asaka I can now understand how the process works, and I have the greatest respect for any of those who have mastered the technique!

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Original Woodblock prints by Motoharu Asaka

After training for 17 years (yes, 17 years!) Motoharu Asaka started working for a publisher in Japan and his career blossomed from 1985 onwards. He is now one of the few Master carvers left in Japan who knows how to use the traditional woodblock tools and methods of printing - techniques which are not taught in Japanese universities today.

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Workshop in a day

Motoharu Asaka explains woodcut techniques while his colleague Louise Rouse translates it into English.

Motoharu Asaka explains woodcut techniques while his colleague Louise Rouse translates it into English.

Motoharu Asaka is currently touring Europe with his one-day workshops and I was lucky enough to bag a place on his course hosted by Cultivator at Krowji in Redruth. There were only 8 places so I felt very privileged to gain a spot (not through any skill of my own apart from jumping on the opportunity as soon as the email landed in my inbox!). Motoharu Asaka speaks no English, so his workshop was translated by Louise Rouse (Adjunct Professor of Art in Temple University Japan).

Motoharu Asaka looking at my design and considering how it will be possible as a woodcut.

Motoharu Asaka looking at my design and considering how it will be possible as a woodcut.

I'm certainly not an expert after doing a one-day workshop, but I have grasped the basic principles. Woodcuts can either be just coloured layers or can have an outline. An outline means carving away everything else on the block apart from the thin line itself. I imagine this would be very difficult to do and very time consuming.

The wood we used in our workshop was a special Japanese wood which although soft, it's still no mean feat to try and carve the perfect edge with a chisel and mallet!

Motoharu Asaka helps to carve our designs

 As we only had a few hours to carve our woodcut before printing, we had to keep our designs very simple. With hindsight I can see that my design was still way too complicated! Motoharu Asaka and Louise helped us decide how our woodblocks should be carved and whether we'd need one side of wood, or two. It takes a bit of planning to get this part correct.

From my engine house design, you can see how I had to consider the positive and negative space and think carefully about which parts to cut out.

Motoharu Asaka explains in diagrams how to translate my idea into a woodcut..

Motoharu Asaka explains in diagrams how to translate my idea into a woodcut..

It's important to carve with the grain of the wood rather than against it so that it doesn't produce ragged edges. We were told to imagine water landing onto each shape in our design, and work out which way the water would trickle. That is the direction in which to carve. Motoharu Asaka drew little arrows all over our woodblocks to help us understand this.

The direction in which you carve every mark is very important if you want to achieve a smooth finish to edges.

The direction in which you carve every mark is very important if you want to achieve a smooth finish to edges.


Trying my hand as chiselling!

Trying my hand as chiselling!

Once we'd cut around the main lines, we then used a bigger tool to chisel larger areas away. Motoharu Asaka and Louise often helped us and showed us the correct techniques.

Both sides of my woodblock carved and ready to print.

Both sides of my woodblock carved and ready to print.


applying the ink

When it comes to printing, layers of colour are added to certain parts of the woodblock, either as flat colours or gradients. Sometimes one print can have 10 layers or more printed one on top of the other. As you can imagine, every time you print a layer of colour on the same piece of paper you need to line it up EXACTLY in the right place, so registration is very important!

Applying the ink to the woodblock with a bristle brush.

Applying the ink to the woodblock with a bristle brush.

Firstly we started with the lightest colours and then worked towards darker ones. The paper must be moist and the woodblock damp before printing. And once you start applying the ink to the block you have to be quick so that your woodblock doesn't dry out. In Japan, the climate is very humid, so the conditions for printing are very different from that of the UK where the paper and woodblock tend to dry out very quickly.

A 'barren' (a handmade tool to press the back of the paper when printing) can cost up to $1,700 - like this one!

A 'barren' (a handmade tool to press the back of the paper when printing) can cost up to $1,700 - like this one!

Mixing on a piece of wood, the ink and a little blob of glue are mixed together before applying some dabs to the woodblock. Working quickly, you then carefully apply the paper to the registration mark and start rubbing with a 'barren'. 

Using the 'barren' moving in sideways movements so as not to destroy the fibres. I'm actually holding the barren the wrong way here! The handle of the barren should be horizontal and moved from left to right.

Using the 'barren' moving in sideways movements so as not to destroy the fibres. I'm actually holding the barren the wrong way here! The handle of the barren should be horizontal and moved from left to right.

A 'barren' is used to put pressure on the back of the paper as you transfer the ink to the paper. Unfortunately, I forget exactly what these are made of, but the high quality ones are handmade and can cost up to $1,700 each! Surprisingly we were allowed to use these, although I thought twice about doing so!

The barren must be rubbed across the paper from side to side and never up and down as this destroys the fibres. You need to apply a lot of pressure and work quickly so that your woodblock and paper doesn't completely dry out. You then release the pressure a little and wipe gently across your plate and then gently from the bottom of your plate to the top. This is to make sure the ink gets in all the carved areas of wood.

Motoharu Asaka applying the second colour to my woodcut as a demonstration of how to do a gradient.

Motoharu Asaka applying the second colour to my woodcut as a demonstration of how to do a gradient.

As the ink isn't oil based so you don't need to keep all the prints separate and dry them for a week like you would a linocut or screenprint. The ink drys immediately, but at this stage you need to keep the humidity in the paper, so we placed our prints straight into a plastic wallet.

Once you've added your first layer and rolled this across several prints you then start on your next layer, which for me was the gradient. It's tricky to get this right and it's easy to muddy colours.

Motoharu Asaka uses my woodblock to demonstrate to the class how to apply a gradient.

Motoharu Asaka uses my woodblock to demonstrate to the class how to apply a gradient.


The finished print

I definitely went into the workshop with high expectations of what I would achieve, but I quickly realised that a day is so little time to achieve an accomplished woodcut carving! I would have liked more time to explore the printing process, especially to try more subtle washes of colour. However, I very much enjoyed the whole process. Ultimately I wanted to gain a greater understanding of this amazingly intricate form of printing, which is exactly what this workshop gave me the opportunity to do. 

My final prints from my one day woodblock workshop with Motoharu Asaka.

My final prints from my one day woodblock workshop with Motoharu Asaka.


Further information

You can find out more about Motoharu Asaka on his website:
Motoharu Asaka's website >

Thank you to Adrian Holmes who hosted the workshop in his studio at Krowji

Thank you to Cultivator for funding this workshop.

Placenta Artwork commission

Placenta Artwork commission

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