Wood Block Art

I have always been very drawn to the art of wood block prints. This isn’t very surprising to most people who know me well, as I’m known for being very interested in most things Japanese. However my fascination with block printing long predated my discovery of interest in Japanese culture, and extends to all types of wood block prints, in any cultural style.

When I look at a picture, I’m often incredibly impressed at the artist’s skill in drawing. When I look at a block printing, my mind is pretty much blown away by the realization that the image I’m viewing was not only drawn, but then carved. And if there is more than one color included a whole extra level of difficulty is introduced by the need to perfectly line each layer of the printing up as the different colored inks are applied. The many points at which the artist could make an irrevocable mistake seems quite daunting to me.

One of the problems I encounter when doing art (in almost any medium) is that I tend to overwork whatever I’m working on. If I am not happy with how my picture is turning out, I will usually react by piling on more shading, or cross hatching, or other minute details until the original image is practically lost in embellishment. To create something that looks visually interesting in a minimal amount of steps requires a lot of careful planning and is a skill that greatly eludes me. I have an incredibly high level of respect for anyone who can master it. I like the subtractive method of carving your design because it forces you to slow down and be very thoughtful of the design’s layout, and the difficulty involved in the carving process often forces the artist to simplify their work. It also forces you to pay more attention to the negative space of the design, as it is not simply ‘the area you leave blank’ which is easy to not think about when you are drawing, but requires you to physically carve it away and hence have no choice but to be as acutely aware of the blank spaces as of the places which are highlighted by ink in the completed print.

Ukiyo-e Is one of the most famous styles of block printing. While I do very much love the incredibly detailed work of the much respected Hiroshige, ukiyo-e isn’t my favorite style. I am actually drawn to more simplified designs, and I especially like ones that are printed in high contrast black and white. One of my favorite artists in this medium is Ray Heus. He is an American print maker who learned to make prints in the traditional Japanese method, so his art style is a bit of an American/Japanese fusion. His images are built more out of shapes than lines, yet I think they manage to convey a stronger sese of atmosphere than many works of much greater detail and complexity. To me many of his prints look very reminiscent of storybook pages from old fashioned children’s books. They have a lot of nature imagery (which is what I’m most attracted to in art) and while most have predominately serene tones to them they also seem like interludes in a more complex story.

While I don’t think I’ll ever tackle authentic wood block printing, I have always enjoyed dabbling in its much easier related form of linoleum carving. It is not something I do often (I get struck by the urge to make cards about once a year usually) but I find it fun and challenging to work in a method that differs greatly from my natural style. This weekend I had fun making some unconventional Valentine cards.

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