Japan in color
TRADITIONAL JAPANESE XYLOGRAPHY TECHNIQUE
Woodcut (from the Greek xylographêin composed of ' xilo' and ' grafia '; literally 'writing on wood') is a printing process in which the matrix is made up of a wooden tablet on which the desired image is carved. The artist traces the image on the tablet, then, with sharp tools, chisels and gouges, removes the parts that will be white on the sheet, leaving those that will receive the ink in relief. Very thin and delicate lamellae emerge from the dug furrows. The master thus prepared is ready to receive the ink, the paper is laid down and a slight pressure is applied with a roller. The operation obviously repeats itself for each copy.
The great masters of Ukiyo-e developed a technique in the mid-1700s that allowed them to obtain color images using multiple matrices. Maintaining a perfect register, several plates were carved, one for each desired color, then inked and printed in succession on the same sheet.
Cherry wood was used for the production of the matrices, for its ability to remain stable in humid conditions, for the hardness that allowed a considerable number of copies to be printed before the lines began to show signs of wear, however, it was enough malleable to allow the engraving of subtle and complex motifs. Furthermore, in the first impressions, it was possible to transfer the characteristic and beautiful grain of the cherry tree to the sheet.
The steel with which the chisels and gouges were forged was modeled with the same technique used for the production of katanas , it was a long and tiring manual process in which the steel was folded over and over again, then polished until when the blade was perfectly sharp.
The matrix was covered with a damp sheet of paper which was rubbed with a baren (bamboo brush) to facilitate color transfer. The baren is a flat disc-shaped tool with a handle. Brushing took place with circular movements, skilfully alternated and measured by the printer to obtain interesting visual effects during the printing process.
During the Edo period (1603-1868), the pigments used for this technique were of natural origin. From the Meiji period onwards, when Japan opened its borders, chemical pigments with brighter and more gaudy colors began to be imported.
The paper used, washi , was made from mulberry bark fibers. It was a very thin paper, strong enough to withstand the pressure of the baren .
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