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  • August 29, 2016

The Diverse and Innovative Art of Printmaking

Printmaking is a process of creating printed materials, with established traditions both in the West and Japan. We spoke with Louise Rouse, an illustrator, print maker, and professor with experience in both the UK and Japan. Her work has been featured in exhibitions in London, Tokyo, Sapporo, and Seoul. She teaches at Temple University Japan and contributes to Japan-based publications, such as the ACCJ Journal (for the American Chamber of Commerce).

How did you get into printmaking?

Printmaking is art created from a matrix where it is possible to make multiples, so it covers a really diverse range of techniques.

The first time I tried it was in an Art Foundation course when I was 19 — scratching lines into the shiny side of a cereal packet with old ball-point pens and inking the surface to produce colourful prints that had white lines wherever the pen had dented the surface. I liked the way the “plate” reinterpreted the image and unified it into its own mark.

At university in the UK, the illustration department where I studied was very closely linked with the printmaking facilities. I learned later that this is less common in the US and Japan, where it is housed with fine art. But in the UK they are often linked disciplines — think of the Alice in Wonderland engravings or Punch magazine, for example.

louise rouse carving wood

What sort of influences has Japan had on your style? Would you say that your style is now more Japanese or Western?

I never consciously tried to make my work look in some way Japanese, but non-Japanese people have told me that they see Japanese influence in my work. On the other hand, Japanese people mostly tell me that my work is of a style that could never have been done by a Japanese person. I guess it’s hard to say, but it’s no surprise to hear both these responses since I’ve lived in both cultures for many years respectively. That probably does come out in the image somehow.

Do you have favourite techniques / practices?

I’m making the most of access to the greatest woodblock carvers, printers, and woodblock tool and paper makers in the world while I live [in Japan]. I have also worked a lot with silkscreen and I actually really like what happens when you combine the two (and in other combinations with intaglio or other relief techniques). These hybrids often make for more experimental (read: prone to many failures) experiences, though, since fewer people do this and less information is available about how to problem-solve this way.

Has printmaking changed much over the years, or do woodblock carvers value sticking to the old ways?

An interesting thing happened with Japanese woodblock printmakers around the end of the Meiji era. There was a creative print movement called sosaku printmaking that consisted mainly of middle and upper class university art students who were enamoured with Western painting and printmaking. They were far away from the traditional workshops of the artisans who made ukiyoe prints (which were sold in the thousands for about the price of a bowl of rice). The two communities had quite different ideological standpoints on art, commerce, and technique and were never truly reconciled. As a result, there are a handful of traditionally-trained ukiyoe carvers and printers left in Japan whose techniques are painstakingly intricate and hard-won over long years as an apprentice.

Occasionally they need to update a technique or another — mainly due to suppliers of some obscure tool or material going offline — but by and large they doggedly adhere to centuries-old tradition. On the other hand, creative printmakers are concerned mostly with inventing original content and may seem to focus on trying to express their idea as directly as possible rather than on mastering a perfectly-carved line. This is a broad generalisation though, and nowadays some traditionally-trained printers may be commissioned to print a creative printmaker’s carved plates, for example.

What are the most distinctive aspects of printmaking in Japan?

Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” and Utamaro’s geisha prints are of course some of the most recognisable works of [Japanese] art across the world. They are distinctive for their use of flat colour and gradients, stylised figures, and the intricate line-work that mimics a brush-stroke around all the forms.

Contemporary creative printmaking in Japan, however, is part of the global culture of fine art. Since today’s artists have access to so much information about diverse techniques, aesthetics and ideas, it would be hard to say there is a defining characteristic that is identifiably Japanese in the work produced here.

You teach printmaking at Temple University. Why are people interested in learning this art?

If you use any Adobe graphic design software, there are things in there that directly relate to the history of graphic design — which is a history of printing technology. It’s hard for students to visit an offset printer’s factory and really appreciate why things are done the way they are since machines are so advanced these days, but taking it right back to a very basic level gives you an understanding of why we’ve ended up with some of the (sometimes unintuitive) controls in the digital software we use. The legacy of print has shaped our approach to digital — however, much of the silicon valley crew would like to escape it!

On a more immediate level, I think students enjoy that same feeling I came across — the abstraction and unification of your marks when the print medium takes over. Without 10 years of ukiyoe training, your woodblock will never look like your sketch, exactly, and many people like that abstraction, the way the image changes. They also like the access to inks and processes that allow them to print easily onto fabric, metal, plastic, wood, etc., which is difficult or impossible to do at the moment with desktop printers.

What are some common uses for printed imagery? Where would I see it in everyday life?

Offset printing (which is used for the majority of commercial printing) is a technology similar to lithography and you see it everywhere from the junk flyers in your postbox to magazines at the combini [a Japanese convenience store] to billboards. The printmaking methods used by artists also used to be used for commercial purposes in the past, but they are mostly all hand-pulled methods and so are no longer used in a commercial sense.

The big exception to this is silkscreen, which can be automated to a great extent — you will have seen that in the t-shirt you are wearing right now perhaps. If you think of the big Marilyn Monroe, Chairman Mao, Elvis, and Campbell soup prints by Andy Warhol, those are all silkscreen. If you think of Toulouse Lautrec’s Moulin Rouge and Chat Noir posters, those are lithography

What sort of artistic/commercial/academic appeal do you think Japanese printmaking has outside Japan?

One of the leading reasons artists outside Japan have renewed interest in Japanese printmaking methods is that it makes use of water-based ink and is non-toxic. Other traditionally Western methods such as etching and aquatint use corrosive acids, and along with lithography use oil-based inks that contain heavy metals and solvents. Hopefully artists will find new ways to interpret this medium for many years to come.

You can see more of Louise’s works at:

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