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.