2: Abstraction Formal abstract Inspiration Printmakers Woodcut

Japanese landscape prints: Hiroshige and Hokusai

The woodblock prints of Hiroshige and Hokusai were the source for my work in Project 2.1: Formal Abstracts: Japanese landscape.


History of Japanese Woodblock Print


In-depth video on history and development of techniques of Japanese woodcut from monochrome through painted monochrome prints to multiblock printing. It looks at its influence on Western artists like Van Gogh and Monet following the exhibition of Japanese art for the first time at the Paris Exhibition of 1867. It also looks at the modern day revival of ukiyo-e prints as paintings on shops in Tokyo regeneration.

Japanese woodblock prints with Paul Binnie

Lecture on background and underlying ideas in Japanese printing techniques.

Japanese woodblock printing History Ukiyo-e Jose Ortega

History of Japanese printing and way it spread and related to earlier Chinese and Buddhist prints.


The technique for printing texts and images was generally similar. The obvious differences were the volume produced when working with texts (many pages for a single work), and the complexity of multiple colours in some images. Images in books were almost always in monochrome (black ink only), and for a time art prints were likewise monochrome or done in only two or three colours.

The text or image was first drawn onto washi (Japanese paper), then glued face-down onto a plank of wood, usually cherry. Wood was then cut away, based on the drawing outlines. A small wooden hard object called a baren was used to press or burnish the paper against the inked woodblock to apply the ink to the paper. Although this may have been done purely by hand at first, complex wooden mechanisms were soon invented and adopted to help hold the woodblock perfectly still and apply proper pressure in the printing process. This was especially helpful with the introduction of multiple colours that had to be applied with precision over previous ink layers.

While, again, text was nearly always monochrome, as were images in books, the growth of the popularity of ukiyo-e brought with it demand for ever increasing numbers of colors and complexity of techniques. The stages of this development follow:

  • Sumizuri-e (墨摺り絵?, “ink printed pictures”)—monochrome printing using only black ink
  • Benizuri-e (紅摺り絵?, “crimson printed pictures”)—red ink details or highlights added by hand after the printing process;green was sometimes used as well
  • Tan-e (丹絵?)—orange highlights using a red pigment called tan
  • Aizuri-e (藍摺り絵?, “indigo printed pictures”), Murasaki-e (紫絵?, “purple pictures”), and other styles in which a single color was used in addition to, or instead of, black ink
  • Urushi-e (漆絵?)—a method that thickened the ink with glue, emboldening the image. Printers often used gold, mica, and other substances to enhance the image further. Urushi-e can also refer to paintings using lacquer instead of paint. Lacquer was rarely, if ever, used on prints.
  • Nishiki-e (錦絵?, “brocade pictures”)—a method of using multiple blocks for separate portions of the image, using a number of colors to achieve complex and detailed images. A separate block was carved to apply only the part of the image designated for a single color. Registration marks called kentō (見当) were used to ensure correspondence between the application of each block.

Contemporary Japanese woodblock

Katsutoshi Yuasa

Keizaburo Matsuzaki


Clark, T. (ed.) (2017) Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave, London: Thames & Hudson and British Museum.

Pollard, C. & Watanabe, M. I., (2014) Hiroshige: Landscape, cityscape, Oxford: Ashmolean Museum.

Schroer, A. (ed.) (2005) Hiroshige, Berlin, Munich, London, New York: Prestel.

Schroer, A., (ed.) (2005) Hokusai, Berlin, Munich, London, New York: Prestel.


Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave  (25 May – 13 August 2017)

Picasso post-war prints: lithographs and aquatints (27 January – 3 March 2017)

2: Abstraction Formal abstract Random abstract

Mark Rothko experiments

Rothko is one of the artists studied in Project 2.2: Random Abstract Prints. It is possible to simulate some of the power of Rothko paintings using very thin overlays of transparent oil-based ink using a roller. Then overlaying thicker inks like Akua inks and impasto paying attention to the edges. This can be done in two passes – separating the thin transparent ink from the color-field overlays. But there is a tendency for inks to blend depending on the dampness of the paper in the first layer, and for the more textural overlay to squash. Thus losing the textural feel of painting. Much depends on the pressure from the press in the second printing.

My experiments so far – small A5 prints. Would be interesting to do some larger ones at some time.

Issues for printmaking:

  • can get at least some of the depth through using very transparent layers of oil-based ink applied with a small roller (Rothko used very small brushes to get the subtle vibrations and detail).
  • overlays of water-based Schminke or Akua ink can be added with a brush or other applicator to drip or merge in the creases and cracks between the fields. this gives interesting difference in texture and luminance.
  • best to prepare the whole plate and print in one go so that the image hangs together as one layer.
  • Print on etching press and damp paper to get full depth of colour fields, but experiment with pressure to avoid disturbing the overlaid streaks too much.

About Mark Rothko

Mark Rothko (1903-1970) was prominent in the Abstract Expressionist movement in New York, best known for his large ‘color-field’ paintings. These go beyond pure abstraction, aiming to express the essence of universal human drama ‘tragic experience is the only source book for art’. The feelings expressed in his paintings are grounded in his early experiences of growing up as a Russian Jew through the pogroms and massacres following the failed 1905 Revolution. His early paintings were figurative and surrealist before he went on to paint ‘multi-field’ abstract works that evolved into the later color-field paintings.

Rothko early paintings: Google images

Rothko watercolour painting: Google images

Rothko color-field painting: Google images

He always resisted attempts to interpret his paintings. Instead aiming to draw the viewer in to make their own interpretation as an active relationship ‘a consummated experience between picture and onlooker. Nothing should stand between my painting and the viewer’ (quoted Ball-Teshuva 2017 p.7)

Videos of exhibitions

Overview of Rothko’s art and work by Simon Schama.

Rothko painting techniques

Rothko never wrote about or revealed details of his technique. Most of his color-field paintings are in oil, sometimes mixed with egg. The essence of Rothko technique is the background staining of the canvas in multiple layers of colour to give the painting depth and translucency. He then paid attention to the subtlety of the edges between and around the fields.


For a more detailed discussion see:

In the Studio: Materials & Techniques of Mark Rothko. MoMA

For a practical experimental approach see:



Galleries and Exhibitions

Tate Modern: Rothko  (26 September 2008 – 1 February 2009) and permanent exhibition