Thursday, April 2, 2009

My How-To of Woodblock Printing

This blog is dedicated to my mother, who can't imagine what in the world a woodblock print is or how in the heck I make one!

YinYang Piglets
10" X 10" woodblock print

This project began with a photograph I took at the Blue Hill Fair last September—two tiny piglets snoozing in a bed of wood shavings. (I wonder which one of them is named Wilbur!)

The way they cuddled together reminded me of the yin-yang symbol and spawned the idea for this woodblock print.

Yin = the passive, female cosmic element, force, or principle that is opposite but always complementary to yang.

Yang = the active, masculine cosmic principle in Chinese dualistic philosophy.

Typically, I began with a mistake, but I learned a lot from this impetuous first carving.

I liked the black piglet better than the white one—his clean lines, his simplicity, his sharp ears, curly tail, and tensile nose—and I decided that both piglets should be the same—mirror images of each other—one white, the other black. I also decided that the circle should be complete. Thus, the woodblock had to be square. Enter Tom, husband and helpmeet, who cuts all my blocks to size for me on his table saw.

I redrew the images and taped them to my new woodblock. It’s a piece of cabinet-grade, half-inch, birch plywood. Notice that the white piglet is on the right and the black piglet is on the left. When I print them the images will be reversed.

I used carbon paper to transfer the image from the paper to the block and a compass to draw the concentric circles. I outlined the lines on the black piglet, to show me what I had to carve out, and darkened in the lines on the white piglet to show me what I had to carve around.

Here is the set of woodblock carving tools that I use. (I forgot to have Tom photograph the carving process. Next time!)

I began by carving out the background around the piglets.

Then I carved the highlights out of the black piglet. It was much easier to carve out the slivers of white space on the black piglet than it was to carve out around the slivers of black space on the white piglet. In fact, I carved out a few too many black slivers on my little girl. I thought I was quite clever in replacing them with superglue. WRONG! When I printed the woodblock, the superglue cut holes in the paper. I probably should have used a different kind of glue, or been a bit more careful in my carving.

I print my woodblocks on the kitchen table covered with the New York Times. What would we do without either! The first step is to load my brayer (the roller) with ink. The ink comes in a can, smells like shoe polish, and washes off with water. I spread it out on a sheet of glass.

Next I ink the woodblock.

I’m using Japanese mulberry paper and trying ever so carefully to place it just right. I need to work on this skill. My prints usually come out a bit whopper jawed!

I use a baren (a bamboo covered disk from Japan) mainly to stick the paper onto the block.

Then I use my favorite tool—a wooden kitchen spoon!—to press the ink into the paper. The paper is so thin that I can see the ink coming right through it, yet it’s so strong that I can really give it a good rubbing.

Finally, when my arm is ready to fall off, I pull the print off the block.


I pulled ten prints of my Yin-Yang Piglets yesterday. I’ll be offering them for sale in my PenPets Etsy Shop.


Melissa and Emmitt said...

oh my gosh leslie!
it is gorgeous and your tutorial is perfect!

wow! thank you for taking the time to do that!

:) melissa

Annie B said...

Very cool! I love the concept (and the source image). And I envy you a husband with a table saw! My mother too had difficulty imagining what I was doing making pictures with blocks of wood, but she's come around and is now one of my biggest supporters. Keep showing her tutorials like this!