Basic Process of Making a Print


Making a Print Without a Key Block

(entry by Matt Brown)

A few variations on the traditional techniques for laying out designs for the blocks of a woodblock print make it possible to build a print without the dominant 'key' or 'black line' block. Walter Phillips followed a method where instead of thinking of a key block plus color blocks he worked with a first block, second block, third block, etc. A third block, for example, was worked out from a proof printed from the first and second blocks. (Phillips' own description of his process is described in his book 'Technique of the Colour Woodcut')

The key block approach follows a format where an original idea informs a hanshita ... which leads to a carved key block ... which leads to kyogo (transfers on thin paper that carry the image) for the various color blocks. The 'no key-block' method on the other hand, would start with an original idea (perhaps in the form of a finished sketch), and a hanshita for a first block might then be made from this by tracing on a light table (I have used mylar many times). A second block would be informed by both the impression from the first block and the original sketch. A third block would rely on the printed impression of the first and second, and so forth.

The Xerox machine makes it possible to go Walter Phillips one step further. Being careful to leave the original image in the same location on the glass screen of the machine, make several Xerox copies of a design. Take these 'kyogo' and line them up perfectly in a stack. Cut the stack so the edge of the paper in relation to the image is as you will want it in your finished print. On these 'kyogo' indicate with permanent pen, pencil (or some other marking that won't bleed when wet), areas for each color block that you will want to retain when carving.

Wet these ' kyogo' under blotters, etc. (methods of moistening paper are described in a different section of the Encyclopedia). Paste them to some blocks, allowing a little wood to show on the bottom and right hand edge to leave room for cutting the kento. I find if I wait about 20 minutes before rubbing (adding a little water, spit or spray) I have a better time of it. Xerox paper was not made for this application so you'll want to be careful. Just as with Japanese papers you'll find however, a 'face' layer holding your image face down and visible that can be persuaded to remain on the block . Add a little mineral or camellia oil when dry to help in seeing delicate or light imagery ...

To make all of this work there are a few things one might do a bit differently from the traditional approach outlined in other places in this Encyclopedia:


This use of the Xerox paper is excellent for getting a print off and running. In carving blocks that require delicate or intricate 'agreement' it will prove preferable to use actual printed kyogo for each subsequent block. I have never used the Xerox method for more than four simultaneous 'first blocks'. One can imagine with this 'no key block' approach re-wetting a finished print and, after pasting, carving a new block to agree with all of the previously printed blocks. You would need to be sure, of course, that the moisture content of your new block is identical to that of the previously printed blocks at the time the print was printed.

This approach opens up the possibility of painting or drawing on partially completed prints to work on ideas for subsequent blocks. I often start prints without being sure of where I will end up ( how many blocks, etc.) and basically approach making a woodblock print much like making a painting, color by color, "making up as we go along". Hiroshi Yoshida would have called this 'absurd', but I find it pretty creative work.

This page Copyright Matthew Brown 1998