Tuesday, November 16, 2021

Making Good Progress, or Not, with Moku Hanga

Original moku hanga of 'Ruby-crowned Kinglet on Honeysuckle - Winter 2021'. 5.75 x 8 inches on Nishinouchi paper. Copyright 2021 by Ken Januski.

I'm now approaching my 5th year of moku hanga, though since I've  done a fair amount of painting during that time, it's really not a full five years. I started off with just about the cheapest baren you could buy, eventually bought and used a plastic baren designed by Kurosaki and have replaced the face numerous times. But I always have a nagging unhappiness with some part of each print and normally it seems to be due to uneven paint coverage, though there are of course always just the plain old mistakes of one sort or  another that are always there.

In any case, and particularly after watching a video of Hideki Goto, master baren maker, from the 2107 International Moku  Hanga Conference, I decided it was time to buy a better baren. Eventually I bought a murasaki baren from McClain's Printmaking Supplies. I decided that a simple design was probably the best way to test it. I also decided to use a small 5.75x8 inch Shina block since it was just a test.

That made some sense, until I saw all my carved lines crumble in front of  me  as I tried to carve them. It reminded me of my first first Chinese brush paintings from many years ago. The ink on the brush seemed to almost leap from the brush to the paper where it created a huge blob, before the brush even touched the paper. Here the somewhat thin line seemed to break before I'd touched the carving knife to the wood. It's possible that the wood had dried out a bit  and that was the problem, but  mainly I think it was that I was trying to cut pretty thin lines for the  size of the wood.

So I  had to give up on that block and re-carve the block that included all of the lines. I spent more time testing the wood  and my carving abilities than I did testing the new baren. And I'm sure I would  have spent even more time on the carving if I hadn't  watched another  demo from  the 2017 International Moku Conference, this  one by master carver Shoichi Kitamura. Because he spoke in Japanese and was then translated I couldn't follow everything. But at one point he cut a line about a quarter inch from the fine lines he planned to carve. I'd always understood that this line was cut AFTER the real carving. He said that this relieved the pressure on the wood as he carved. And that seemed to be the case. By using that method my re-carving had none of  the broken lines of  my first line block!

As anyone who's read this blog for a while probably knows I'm not fond of bad use of the English language. Going forward(argh!!!) I try not to use redundancies, verbal barnacle-like accretions that clarify nothing  and just weigh down sentences, etc.  So when I use 'good progress' in the title  to this post I'm joking. What other kind of  progress is there? If it's bad it must be regression not progression. But the title  also explains  my feelings about moku hanga. Sometimes I think I'm making progress and other times I'm not so sure.

I've also been listening, thanks to McClain's Printmaking Supplies mentioning it in a recent newsletter, to The Unfinished Print, a series of  podcasts with interviews of  contemporary moku hanga printmakers. I think I've listened to four episodes now. And one of  the things that most struck me is  that, wonder of  wonders, I'm not the only person who finds  the medium difficult!!! But also I'm not the only one who can't  resist continuing with it.

Finally, after I'd finished re-carving the line block, I was able to concentrate more on color and using the murasaki baren to get better paint coverage. In this I'm very happy. It has worked quite well, at least by my standards. Some of the uneven paint coverage that remains is due less to the new baren than it is  to the fact that I'm using a floating kento. And I'm using a floating kento, rather than a kento carved into each block, because my blocks are so small that they really don't allow room to cut a kento.

That was mistake number two in my 'simple' test. Things are never all that simple when you use a floating kento! In any case the few areas of troublesome paint  were normally along the  bottom edge of the floating kento where I really couldn't bring the baren as far down as I needed to. As they say though  I'm now extraordinarily deep in the weeds so I won't pursue this. Suffice it to say that other than this little problem the new baren worked extraordinarily well and I'm happy that I purchased it.

In art it's often true that just about the hardest thing to do well is something 'simple.' I think I re-learned  that lesson here. I thought it would be a simple little moku hanga that would allow me to test the new baren. It was anything but simple! Still I am happy with the results.

It does however differ quite a bit from my print that will be in the Sumi-Fuison  Exhibit at the 2021 International Moku Hanga Conference.

'A Frenzy of Golden-Crowned Kinglets'. Original moku hanga by Ken Januski, copyright 2020.

Given the complexity of this print it seems like a huge step backwards to do something as simple as the new Ruby-crowned Kinglet print. In many ways  I think  that is true. But I felt like I needed to get more control of my paint application and this seemed the simplest way to try it! Though of  course it  wasn't  anywhere  as near as simple as I'd expected.

I'd encourage everyone to look at the online version of  Sumi-Fusion at the link above. It reminds me of just how varied and rich  contemporary moku  hanga is. I'm honored, and still a bit shocked, to have one of my prints chosen for inclusion in this exhibition!!!