Japanese Woodblock Printing Demo by Motoharu Asaka and Louise Rouse

Motoharu Asaka, one of the last remaining master woodblock carvers in Japan, with more than 45 years experience and commissions from national museums and world-renowned contemporary artists, is visiting European institutions in Finland, Italy, France and the UK in September, 2015.
— SpikePrintStudio

In June this year I eagerly booked a place on Motoharu Asaka’s workshop with a talk by Louise Rouse at Spike Print Studio in Bristol. The workshop took place last Wednesday 30th September.


As I enter the Spike Print Studio I can feel the excitement buzzing round the room as Motoharu Asaka prepares the woodblocks for this afternoon’s demo. He is busy dampening the woodblocks to stop them from drying out in the heat of this Indian summer afternoon.


Big plan chests in the centre of the print room are laid, edge to edge, with sheets of paper showing chronologically the stages of a full colour reproduction of Hokusai’s Great Wave. Motoharu Asaka carved these reproductions in the traditional Ukyio-e style. Motoharu’s skill is specifically woodblock carving and in keeping with the Ukyio-e tradition, his carved blocks are passed on to a professional woodblock printer to print.


Louise translates for Motoharu while he shows us the process of printing from his pre-carved mountain cherry wood block. Motoharu spent seventeen years as a woodblock carver apprentice. Although he also spent a ten year apprenticeship learning the art of Japanese woodblock printing, he says he is still an amateur. We all gasp in awe! This woodblock printing demonstration uses the traditional Ukiyo-e Japanese woodblock printing techniques and there is no room for mistakes.

Mountain Cherry Wood

I ask if Motoharu ever uses magnolia wood for carving. Louise explains that he mostly uses solid mountain cherry wood because the combination of the fine grain and sticky consistency of the fruit tree is much better for carving. He sometimes uses Shina ply for larger surface areas. Louise finds the magnolia much more difficult to carve because the grain can be inconsistent. It is useful to hear this as I have been wondering whether it would be good to experiment with different types of wood. Mountain cherry wood is very expensive and seems to be becoming more rare so it’s not easy to find a supplier. McCains Printmaking Supplies based in Portland Oregon, have started selling high quality Cherry Plywood blocks. A fellow workshop student recommended lemon or rock wood which might be easier to source in the UK.

Printing Tips

We are given tips on dampening the block, dampening the paper for quick prints, watering down the rice paste, how to stop watercolours from drying out, technique for brushing the ink across the block, how to hold and lay down the paper for the Kento registration. There is an art to every step. It will have taken Motoharu about two weeks to carve the main outline and about a month and a half to carve all the blocks.


Three Colour Prints

Finally we are all given the opportunity to print a three colour print from Motoharu’s woodblocks. Cats or Fish? It has to be cats. As I stand in the queue and watch the woman in front of me struggle with her first print I imagine that observing her learning curve will help my printing go nice and smoothly. How wrong I am!


Cat Prints

When it gets to my turn and I frantically rub the baren over the paper (for too long!) and as I pull the paper back, the sticky nori paste has pulled the ink away from the paper making fluffy yellow abstract prints. I’m not too disheartened and move on to the next block. The red is easier as I have cleaned off the block before I print this one and don’t take as long to rub the baren over the paper. The third block is the outline and prints fine. When I pull back the print, the “too long” baren rubbing technique has resulted in a composition of fluffy cats!


Thanks to Motoharu Asaka and Louise Rouse for making it to Bristol as part of their European tour. And thanks to Spike Print Studio for hosting this informative workshop in their lovely space.

Motoharu Asaka

Louise Rouse

Spike Print Studio