Seductive Marvels of Japanese Art– Materials and Techniques of Surimono Prints  

Surimono prints were the focus of the exhibition “The Art of Friendship: Japanese Surimono Prints” on display at the Chester Beatty Library in the spring-summer 2017. This exhibition of 95 single prints and poetry books from the collection gave us a chance to study in detail the making, techniques and materials of Japanese woodblock prints, especially focusing on the more elaborate Surimono.

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“The Art of Friendship: Japanese Surimono Prints,” an exhibition at the Chester Beatty Library.

The most lavish of Japanese prints, the quality and refinement of Surimono appealed greatly to Sir Alfred Chester Beatty. He acquired the greater part of his Surimono collection- a collection that is considered one of finest in the world- between 1954 and 1963, having already moved his Library to Dublin.

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CBL J 2078, Writing Table, by Gakutei.

The word Surimono means simply ‘printed thing’. Prepared as gifts for exchange among friends and acquaintances at New Year and on other special occasions, these privately-published prints were products of the flourishing literary culture of Edo Japan. The Surimono commissioned by poetry circles in the late eighteenth and nineteenth centuries combine short verses composed at poetry gatherings with designs prepared by leading artists. Taking their subjects from the scholar’s desk and the literary canons of Japan and China, Surimono embody the eloquence and amity of these cultivated salons and offer a glittering glimpse into a world rich in playful allusion.

Because of its small audience and private funding, Surimono artists and printers could produce exquisitely refined prints with delicacy and great care. They were usually limited to between 50 and 150 copies.

The basic printing technique used to create Surimono prints was similar to the commercial Ukiyo-e prints although the Surimono prints appear to be much more intricate in design. They exhibit finer and much more elaborate details, more colours, more patterns, more blocks and therefore no expense was spared.

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Details of Surimono prints showing the intricacy of the design.

Japanese woodblock printing is a technique which involves the use of many different blocks of wood to produce one multi-colour print. The wood commonly used for the block is a hard cherry wood which was prepared and planed to achieve a smooth surface. The age of the block and the preparation had a direct impact on the finish achieved in the prints.

The design is first drawn on paper and then pasted face down with a starch paste onto a wooden block so that the design is reversed, ready to be carved and printed the right way up.  The block carver then cuts the design into the block by preserving the raised motif which will be printed.

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The initial drawing is adhered to the wood block (left); the wood carver cutting into the wood to created the raised motif (right).

The key block (Omohan) was produced first. It was printed in black and at this point annotated by the artist to describe which colours should be used where. With this decided, the other blocks for the different colours were carved.

Kento is the registration system traditionally used by Japanese printmakers.  It includes two parts, the hikitsuke kento (line stop) and kagi kento (key). Multi-colour woodblock prints require a separate block for each colour, and the kento marks insure the blocks are aligned with precision to print the colours on the paper.

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The Kento Registration System.

To prepare for printing, the pigments were mixed with water and sometimes animal glue (nikawa) in ceramic bowls. The block was moistened first and the pigment was applied with a brush onto the surface of the woodblock. There are different type of brushes available depending on the size of the area to be coloured and the desired effects. For example, tonal gradation could be achieved at this stage by using dampened cloth or water brushes to apply the pigment to the block.

The printing paper was dampened before being positioned onto the block using the kento marks. Next the back of the sheet was rubbed over the coloured block using the baren, a circular printing pad. The process of applying the colourants onto the block and rubbing them into the paper with the baren was repeated until the desired colour saturation was obtained.

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The printer applying pigment to the block (left); and then applying pressure to paper with the baren to print the design (right).

The paper used for Surimono prints is a kozo paper with strong fibres that tends to be heavier and more absorbent than the paper used for commercial prints. It is believed to be unsized, although a small amount of sizing might have been used to avoid smudging of the colourants in the areas that are printed.

The full sheet of o-bosho paper or “presentation paper” is 39 x 53.5 cm but was not commonly used as a whole. Rather the sheet would have been cut into different sized pieces, following established patterns to obtain different formats. The most common format is Shikishi-ban, an almost square sheet about 21 x 19 cm, which became the standard for Surimono printing and was rarely used for Ukiyo-e prints.

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CBL J 2107 Shikishi-ban format.

There are two important differences to note between commercial Ukiyo-e and Surimono which are central to understanding Surimono. The first one is to emphasize Surimono prints as luxury objects with extensive use of precious materials. These include the heavy, unsized paper and the use of mica powder and metal pigments. The prints were also more labour intensive to produce, using more elaborate techniques. Surimono printers used the highest quality and the finest materials available as well as showing off their finest printing skills.

The second major difference is that the poem which accompanied each image was carved into a separate block than the key block, by a wood carver specialising in cutting script. This block would usually display the finest lines and imitate calligraphy perfectly.

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Detail of CBL J 2107 showing a variety of effects used to reproduce different fabrics.

The use of metal pigment is common on Surimono prints. However, real gold and silver are rarely found. Instead brass, copper and tin are quite frequently used, sometimes as a background, but quite often to highlight small areas of the design. The metal powder was mixed with large amounts of animal glue (nikawa) and printed on the paper last to avoid transfers of the large metal particles onto the paper during the printing process.

 

 

 

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CBL J 2078, Fluidity of the line of text.

Mica (kira) is composed of phyllosilicate minerals. The white luminescent appearance was used to highlight prints. A mixture of glue, usually a gum, and the mica powder was applied to the block and then printed gently with the baren. It was sometimes applied above a coloured ground or mixed with the pigment before printing. Another method is to cut a stencil, place it over the print, and brush the glue directly onto the paper and lightly apply the mica powder onto it and brush any excess off once dry.

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CBL J 2313, Use of mica powder to highlight the body of the watch.

Maybe the most striking difference between ukiyo-e prints and Surimono is the extensive use of embossing-a technique which is not commonly used in ukiyo-e. There are a number of ways in which this was achieved.

Blind printing (Karazuri) is a form of printing without the use of any pigment. The technique involves carving a pattern into a woodblock and then printing it in the usual way, but without any pigment. The pressure of the baren on the back of the paper causes part of the paper to be squeezed between the wood and the baren, and flattened. This type of embossing is the most common and the one often used for highlights.

In areas of Surimono where the embossing appears to be coloured, it means that the pigment has been applied before the embossing, multiplying the amount of work necessary.

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CBL J 2284, Blind embossing and coloured embossing.

Convex embossing (Kimedashi) was produced by removing a concave area in the block and pressing the piece of paper over it. The paper is pushed down into the carved spaces of the block and moulded into a new shape. This type of embossing was often used for larger areas where the mark of the embossing is visible at the verso and the paper does not remain flat.

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CBL J 2102, Convex embossing on the wine flask (left and centre), is especially visible with raking light on the verso of the print (right).

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CBL J 2179, Mount Fuji, by Hokusai

The exhibition and the catalogue were a real dive into a marvelous world of beauty and luxury. Because privately commissioned, cost was no object and this shows in the wealth of techniques and materials that the artist, wood carvers and printers used to produce the Surimono prints. Leading artists such as Hokusai and other prestigious Ukiyo-e artists dedicated large portions of their work producing these refined Surimono prints.

Julia Poirier, Book and Paper Conservator

 

 

 

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Exploring Ruzbihan’s palette: Gold

It’s hard to believe that our current exhibition Lapis and Gold: The story of the Ruzbihan Qur’an will close on Sunday 28th August, however we are delighted that over 103,000 visitors have had a chance to see it so far.

We hope to encourage you to come and visit the exhibition before it closes with this post on gold – the second most abundant colour on the pages of this spectacular 16th century Persian manuscript.

Precious metals such as gold and silver are used frequently in manuscript illumination. They are applied as thinly beaten metallic leaf or finely ground to form powdered shell colours that can be used as paint. Shell gold is named after the mollusc shells that this precious paint was frequently stored in during the medieval period.

As we discovered with ultramarine (see our previous post here), gold has been used on every page of the Ruzbihan Qur’an. It has been applied exclusively as a powdered gold paint. The gold has been applied directly to the paper with no evidence of a preparatory ground layer as is often the case in the European manuscript tradition. It has been burnished selectively to highlight scrolling motifs, and pricked with a sharp point to create further visual interest.

Gold is almost always the first colour to be applied to each page of the manuscript, but it is also applied over other colours, including ultramarine.

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f.185a, a wealth of gold techniques.

Gold is routinely painted over in the Ruzbihan Qur’an. These painted details have not always adhered to the surface of the unburnished gold paint successfully, and the illumination has sometimes fractured and flaked away from the surface of the gold, particularly where the details are painted using red and white lead containing mixtures.

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Flaking lead white on gold f.3a and f.443a.

The gold sprinkled grounds seen behind the panels of large-scale script throughout the textblock are also applied as powdered gold paint, and the characteristic round droplet shape is clear under magnification. These sprinkles have been used alone, over lines of small-scale black naskh script, or layered with a translucent pink—most probably safflower.

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Gold and pink sprinkled grounds on folios f.79a and f.20b.

Towards the end of the manuscript, the use of two shades of gold further enhances the lustre of the folios. Although only pure gold was identified in the Ruzbihan Qur’an, the use of gold alloys and different carats of gold for visual affect has been identified in studies of 16th century Islamic miniature painting.

Kristine Rose Beers, Senior Conservator

Lapis and Gold: The story of the Ruzbihan Qur’an is on display until Sunday 28th August at the Chester Beatty Library. We do hope you will come and explore Ruzbihan’s palette for yourself.

Recreating the Medieval Palette: a workshop in Montefiascone

In July this year I had the opportunity to attend the Recreating the Medieval Palette workshop taught by Cheryl Porter in the picturesque town of Montefiascone, Italy. The five-day workshop consisted of lectures during the morning, followed by practical sessions of paint and ink making in the afternoon. The workshop allowed the members of the group to gain a deeper understanding of the history, chemistry and use of pigments that were produced during the medieval era, with a focus on European and Islamic manuscript art.

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Left: Cheryl Porter lecturing. Right: A view of Lake Bolsena from outside the classroom.

During the workshop we studied two groups of pigments; organics such as indigo and madder, and inorganics such as gold and lapis lazuli. Inorganic pigments are further separated into natural or synthetic. Some synthetic pigments include vermillion, lead white, red lead and lead tin yellow.  We also had the opportunity to study inks including iron gall ink and carbon ink.

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Left: Participants preparing the wonderful blue pigment lapis lazuli. Right: Experimenting with different inks, using a quill of course!

To create a colour for painting, the chosen ground pigment was firstly mixed with a small amount of water using circular motions in the shape of a figure-of-eight, to create a thick paste. At this stage the pigments were ground to the required particle size; some pigments need to be finely ground while others lose their colour if they are ground too much. Following this, a binding agent was added to the paste, to bind the pigment particles together and to help the pigment stick to the painting surface. In the workshop we tested a variety of different binding agents including egg white, egg yolk, and tree gums.

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Left: mixing egg yolk with Vermillion to produce a beautiful red colour. Right: the binding agent Gum Arabic.

For the medieval artist, understanding materials was a huge part of their knowledge and learning; they needed to know where to buy materials, how to make paint, how to apply their paints to specific supports such as plastered walls or parchment, and learn the skills necessary to determine their quality. For conservators it is useful to have an understanding of pigments and their chemistry to be able to make informed decisions when treating pigmented works of art.

I found it particularly useful to learn about the binding agents used in pigments. At the Chester Beatty Library I have been conserving a collection of Indian miniature paintings, which have particular problems with the lead white pigment flaking. Lead white was one of the most important pigments in the history of painting as it has wonderful density and whiteness; it was the best pigment for creating highlights. Chalk and bone were other options for white but they were often used as mixers only and their opacity was nowhere near as good as that of lead white.

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Left: Experiments using lead white. Centre: Adding water to ground malachite before the binding agent. Right: Grinding prepared pigment using a muller.

During the workshop I had the chance to prepare lead white and immediately I could see some of the difficulties in working with it. Firstly, most pigments are mixed with a small amount of water to create a smooth consistency before adding the chosen binder. However, as lead white is insoluble in water, this proved to be rather challenging- mixing it with a binding agent was more successful in creating a thick paste. Due to the density of the lead white pigment, large amounts of gum were added to create a smooth texture to paint with. The heavy lead and the large amount of gum Arabic binder added to the pigment often result in the flaking of lead white pigments on manuscripts. A new awareness of the historical and chemical problems with lead white has informed my understanding of the manuscripts I have been treating at the CBL. I now understand that many other pigments used in manuscripts were likely to have been mixed with lead white to create lighter colours, one of the reasons there are often problems with other colours flaking.

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Top: Seed Lac. Bottom: Stick lac.

Learning more about insect colours was really interesting for me too (I am fascinated with bugs). One example is red lac, which is an organic pigment made from a secretion of the Kerria lacca or Coccus lacca insects that live on the ficus tree  and are native to India and South-East Asia. The word lac comes from the Sanskrit word meaning 100,000 due to the number of insects that live together. The insects secrete a waxy resin which can be harvested from the branches of the tree. This is referred to as stick lac.

Lac was an expensive dye used in ancient India, China and Syria, and then used in Western Europe by the Romans. It was often used as a lake and recipes are found extensively in the 14th century. The same material was also used for shellac and varnishes. Conservators must consider several factors when dealing with lac in manuscripts; the colour is very sensitive to pH as well as moisture. Additionally the red lac colour reacts to changes in temperature.

Unfortunately, very few organic colour keep their brightness as they tend to fade; also, they could only be used in season. Artists solved some of these problems by making clothlets. The process involved squashing the insects or plants until a juice was produced and then soaking up as much colour as possible with small pieces of cloth that were dipped into the extract. The cloth was left to dry and the process was repeated many times to get a saturated colour. When ready to use, a small piece can be cut off the clothlet and soaked in warm gum, which bleeds out the colour. Clothlets were fine for the manuscript painter’s needs, however they were not so good for an easel painter or someone who needed more bulk or covering power.

By the 14th century there was a technological leap and the most common way to preserve colours was to create a powder pigment from the colour juice or dye, which is called an organic lake pigment. The juice produced from the plant or insect could be poured onto chalk and then stored as a powder.

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Left: Preparing a lac lake. Right: a small bottle of lac lake pigment.

The opportunity to attend this workshop in a beautiful part of Italy has been a fantastic learning experience for me. I was able to develop my knowledge of pigments to a much higher level and Cheryl’s lectures and instructions for making pigments and inks were not only informative but also a great deal of fun. As a variety of professionals attended the course including artists, conservators, students and historians, I felt I was able to exchange knowledge with other participants and learn more about the way in which this workshop was going to aid their work. By the end of the week, I had created samples on Islamic paper, European cotton paper and sheep parchment, which I will use as a reference guide when looking at pigments in manuscripts in the future.

I would like to thank the Zibby Garnett Travel Fellowship and the York Foundation for Conservation and Craftsmanship for generously providing funding to attend this workshop.

Puneeta Sharma, Heritage Council Intern in Paper Conservation