'One-point' Lessons

Lesson #20: Controlling moisture while printing

(contributed by Matt Brown)

It seems that having printing paper evenly moist and keeping levels of moisture constant during a printing session is a key part to getting the moku hanga approach to work. I like to have on hand the following tools for this task: a board (called in Japan a yoko-ita, mine is a piece of kitchen counter laminate board 21"x27" mounted on a box holding it 8" off the floor: I print sitting cross-legged on a low box on the floor), a wide soft-haired hake brush (6" wide, sold by D. Smith, McClain's, and others), a spray bottle for water, a damp towel, a bowl for water, and a sheet of plastic to cover the yoko-ita.

I try to begin preparing paper at least 4 or 5 hours (or overnight) before I plan to print. To begin I lay out on the yoko-ita my stack of paper cut to size for printing, the bowl of water, the hake brush. Sheet by sheet I re-stack the paper applying the water-loaded brush to every other sheet with broad even strokes (i.e. building the stack one wet, one dry). How much water I use depends on the type of paper, on the weather, on the size of the sheets. On top of this stack I lay the damp towel covered by the sheet of plastic, letting the whole thing sit.

After at least an hour I re-build the stack, sheet by sheet, in a pile which is spread out in a pattern which will cover an area probably three times the size of a single sheet, with each sheet covering approximately half the sheet below. This new pile I let sit for three hours or longer (overnight is best) under the towel and plastic. Its function is to allow the water to move evenly through all the paper. Re-stacking this pile onto a straight stack again sets the whole business ready for printing.

Except when we get into some really humid weather during the summer months, I find it is usually best to keep the damp towel covering the printing paper throughout the printing session. When I print I keep the yoko-ita on my left. My left hand flips back the towel and grasps a sheet from the stack, both hands place it on the block, my right hand picks up the baren and 'sets' the sheet. While barening with my right hand my left flips the towel back over the papers on the yoko-ita, returns to help the right hand with barening if I am wanting a lot of pressure, and then goes to flip back the other side of the towel covering printed sheets laying on the yoko-ita while the right hand returns the baren to its cloth. Both hands work together to pull the paper from the block and lay the impression face up on the yoko-ita, the left hand flips the towel back over the prints while the right hand reaches for the pigment jar, and on it goes. If I feel the stack is beginning to lose moisture I will begin to compensate by adding moisture to the damp towel with the spray bottle, if the paper seems too wet I will run without the towel for a while.

My approach derives primarily from a reading of Japanese Printmaking by Toshi Yoshida & Rei Yuki. Relying on the damp towel has been key in helping me to work with a dry indoor climate, especially during the winter months. Bear in mind I am not printing large sheets, and were my sheets to exceed a size of 1/2 of the yoko-ita I would need to develop a different approach.