Tradition Mission

Ink block printing

Updated: 2009-11-04 09:27
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Ink paintings are one of the oldest known Chinese art forms. With just a few strokes in limited colors, beautiful landscapes and vibrant animals can be brought to life.

But art by the old masters is hard to find, and harder to afford, so the question is, how to make these masterpieces of ink accessible for the average Joe.

Behind me is Rongbaozhai, it’s been here since 1894 and it specializes in Muban shuiyin, a special ancient technique used to reproduce ink paintings. Let’s go check it out.

Wow, these paintings really look like the real deal,let’s go have a look at how they’re made.

This has to be one of my favorite paintings here, I just love how the horse seems to be coming right off the page. The ink painting art form, to me, seems a little bit like impressionist. I’m a big fan of impressionist paintings so this is very, very cool.

The block printing process involves three mains stages: the tracing of the original artwork, carving of the woodblocks, and printing.

So these blocks essentially act as stamps in the printing process to recreate the paintings. Now this is only a selection of the stamps used. For example this shelf here houses the blocks used in Han Xizai’s evening feast, a very large famous painting that took 1667 pieces of wood to recreate.

So each carved piece of wood creates an element of a painting, and that can range from the general outline of an entire character to details such as a beard on an old man. Now, if you have a look, the details on this beard is so fine that it’s actually hard to see the individual carving strokes with the human eye.

Join me for a tour of the workshops.

So this is where the process all begins.

So Ms. Wei, can you tell us what you are doing?

I’m working on the first step of the watercolor block printing process- the tracing and the separating. First we separate the pictures into different layers according to their colors, their depth, and their shades, and we trace the different elements. Then we transfer each layer onto this type of tracing paper.

Is there a particular aspect of this work which is especially rewarding?

I was the one who traced the famous painting Riverside Scene During the Qingming Festival. It took me almost five years.

Once the tracings are complete, they’re handed over to the carvers to reproduce into wooden blocks.

I am trying to reproduce the effect of an almost dry paintbrush scraping across the paper. It’s called Feibai.

Our knives are like the paintbrushes. Artists paint with their brushes, we carve with our blades.

So Mr Wang here is making this look really easy, so I’ve been tempted to try this for myself. He’s going to teach me how to use the tool. Ok, so hold it like this here. So let’s see if I can do this. So you make the incision, and then you can pick it out. Here we go. Let’s hope I only cut the wood and not my fingers. See, I don’t understand how any one can recreate an amazing piece of art when I’m kind of failing to create one line. Here we go. So, not as easy as it looks. I think my admiration for Mr Wang has just tripled again. So can you imagine using a tool like that which really is not as easy to use as it looks and creating, this here, is the beginning of a lotus leaf.

And finally, when the blocks are carved to perfection, it’s time to put them to use.

So back in the olden days this process could only be done in dank, dark rooms because they need the high humidity to keep the printing process good. So right now, you know, it’s the 21st century, we no long have to do this in basements. This is an automatic humidifier. The room must be kept at a humidity level of between 70 and 80 percent. so any time the humidity level drops below 70 percent, this will turn on automatically.

Not only does the room need to be very humid, we need to spray the paper evenly with water. This helps recreate the saturated effect you’d see in traditional Chinese ink paintings

After that, it’s still not time to print. We need to blot the paper with pads, and weigh it down so that the moisture is evenly distributed within the pile of paper. We do this for about 20 minutes.

Then I fix the printing block onto the table. I need to match this up with the paper I am printing on, which is also fixed. I need to match the layer already printed with the printing block. I use my fingertips to trace along every line to make sure everything is matched perfectly.

Once I’ve determined where to put the board, we use a traditional Chinese method of fixing it to the table- goupigaoyao.

What is goupigaoyao?

It’s a Chinese medicine product.

Can I hold it? Oh it’s quite hard, but a little tacky.

Yes it is hard but when it warms it softens a little. So you can use it to fix the board to the table without damaging the board.

So what are you printing?

I am printing Kwan Yin’s hair. It takes more than one block to achieve the artistic effect of her hair. We need print the same area with five different blocks, layered on top of each other.

Doing this work. I feel that I am continuing the ancient traditions of China and preserving our heritage. I feel really proud of that.

And that heritage is being more than passed down, it’s being shared with the rest of the world. Many foreign dignitaries and delegations have had the chance to experience the art of Mubanshuiyin, and exhibitions overseas have been met with great enthusiasm.

So, there you have it. Muban Shuiyin, a method for reproducing ink paintings, which, over the years, has developed into an art form in its own right. And now, in the 21st century, it’s going global, and bringing Chinese culture to the world.

I’m Guanny Liu, thanks for watching.

Story: Guanny Liu

Video: Casey Chin