Contemporary Artist Kohei Kyomori's Venture into Ukiyo-e

2022.12.22 Taiwan

Kohei Kyomori is a decorative artist reinterpreting decorative arts from different decades of historical references from cultures around the world. Having thoroughly studied the role and nature of decoration, Kyomori produces art through methods rooted in handicraft, expressing the symbolic meanings in ornamentation into vibrantly painted two-dimensional works. This exhibition presents a variety of original themes and perspectives that confront Japanese historical and traditional spirit. We dive into a specific collaboration work with Kyoto’s woodblock printmakers where the artist talks in depth the significance in this rare cross pollination.

The Appeal of Ukiyo-e

Painting works for the upcoming Taipei exhibition

ー What made you decide to work with woodblock printing?

Kyomori: I have always been interested in traditional Japanese arts and its differences from other arts around the world. I constantly think about how I can work and incorporate Japan's cultural assets. Within that rich cultural tapestry, ukiyo-e has always fascinated me. I’ve longed to be involved with techniques used in woodblock printing in my works.

ー Why did you choose ukiyo-e as a method to express your painting?

Kyomori: The unique gradations, the way the background’s distinctive color gradients are expressed and the way the figures are printed are an exquisite Japanese art form. Historically, ukiyo-e used woodblock printing techniques to document idyllic narratives ー leisure activities and the landscapes of the era. I’ve drawn inspiration many times from ukiyo-e to create my paintings. I’ve yet to work with woodblock printing techniques and I had a strong desire to explore the possibilities.

"O burn col.1", 2022, Kyomori's new series of paintings

ー This project is a collaboration with Unsodo in Kyoto, currently the only publisher in Japan that publishes woodblock-printed books. They have also published countless ukiyo-e prints. What were your thoughts after visiting their repository of woodblock prints?

Kyomori: I was deeply impressed with how carefully they stored their vast collection of woodblocks made over centuries ago. I've always admired the works of the Edo Period painter Ito Jakuchu, which I had the privilege of seeing the actual woodblocks used for Jakuchu's series of ceiling paintings depicting flowers.

The repository itself was filled with the drifting scent of aged wood and ink, that you could feel the overwhelming weight of tradition and history. It was truly an honor that I was given access to a place that preserves so many priceless woodblock artifacts.

In the repository of Unsodo, a woodblock print publisher established in 1891

Laser Cutting and Hand-Carving Techniques by a Master Engraver

To make a woodblock print, the painter must first create a preparatory sketch called a "gako". It is then made into a more detailed copy called "hanshita-e" which serves as the final sketch for the woodblock. Using the hanshita-e, the engraver carves the woodblock. For this collaborative project, Kyomori worked with Shoichi Kitamura, a master engraver with a career spanning over 30 years.

ー What were your thoughts after receiving an offer to create a contemporary ukiyo-e work?

Kitamura: When I first saw the draft, I knew that it would require high-precision carving and several color blocks to print all the lines and colors. Since the original painting was created digitally, I could use the digital data to carve the woodblock. I took on this challenge with the hope of expressing the print beautifully using hand-carving and a bit of help from a laser cutter to combine techniques used in traditional and modern wood engraving.

"Hanshita-e" sketches for the project's woodblock prints

ー How do you feel about turning a contemporary artist's painting into a woodblock print?

Kitamura: In addition to creating traditional woodblock prints, we also often receive requests from contemporary artists, which I find to be very exciting. If we only work with traditional prints frequently, it would be difficult to know whether or not we're meeting the needs of the times. By working with contemporary art pieces, we are stressing the importance that woodblock prints can still stay relevant and appeal to the general public.

I am very grateful for every opportunity to work together with contemporary artists. It gives me the motivation to create works that exceeds their expectations.

At the studio of Shoichi Kitamura

ー What was it like to carve Kyomori's painting?

Kitamura: The process was basically the same for traditional ukiyo-e, but being able to use digital data to minimize the hand-carving part was a big factor. The woodblock still wasn't usable after using the laser cutter. Therefore, I had to manually retouch some parts to prepare it for printing.

Digital and manual techniques both have their strengths and weaknesses. By using both methods, they work with each other to compensate one another in their weaknesses to effectively express the work.

ー Do you have a message for the viewers?

Kitamura: At a glance, it can be hard to distinguish between a regular digital print and a woodblock print, but if you look very closely, you can see the unique charm of a woodblock print. I hope viewers will take the time to enjoy the finer details.

A Fusion of Contemporary Art and Woodblock Printing Expressed Through Color

Since joining the Sato Woodblock Studio in Kyoto as an apprentice over 20 years ago, Kyoko Hirai has mastered the traditional printing techniques of woodblocks. Having worked as a "surishi" printer for many years, she had initial thoughts that working on contemporary art would be a difficult challenge.

ー What were your thoughts after receiving an offer to create a contemporary ukiyo-e work?

Hirai: Creating a woodblock print from a digital artwork was a new challenge for me, and I was worried about how I could bring out both the beauty of woodblock printing and Kyomori's artwork.

This is because in woodblock printing, when the pigment is pressed on the paper, the colors usually become somber and subdued. I wanted to express the unique warmth of a woodblock print without losing the bright colors and intricacy of Kyomori's painting.I felt the need to find the right techniques to accomplish that.

ー How did you feel when you first saw Kyomori's painting?

Hirai: When I first saw the draft of Kyomori's painting, I thought that it looked like a design pattern for a kimono. Unsodo published a woodblock print design book called "Ayanishiki", and the painting looked similar to the designs featured there.

ー What was it like to work on a print of Kyomori's painting?

Hirai: For the ukiyo-e that I regularly make, I first print the outline of the image before applying the different colors into it. For Kyomori's artwork, the parts with different variations of colors were combined together, therefore the appearance of the finished product was dependent on how the engraver carved the color blocks.

In woodblock printing, the engraver first carves a block called "sutebori" that prints the outline of the image. This sutebori helps prevent positional displacement when printing the image, and it allowed me to make a satisfactory print despite the large number of blocks. I haven't had many opportunities like this before, and it was a very satisfying outcome.

Various kinds of brushes used to apply pigment to the woodblock

ー You were initially concerned about the colors of the print. How did they turn out?

Hirai: These days, people are more familiar with the coloration of digital prints.I was concerned about the color applications on the woodblocks, but I was aided by the materials provided to me.

In digital prints, the ink lies on the surface of the paper, but in woodblock prints, the artwork is complete when the pigment becomes deeply absorbed into the fibers of the washi paper. In contrast to digital prints where the colors are consistent, the colors change slightly when the pigment dries in a woodblock print. The beauty of woodblock printing lies in the warmth brought by a human hand to each and every print. For this project, I was able to produce a vivid artwork while bringing out the soft colors typical of a woodblock print.

Final color adjustments to the sample print. The colors are adjusted based on the digital draft of the painting.

ー Do you have a message for the viewers?

Hirai: I’d like for viewers to see the profound artistic expressions of a woodblock print. Since it's made entirely by hand, I recommend viewers to allow themselves time to examine every corner of the print.

Experiencing the Handiwork of the Master Artisans

ー As we come close to the end of this ukiyo-e project, what were your thoughts on the work of the engraver and the printer?

Kyomori: During my visit to their studios, I was able to experience firsthand the carving and printing process. Needless to say, their techniques are not something you can learn overnight. It's impressive when you think about how their techniques and ideas have been handed down over centuries from one generation to another.

Ukiyo-e prints signed by Kohei Kyomori

ー You’re presenting this ukiyo-e print at your solo exhibition in Taipei. How would you like the visitors at the exhibition to view the artwork?

Kyomori: Up until now, I’ve often used digital techniques to create artworks. For this new project, I wanted to try using my digital painting as the basis for a woodblock print. By entrusting part of the work to an engraver and a woodblock printer, there was a part of the creative process that I couldn't control, which made it exciting.

I hope visitors will recognize that the artwork was created by joining hands with masters who have gone through years and if not generations of invaluable cultural significance. I look forward to seeing my own ukiyo-e print displayed at the exhibition in Taipei.

The completed ukiyo-e print will be available for online purchasing and at the "Impression -O-" exhibition in Taipei. Come and experience the collaboration between contemporary decorative artist Kohei Kyomori and the master artisans who have carried on the traditions of ukiyo-e.

View exhibition details »

Photos by William Galopin and Whitestone gallery.

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