POS:  RESEARCH / 关于水印木刻
Introduction to Waterprint Woodcut
.w.p.w . 2021/9/11


What is Waterprint Woodcut?

From ancient engraving copies to modern original waterprint woodcuts, the fundamental working principles have no qualitative differences. The draft woodblock print is inversely engraved, then the aqueous pigment is brushed onto the woodblock, and then finally pressed with paper to obtain an image copy by rubbing the printing tool. This comprises the essential elements of the process of creating waterprint woodcut.

From ancient engraving copies to modern original waterprint woodcuts, the fundamental working principles have no qualitative differences. The draft woodblock print is inversely engraved, then the aqueous pigment is brushed onto the woodblock, and then finally pressed with paper to obtain an image copy by rubbing the printing tool. This comprises the essential elements of the process of creating waterprint woodcut.

Waterprint woodcuts are sometimes collectively referred to as watermark print or watermark woodcut. However, there are differences between these three names. The concept of watermark print is most extensive, as long as the work is printed with water-based pigments, we can define it as woodcut printing. The term waterprint woodcut was first used by Rong Baozhai. It is an easily-understood name which alludes to the ancient Chinese carving woodblock printing technique and has been used ever since.  As the origin of the invention of printing technique, China discovered a unique printing technique called engraving printing. Works printed by this technique can be found from the original wood carvings of Buddha statues of the Sui and Tang dynasties, to the colored overprints of Ming and Qing dynasties. In the one thousand years of this evolving medium, engraving printing persistently carried the basic form and aesthetic concept of traditional Chinese painting, and it contains abundant ancient social image resources and multiple aesthetic styles. The paper, ink, and pigment used in the ancient engraving printings are the same as those used in Chinese paintings, which are water-based soft materials. Most of the engraved plates are hardwood plates. Therefore, it is more accurate to summarize this technical system with watermark woodcut. Since Rongbaozhai's engraving printing products are mainly Chinese painting reproductions or poetry albums and papers, the word watermark woodcut naturally conveyed the meaning of replicating prints in people's consciousness.


Emperor Zhao Ji of the Song dynasty, Eyes Embroidered with Plums

In the 1950s, modern Chinese printmakers took the advantage of the traditional watermark woodcut combining with the Western woodcut and Japanese watermarking techniques to create a woodcut printing form which is different from both traditional woodblock watermarks and Western woodcut. This kind of woodblock printing inherits the plate-making method from the modern woodcut techniques, which also continued the traditional Chinese printing materials and methods by using Chinese rice paper and water-based pigments. Usingthis technique, the printed works’ color expression is transparent and pure. It contains the vivid artistic conception of Chinese ink paintings, as well as the knife trace and the wood grain of modern woodcut prints. In order to distinguish that from Rongbaozhai's watermark woodcut, this printmaking technique is often called waterprint woodcut in exhibition materials. Technically, it also differentiates the traditional replicating prints of watermark woodcut from the modern original waterprint woodcut.

Following the increasing frequency of international exchanges that China’s reform and opening-up policies brought about, Chinese printmaking made significant progress in the construction of ontological language and the innovation of printmaking technology. It is not only reflected in the opening of artistic conception, the transformation of modern printmaking context, but also the innovation and research of printmaking techniques and materials, such as the discovery of new materials and the integration and innovation of various plate materials. At the same time, with the increased awareness of environmental protection, the conventional print materials that pollute the environment were eliminated and many other non-toxic and less harmful water-based materials were applied in the creation of prints, resulting in many watermark prints of non-woodblock media. Examples include screen watermark, cardboard watermark, collagraph watermark and gypsum watermark among other media. For the printing of such water-based pigments, many research scholars have proposed a broader definition of watermark print,regardless of the type, the kind of plateor technique applied, as long as the print adoptss water-based pigment, it qualifies as a watermark print . Therefore, in many related exhibitions, either the watermark woodcut or the waterprint woodcut works are uniformly described as watermark print.

Among the plethora of printmaking concepts, prints can be named after the plate-making materials as woodcut, lithograph, copperplate, and silkscreen; for printing principles, there are relief, intaglio, planography, and stencil prints. In addition, according to the property of the printing pigments, there are mimeograph prints and watermark prints. The first two methods which classified the physical properties of prints by printing principles and plate materials are based on Western printing theories, yet the third one is a unique concept which was invented in China in the 1950s. In fact, there is no such concept of watermark print in Western prints. Thus, when waterprint woodcut presents, it is inappropriate to define traditional Chinese watermarks prints or contemporary waterprint woodcut as "colored woodcut" or "relief print."  Rather, it is more suitable to distinguish Chinese and Western woodblock prints by water-based pigments and "oil-based" pigments. With further inquiry, it can be found that, in the traditional Chinese and Western paintings, the West is predominately "oil-based" and China is "water-based".

Most of the early Western paintings were public murals, the Renaissance Vatican murals, for example. These paintings depicting ancient mythology and biblical fables were presented in public spaces, necessitating the durability and stability of the painting materials. The technique of fresco is to paint the mineral paints with water or gel media on the wall surface when the lime coating on the surface of the wall is yet to dry. After drying, the walls and the paints will integrate into one substantial piece. Beside frescos, medieval-era western art also used wooden boards by pigments mixed with egg whites and minerals, which is tempera. This technique can precisely depict the shape and the transitional colors of the object. In the 15th century, Jan Van Eyck, the representative painter of the Netherlandish School, made a revolutionary improvement of the pigment method. Instead of using the then conventional egg white, he chose linseed oil to dilute the liquid, which makes the color more comfortable to blend, more suitable to use with the pen and developed oil painting technology.


Jan Van Eyck, The Portraits of the Arnolfinis

Early Chinese paintings, especially paintings before the Song Dynasty, were mostly murals as well. The painting materials were mostly ink and mineral pigments. When entering the tomb of Xu Xianxiu in Northern Qi Dynasty, unearthed in Taiyuan, Shanxi province, one witnesses the vivid figures and expressive dancing lines on its mural. During the Song Dynasty, public murals gradually faded out of mainstream painting, replaced by literary temperament scroll paintings. Scroll paintings are drawn on silk or paper. They can be unfolded, hung rolled up for storage, and easy to transport. From a certain point of view, the development of scroll painting has not only gradually changed the monotonous social function of Chinese teaching, "civilizing ignorant people and establishing ethical order," but also made painting become a media which allows the literati to strengthen their aspiration, to express their personal and philosophical opinions, and to abreact their negative emotions. Even Zhao Ji, the noble emperor of the Song dynasty adequately embodied his literary heart in paintings. He depicts a spiritual space of life and perfection in his painting "Eyes Embroidered with Plums", and the most elemental material carrier of this spiritual image is rice paper and ink. Therefore, the title of "waterprint woodcut" may seem to be classified by physical properties; however, it reflects the differences of woodcuts’ cultural concepts between the East and West.


Horse Riding Map on the West Wall of Lou Rui's Tomb, Northern Qi, Taiyuan, Shanxi province

The defining qualification that watermark print must be made with water-based pigment is basically sound. But generally speaking, "watermark print" chiefly refers to watermark woodcut artworks created with ink, rice paper, and woodblock as the primary printing media, which shows that waterprint woodcut still has its unique artistic language and inherent cultural character.

 Although the cardboard or screen prints composed with water-based pigments can also be described as watermark prints, they are contrary to the unique nature of wood materials and engraving technique of waterprint woodcut.


This article is part of the w.p.w. And Others from Internet.