POS:  RESEARCH / 关于水印木刻
Dual Function and Multiple Forms of Waterprint Woodcut
.w.p.w . 2021/3/29


The traditional watermark woodcut targeting image reproduction and the modern waterprint woodcut based on artistic originality. The watermark woodcut arose with the engraving printing technique in the Sui and Tang dynasties and declined with the recession of the traditional printing industry in the late Qing dynasty. Waterprint woodcut appears in the 1930s and has continued until the present times. The two classes of prints have different functions, resulting in different forms of output. The watermark woodcuts are mainly industrialized image productions that have a broad social application, while waterprint woodcuts are mostly personal pure artistic creation for aesthetic purposes only

Dual Function and Multiple Forms of Waterprint Woodcut


There are two historical stages in Chinese watermarking woodcut: The traditional watermark woodcut targeting image reproduction and the modern waterprint woodcut based on artistic originality. The watermark woodcut arose with the engraving printing technique in the Sui and Tang dynasties and declined with the recession of the traditional printing industry in the late Qing dynasty. Waterprint woodcut appears in the 1930s and has continued  until the present times. The two classes of prints have different functions, resulting in different forms of output. The watermark woodcuts are mainly industrialized image productions that have a broad social application, while waterprint woodcuts are mostly personal pure artistic creation for aesthetic purposes only.

The seminal achievements of traditional watermark woodcut embodied in its contribution to the realistic reproduction of paintings and engraving printing technology. From the illustration of the title page of Emperor Yizong's Diamond Sutra (868 AD) to Li Yu's Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden (1679 AD), a thousand years of Chinese traditional watermark woodcut has evolved in two separate directions based on the engraving printing technology. One is the art performance from basic lines to color blocks, and the other is the overprints from monochrome single-plate prints to colorful multi-plate prints. These two evolving directions intersect with each other and develop side by side. From beginning to end, they persist in vivid imitating and replicating the traditional Chinese paintings.

There was no concept of "printmaking" in the sense of modern art in ancient times. And yet, a large number of "print" works were distributed in various book illustrations, title pages of Buddhist sutra, painting and calligraphy, pamphlets, wood engraving New Year artworks, cards, drinking tokens, paper currency, wallpapers, and many other various printing applications. Those so-called "ancient printmaking treasures" are mostly produced under the demand of image plurality and transmission in ancient times because "printmaking" was almost the only method to abundantly replicate images to paintings before the invention of modern photographic printing technology. Needlesstosay, the still image carries vital importance as a visual information resource. In ancient times, the information of images established by drawing, and in order to spread information of these images, there was a need for people to find a reliable image reproduction technology. Therefore, the essential functions of archaic prints are image reproduction and dissemination, such as spreading religion, propagating classics such as Confucian books, knowledge imparting, and cultural demand.


Religion is a spiritual and  social activity which requires a large number of printed materials to support its dissemination and consecration. Since the introduction of Buddhism into China during the Han dynasty, it became prevalent because of the advocacy of emperors and flourished in the Northern and Southern dynasties. An ancient Chinese poem described: "hundreds of temples in the Southern dynasty immersed in the ravishing fog". The prosperity of Buddhism has stimulated the market demand and the reform of the production method of Buddhist propaganda materials. According to the fifth chapter of scholar Feng Zhi's "Story collections of Hermits and Celebrities" in the late Tang dynasty, "Monk's quotes in the Garden.": “Master Xuanzang brings five horsebacks worth of Buddhist Puxian's image every year”, which illustrates the social demand of religious printings was enormous.  During the Tang dynasty, Buddhists regarded the Thousand Buddha Sutras and the Dharani Round as the only ways to extinguish their sins. Consequently the earliest image prints in the Sui and Tang dynasties were characteristically illustrations of Buddhist sutras or Buddhist religious materials.


Except for religious use, cultural communication and knowledge consumption are two prominent driving forces for the development of printing. China has a protracted and distinguished history of publishing and printing. Figures suggest that at the end of the fifteenth century, China copied and printed more books than the rest of world combined. "Combining texts with pictures" is one of the traditions of Chinese book production. Ancient books like scriptures, history, philosophy, literature, novels, and opera publications are all examples of illustrations. In fact, nearly all publications in the Yuan and Ming dynasties had illustrations. These illustrations not only beautify books and attract readers' attention, but also have a significant auxiliary reading function. Especially for ordinary citizens of modest or no educational background, illustrations worked to effectively expand their imagination space of books and improve reading interest. Since the Yuan dynasty, booksellers from all over China have invested high price in inviting famous artists to draw and engrave illustrations in order to sell more books. Books from this period have "compiling map", "meeting image", "embroidery image", "whole image", "appearing image", "image", "whole phase", "appearing phase" and "complementing phase"   to arouse people's desire to purchase. According to the estimation of The History of Chinese Printing, there were a thousand kinds of illustrations in Ming dynasty with tens of thousands of copies. Therefore, book illustrations accounted for a considerable proportion of the total amount of ancient Chinese prints.


In addition to books and religious reproductions, the calligraphy and painting spectra and pamphlets based on aesthetic needs and imparting painting skills began to appear in the middle and late Ming dynasty and accumulated dramatically. These developments made an outstanding contribution to the lifelike reproduction technology of traditional painting. From the tremendous Manual of Calligraphy and Painting from the Ten Bamboo Studio, to the far-reaching and influential Manual of the Mustard Seed Garden, both make the traditional watermark woodcut present a highly consistent visual experience and aesthetic form with traditional Chinese painting. Its carved lines are exquisite, thin as a hair and soft as silk, while the vivid figures and flowers printed by woodblock overprint technique are colorful and elegant. Professor Qian Cunxun used to say, "The accuracy and reality of watermark woodcut prints are even beyond the reach of modern photocopying methods".  Therefore, whether the traditional watermark woodcut has an independent cultural character or not, the woodblock overprint technique undoubtedly enriches artistic and creative value. As Li Kegong said in the preface of the Manual of Calligraphy and Painting from the Ten Bamboo Studio, "The thriving of blank stamping and woodblock overprint occurred long ago, and the colorful pictures they created are astonishing."   In addition, the interior decorative paintings, which originated from the sacrificial articles of the Pre-Qin dynasty and the Tang and Song dynasties, gradually evolved into mature folk New Year paintings in the long process of historical development. In order to meet the needs of mass production, the merchants create a different form of folk color woodcut from book illustrations and calligraphy and painting spectrum by block printing or the combination of engraving and painting production.

Technically, Buddhist portraits, book illustrations, picture sheets and New Year’s woodcut prints are not complete works of art, but image products produced by plural printing. Printing only serves as a connection between translation and reproduction. However, in this process, the engraving technique gradually evolved into a highly elaborate art form which not only involves the precise design of various engraving and printing technological processes but also embodies the artistic skills and technical styles in the process of image processing. Ancient printmaking usually contributes by the division of labor and cooperation of painting, engraving and printing. The drafters are folk painters, artists or engravers, and because of their cultural environment, their painting techniques are impossible to leave the dimension of traditional Chinese painting expression. Therefore, it shows the congenital paucity of traditional watermarking woodcut, which is the subordination and dependency of painting and the lack of independent cultural characteristics. However, in the development of engraving printing, for more than a thousand years, the pursuit of the realistic reproduction effect of Chinese painting language by Chinese ancestors has urged the traditional engraving printing technology to a perfect and exquisite state.



Modern Waterprint Woodcut as a Medium of Artistic Expression


The new woodcut revolution, which began in the late 1930s, enlightened the modern Chinese printmaking. Printmaking is no longer a reproduction product of painting or image, but has become a powerful tool in the hands of progressive young artists to criticize social darkness and express new ideas. It has become an original painting form with independent spiritual character. Printing has transformed from traditional painting replication to artistic originality, from practical communication to artistic aesthetics and humanistic observation, which is a qualitative advancement in the history of Chinese printmaking.

New woodcut mainly uses western black and white woodcut as its artistic language, mostly for ink printing, but there are many cases of woodcut prints with water-based pigments. It is uncertain whether such an action is purely due to material shortage, such as the lack of ink or other pigments at hand or other reasons at hand, or whether it's due to another conscious cultural act. For example, in 1931, Lu Xun invited Kaji Neishan to hold a woodcarving workshop course in Shanghai where students' works were printed with water-based pigments. This may be related to the Japanese watermark techniques brought by Kaji Neishan.  A little Scenery of Spring Suburbs, created by Li Hua in 1934, is one of the earliest works in the history of modern Chinese waterprint woodcut. There are two blocks of this work, a light blue background block overlaying the main block which includes farmhouses, haystacks, blooming peach trees, as well as the leisurely foraging chickens. The color block empties the white wall of the house. The main block is similar to black-and-white woodcut, all printed in ink except the chicken feathers are overprinted in red. From the perspective of artistic expression and practice, this artwork has revealed the enchantment of oriental painting, yet there are still distinct traces of western colored woodcut, reflecting the influence of western black and white woodcut on modern Chinese printmaking in that era.


Li Hua, A little Scenery of Spring Suburbs, 1934

After the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the new woodcut artists who were deeply influenced by western critical realism of black and white woodcut, urgently needed a new artistic language to express the spiritual landscape of the endeavors related to economic construction and the happy life of the people in New China. So the return of culture and tradition and made learning traditional engraving watermark woodcut became a temporary trend in the printmaking industry. With the beginning of a new life, the artist takes a refreshed perspective of his or her surroundings. The paintings of this period reflected the booming production in the fields and factories, the confidence and optimism of the people to work selflessly and build a new life. At that time, many woodcut artists went to Rong Baozhai in Beijing, Duoyun Xuan in Shanghai, the Ten Bamboo Studio in Nanjing and other printing workshops with traditional engraving and watermark skills to learn. Meanwhile, Li Pingfan, who returned from Japan, also traveled all over the country to teach his improved Japanese watermark woodcut technique.  Print artists organically combine the line engraving technique in traditional engraving watermark woodcut, woodblock overprint and modern western chromatography techniques to create the first generation of modern Chinese watermark woodcut art language. Several representative works have been produced, such as Huang Yongyu's Ashima, Wu Fan's Dandelion and Wu Junfa's A New Green, which have far-reaching influence and continued the development of traditional waterprint woodcut. At the same time, the Central Academy of Fine Arts and Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts established the printmaking department in 1953 and 1954 respectively and incorporated waterprint woodcut into the teaching curriculum, which provided a powerful guarantee for the training of waterprint woodcut artists.


Huang Yongyu, Ashima, 1956

In the 1960s, waterprint woodcut dramatically emerged in Jiangsu province. By inheriting the traditional woodblock watermarking and absorbing the fresh naturalism concept of the New Jinling Landscape Painting School, waterprint woodcut in Jiangsu created a unique southern China aesthetic characteristic of the watermark print paradigm which includes the charm of knife, wood and water [footnote] and developed a set of sophisticated modern waterprint woodcut creating methods and basic theory. Since then, waterprint woodcut has significantly developed in Jiangsu, Zhejiang, Sichuan, Yunnan and Heilongjiang provinces. These waterprint woodcut works have won many awards in international printmaking competitions and attracted substantial attention, to gradually become a beautiful kaleidoscope of Chinese printmaking art circles. The waterprint woodcut also built upon the second and third generation of art styles in the 1980s and 2000s respectively.


From the aspect of theme and printing technology, most of the works created by the first generation of watermarking woodcarvers in 1950-1960s are thematic creations with relatively simple overprint methods, chiefly main block method, that is, the main configuration of the paint is printed with dense color first, and then supplemented by sub-block to fill other colors. This method still has the creative thought of black and white woodcut, because the main engraved block is already completed with characters or scenes. It is still an incredible black and white woodcut even without the overprint of colors. The works of the second generation of waterprint woodcut from 1960 to 1980s began to change from thematic creation to pluralistic creation and have derived complicated multi-plate color separation and overprinting technologies. The second generation of waterprint woodcut artists began to concentrate on the expression of ontological language of modern waterprint woodcut and emphasizes the unique aesthetic texture of waterprint woodcut. The works created by the third generation of watermarking woodcarvers from 1980 to 2000s have greatly improved both in the richness of the subject matter and in the technical expression. Most importantly, this generation of artists began to consciously create their own artistic styles. Their works gradually separated from the geographical features and have distinct personal styles, unique artistic language and technical methods, which makes waterprint woodcut beyond the customary range of printmaking techniques and become a useful expression medium for contemporary artists.


Chen Qi, Water, 180×300cm

 In the post-2000 period, the creation of watermarking woodcut was influenced by contemporary art, which surpassed the limitation of traditional printmaking reflection in the expansion of artistic concept and ontological language development. It is more incorporated into the cross-media cultural context to consider the cultural roots behind it. In terms of visual expression, it breaks through the traditional print language style. The multi-layer overprinting can not only meet the expression of various forms of language and style of modern painting, but also integrates the concept of contemporary art in the process of plate making or printing, making waterprint woodcut a medium of contemporary art expression.  In the background of today's global integration, cultural diversity and uniqueness are particularly important. This means that waterprint woodcut with Chinese artistic spirit elements will have significantly more space for development in the future.


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