Japanese Art and Ukiyo-e: Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints III – Mica

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Techniques in Japanese Woodblock Prints III – Mica

By toshidama

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You may have come across Japanese prints which are described as having mica as a feature of a special or deluxe edition. There was a craze for mica prints in the late eighteenth century, most famously by the enigmatic and little known artist Toshusai Sharaku who was mysteriously active for one year only from 1794 – 1795. His caricature prints of actors of which only 140 are known have deeply pigmented and mica strewn backgrounds, so dense that the few prints that remain are invariably cracked and crazed with the effects of decades of rolling and creasing. Sharaku is one of the most expensive ukiyo-e artists; a single print by him was sold at auction in 1997 for $296,000. Utamaro (1753 – 1806) also used this difficult and time consuming technique.

Fewer deluxe prints were produced during the nineteenth century, presumably because of high demand and therefore pressure on production, but as the popularity of ukiyo-e declined from the 1870’s onward, the deluxe edition became popular again amongst aficionados and collectors. Mica prints remain some of the finest prints that were produced in Japan. Not only did they shimmer with reflective dust, they were printed onto thicker paper with complex designs and other expensive techniques such as embossing or burnishing.

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Printing with mica (and sometimes metallic powders) was a difficult and highly skilled technique. The nature of the glue and the way it held the fine powders when mixed together was such that it tended to adhere to the block rather than transfer neatly to the paper. Consequently the block was firstly prepared with gum arabic, then dusted with mica using a fine brush. The paper was then printed, transferring a sandwich of glue and dust to the required area. Alternatively, the gum was printed directly onto the paper (sometimes through a stencil) and the mica powder was sieved onto the wet glue to be dusted off when the glue had dried.

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Woodblock prints with a lot of mica still present are rare because of the tendency for the powder to wear off with time, as the gum becomes brittle and less ‘sticky’. Kunichika was particularly fond of mica in his prints, particularly on series such as the 100 roles of Baiko and the 100 roles of Ichikawa Danjuro. The very fine Danjuro print illustrated above has some of the best preserved kirazuri I have seen.

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