Artist Matt Brown to share secrets of Japanese woodblock printing with Denver artists

For the past two decades, New Hampshire-based artist Matt Brown has immersed himself in the discipline and aesthetic of Japanesehanga color woodblock printing, a tradition he sees as closely tied to the natural world.

“These are prints made from wood and water,” Brown says. “The process differs from Western print-making techniques, which have relied on oil as the medium for printing. Oil goes well with metal machinery. Water goes well with living things that depend on water, like wood, and our own human bodies. The importance of water to the hanga process is reflected in the term used to describe many Japanese prints: ukiyo-e, or floating world.”

In February, Brown will demonstrate and discuss the techniques of Japanese color woodblock printing in a free public lecture and weekend-long workshop sponsored by the Art Students League of Denver. The League will be hosting Brown as part of its Visiting Artist Series, a program that brings nationally and internationally acclaimed artists to share their expertise and insights with art students and the larger Denver community.

“We’re excited to bring Matt Brown to introduce his techniques to students at the League,” says Denver-based print artist Mark Lunning, owner of the local Open Press gallery and a faculty member at the Art Students League. “Japanese wood block printing is a very green, environmentally friendly medium, and one that Brown knows extremely well. His prints themselves are exquisite and it will be wonderful to see what he will share with students and audiences here in Denver.”

Brown’s free public lecture will be held on Friday, February 4, 2011, at 6 pm at the Art Students League, 200 Grant Street in Denver. Brown will also teach a three-day, hands-on workshop, “Introduction to Japanese Color Woodblock Printmaking”, from Friday, February 4th through Sunday, February 6th, from 9:00 am to 4:00 pm each day. The fee for the workshop is $150 for League members and $200 for non-members; no experience in woodblock printing is necessary.

Matt Brown credits his interest in Japanese woodblock printing to a 1993 exhibit of influential 19th century Japanese print artist Utagawa Hiroshige, whose work influenced Impressionist painters such as Monet and Cassatt. “I was struck of course by the beautiful colors, more muted than we are used to seeing in Western art. But I was also fascinated by the underlying process, this idea of art created block by block, then print by print. I wanted to figure out how they were made.”

The visceral experience of seeing Hiroshige’s prints launched Brown on a quest to explore the traditional process of color woodblock printing for himself. In those first years, he largely worked in isolation, through experimentation. “I spent a lot of time studying Japanese prints, at museums and in the homes of friends. I also read a lot books, including those of acclaimed Japanese printmaker Tōshi Yoshida, who traveled in the United States in the 1950s and taught artists here.

“What I uncovered was this whole tradition. Hanga woodblock printing as it was practiced prior to the Opening of Japan in 1853 was a collaboration, involving large numbers of artists and craftsman, each working on a different part of the process, most likely from a set of designs. With my background in building, this intrigued me.”

After graduating from Harvard with an arts degree, Brown worked for a number of years as a builder and cabinetmaker, an experience he believes was a natural bridge to woodblock printing. “Learning to work with wood, to assess a design problem, draw up plans, and follow the myriad steps to help plans gain physical life: it was an apprenticeship of a sort. Now my materials are wooden blocks and paper, but it still feels like the same process in a way.”

Brown cites among his influences generations of Japanese artists and craftsmen working in the hanga tradition, as well as a number of Western artists. These include Canadian water color artist Walter Phillips, whose book Technique of the Colour Woodcut proved very helpful, as well as Taos artist Gustave Baumann, who nonetheless used more traditional oil and press-related techniques.

Most recently, Brown has been inspired by Utamaro’s Insect Book, an 18th century Japanese poetry book featuring color woodprint illustrations of insects and flowers. The book, which Brown views as one of the most beautiful he has ever seen, is now in the archives of the American University Library. Brown has recently been commissioned to do a series of prints to commemorate the Library’s 125th celebration. “I’m trying to incorporate the interrelationship of the natural world, of plants and insects in a cycle of organic growth, much as one would want to see in a college environment.” Brown is also working on a series of landscape prints inspired by a recent visit to Snowmass, Colorado, where he taught at the Anderson Ranch Arts Center.

Brown enjoys teaching and looks forward to sharing his knowledge of this ancient craft with new audiences and artists of all abilities. “One thing that excites me about the February workshop is that every student will come away with a finished multi-color print. They’ll experience the entire process of woodblock printing, from design to carving and printing, and hopefully come to appreciate some of the aesthetic and metaphysical aspects of the hanga tradition as well.”

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