Choosing which papers to start with can be a frustrating task for artists just beginning to learn mokuhanga. There are countless vendors, offering countless papers, but often their papers are inadequate and misleading in description to the untrained artist. Some western papers can be used for mokuhanga if there are no other options, but for the most part they are unsuitable for mokuhanga. Most are too weak due to their short fibers and they expand and contract too much to keep accurate registration. Due to its durability and stability, washi is typically the only choice for experienced printmakers. Washi is a general term that refers to handmade Japanese papers. While any washi can potentially work each has its own characteristics, ways it must be treated before printing, and certain limitations. When considering which washi to try, a few of the most important factors to consider are sizing, thickness, fibers used, and what you want to get out of your paper.
One of the first things to look for when searching for mokuhanga paper is whether or not it is sized. Sizing, typically animal glue and alum, prevents colors from bleeding into each other when printing multiple layers. Too much sizing can also block pigment from absorbing into the paper. Most washi made specifically for mokuhanga has a light coating of sizing applied to one side of the paper. It is usually easy to tell which side by feeling or looking for the smooth side of the paper. Much of the washi available outside of Japan is unsized and meant for other artistic practices than mokuhanga. With unsized paper it is possible to print single colors or allow the colors to bleed as an aesthetic choice, but typically is not what most artists starting out learning mokuhanga are looking for. Although unsized washi is not immediately suitable for mokuhanga, many artists do still use them by sizing them themselves. Often artists choose to add their own sizing to alter absorption rates for certain effects or even to adjust for changes in climate or temperature.
Another consideration when choosing paper is the thickness of the paper. Too thin of paper, like much of the washi available at art supply stores in the US, can be hard to handle when damp and will tear much more easily. Thin paper also can easily become oversaturated with pigment, not allowing for many impressions. Too thick of paper can be hard to get rich and even impressions. Many artists today use much thicker and more heavily sized papers than in the past leading to the highly textural images iconic to contemporary mokuhanga.
The type and percentage of fibers used also makes a significant difference in the functionality of washi. The majority of washi made for mokuhanga is made of kozo, while mitsumata and gampi are also sometimes used. The two main kozo fiber types used are either Japanese or Thai kozo. Kozo grown in warmer regions outside of Japan grown at a much more rapid rate, leading to a weaker and coarser fiber. Japanese kozo creates a stronger and more stable paper. (Vollmer 121) Having a stable paper that does not expand or contract much is crucial to maintain proper registration. The high-quality Japanese kozo used in most Kizuki, 100% kozo washi, makes it an incredibly stable paper, leading to it being one of the most popular papers for traditional craftsman and artists. The next most popular are blended papers made of kozo and pure cellulose wood pulp. Many artists in Japan order their paper directly from mills in a blend that works best for their process. Adding pulp increases absorbency, makes the paper softer, and adds bulk. (McClain)
While handmade papers are usually most sought after, there are also many machine-made papers that work well for mokuhanga. Often machine-made paper is used for initial proofing and then the final edition is printed on washi. Mokuhanga being such a niche, traditional, craft intensive process, editioning on machine-made paper is often not even considered as an option, but as the artistic practice has progressed it is becoming more and more common. Machine-made papers used for mokuhanga usually contain typical western paper fibers or sometimes a combination of western and Japanese fibers. The use of western fibers can cause issues with expansion and contraction through printing, but is often minor compared to some other western papers not used for mokuhanga. One major benefit to machine-made papers is having an extremely smooth surface making it easy to print flat and even colors.
Ultimately, which papers you choose to use is a personal choice and takes many trials and errors to learn what works for you. Thinner and more absorbent papers allow for easy printing of smooth, large areas of color, but limit the amount of pigment the paper can hold. Thick papers hold a lot of moisture and pigment, but can be difficult to print large and smooth areas. Thicker papers also create nice embossments unlike thinner papers. Heavily sized, coarse papers are easier to create goma-zuri and other effects. Lightly sided papers can be used to bleed colors intentionally. Below I have included papers from some of the best suppliers around the world and have noted some of the most commonly used ones.
Common Papers from US Distributors:
- Prices do not include shipping.
- As materials become scarcer and less people have interest in traditional papermaking some of these papers will change price and possible disappear. These prices were recorded in 2021.
- Japanese paper mills often just list “Pulp” as a component of their paper. This typically means an acid-free pure cellulose wood pulp.
- Many of these companies offer sample books or even sample packs of paper, which is a great way to search for papers without committing to a large purchase.
- Outside of Japan it can be challenging knowing exactly what paper you are getting. Many papers are named after the town or region they are from. They also often include specialized descriptors that a not easily translated. Additionally, many distributors outside of Japan tend changing the names of some papers further confusing the situation.
- Some of the most popular choices have a star next to their name.
- Another excellent paper distributor not included is Hiromi Paper.
Papers Available to Ship to the US:
Vollmer, April. Japanese Woodblock Print Workshop: A Modern Guide to the Ancient Art of Mokuhanga. Berkeley: Watson-Guptill Publications, 2015.
McClain, Robert. Tigard, Oregon: McClain's Printmaking Supplies, 1981.
Bull, David. “Encyclopedia of Woodblock Printmaking.”
Accessed April 1, 2021. http://www.woodblock.com/encyclopedia/.
Kitaro. Accessed April 1, 2021. https://www.washi-kitaro.com/english-1/.
Hiratsuka, Moku-Hanga How to make Japanese woodblock prints. Moore, Keiko. Washington, D.C.: Acropolis Books LTD, 1973.
“Japanese Washi Paper for Art Design Print Bookbinding Conservation · Washi Arts.” Washi Arts. Accessed April 8, 2021. https://www.washiarts.com/.
Matsumura. “2020 - 2021 Woodblock Print Supplies.” Woodlike Matsumura. Accessed April 1, 2021. https://wx30.wadax.ne.jp/~woodlike-co-jp/zen4/index.php?main_page=contact_us.
“McClain's Printmaking Supplies.” Accessed April 1, 2021. https://www.imcclains.com/catalog/paper/index.html.
Yoshida, Hiroshi. Japanese Woodblock Printing. Tokyo: The Sanseido Company, 1939.