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Rakusan Process Sets

Rakusan was always interested in demonstrating the traditional art of woodblock printing to friends, guests, and other potential clients. He found it helpful to use process sets to aid in his presentations. A process set follows the intricate creation of a woodblock print as a series of separate sheets, each one stopping the impression sequence at a later stage.

For small, relatively simple designs, a process set may have as many total sheets as there are impressions. However, for larger and more complex designs, such as those in Rakusan's 100 Series, that would be impractical. Those designs are the result of many more than a hundred impressions, and often the individual impressions are subtle and difficult to spot. Therefore, for those process sets Rakusan often combined more than one new impression on each successive sheet.

During his career Rakusan is reported to have made and used several process sets of his own designs. Rakusan also specially prepared process sets for important clients who commissioned them. However, Rakusan process sets are very rare and to date only five (all from after World War II) have been even partially documented in any detail. These include process sets for three sizes of prints: cards, oban and dai-oban. Although earlier process sets were certainly made, exactly which particular designs or formats those might have been are not known.

Rakusan process sets typically begin with a sheet showing the image after the first print impression of the key block has been made onto a blank sheet. However, he ended them in two different ways: either with the fully finished, signed and sealed woodblock print (as in the three Foster sets); or with a sheet including the penultimate impression with the signature but without the seal (as in the two 100 Series sets).


WINTER CARD PROCESS SETS

WC5 Process Set: A complete edition II process set for the 'Heian Shrine Kyoto' winter card, WC5, appears on page 3 of the Foster booklet. The WC5 Process Set was commissioned by Walter Foster in the early 1950s especially for use in the booklet. This design is simple enough that each of the sixteen required impressions appears on a separate sheet. The individual sheets of the WC5 Process Set are numbered sequentially in the upper left corner margins. This particular set was ideal for Foster since it could be reduced in size to save space while retaining some clarity. Unfortunately, as is discussed elsewhere, the inexpensive machine-printing of the booklet does not accurately reflect the colors or details of the original woodblock-printed sheets.

All currently documented individual copies of WC5 have edition I markings, including all of the uncirculated copies in Rakusan's family collection. The WC5 Process Set is unique for showing WC5 in a later edition (here called edition II) with attribution markings different from those in edition I. This distribution suggests that this process set was among the very last pieces produced before the studio closed and that it was produced as a separate project. The present location and status of the original Foster WC5 Process Set are unknown, and it is documented only from the booklet reproduction.

[The main gallery subpage for design WC5 can be found here.]

All Sixteen Sheets of a WC5 Process Set (Foster Booklet, page 3)

The page is titled at the top: 'THE 16 STEP OPERATIONS TO A SHRINE IN KYOTO, JAPAN.'

The caption at the bottom reads: 'SO YOU may have a greater appreciation for RAKUSAN TSUCHIYA's wonderful block prints here you see the different steps to a simple 16 printing operation reduced over one-half and will give just a faint idea of the work on the pictures shown in this book with from 150 to 220 operations on each picture.' [sic, as printed]. (The latter numbers of 'operations' refer to the impressions required to complete the more complex 100 Series designs included elsewhere in the booklet.)


36 SERIES PROCESS SETS

Rakusan had prepared two complete 36 Series process sets in the early 1950s with the expectation of their inclusion in a larger and more comprehensive Foster publication. However, when that project became impractical, Foster opted to reduce the format to that of his typical instructional booklet. With the consequent limitations in size and space it became evident that the 36 Series process sets were not ideal examples. Therefore Foster comissioned Rakusan to prepare the much simpler WC5 Process Set as a substitute which could be significantly reduced in size and still maintain clarity.

Rather than omit the 36 Series process sets entirely, Foster chose to edit each of them down to many fewer representative sheets. Only four sheets of one of one set were eventually published on page 8 of the Foster booklet, and four sheets of the other on page 9. These Rakusan sheets are well known but often unrecognized as part of process sets because Foster presented them as part of drawing demonstrations. On each page Foster has added five little cartoon sketches of his own above each of the four individual woodblock-printed sheets selected from the process sets. Foster numbered his own sketches 1 through 5 and then has handwritten the numbers 6 through 9 on the four Rakusan process set sheets he chose to use. This incorrectly implies that the woodblock-printed sheets are part of Foster's hand-painting sequence instead of independent process sets. (Rakusan probably had produced each of these process set sheets with ordered sheet numbers in the margins. However, here Foster edited out the original margins and added his own numbers within the image area of the selected sheets - where Rakusan would never have placed them.)

123 Process Set: The partial process set for design 123 appears on page 8 of the Foster booklet.
Foster selected the first sheet of the 123 Process Set (with only the key block printed), labeled as his number '6'.
Two intermediate stage sheets from within the process set are labeled as Foster's numbers '7' and '8'.
A copy of the finished woodblock print is labeled as Foster's number '9'.

Foster reported on page 31 [later moved to page 8] that the original woodblock print of 123 required '37 printings' [impressions]. The number of sheets in the original process set is unknown, but it would have been somewhat less than the total number of impressions.

[The main gallery subpage for design 123 can be found here.]

Initial and Intermediate Sheets of a 123 Process Set and the Finished Print (Foster Booklet, page 8)

108 Process Set: The partial process set for edition II of design 108 appears on page 9 of the Foster booklet.
Foster omitted the first sheet of the 108 Process Set and began with an early intermediate stage sheet (where at least three impressions had already been made), labeled as his number '6'.
Two later intermediate stage sheets from within the process set are labeled as Foster's numbers '7' and '8'.
The finished woodblock print is labeled as Foster's number '9'.

Foster reported on page 31 [later moved to page 9] that the edition II woodblock print of 108 required '32 printings' [impressions]. The number of sheets in the original process set is unknown, but it would also have been somewhat less than the total number of impressions.

[The main gallery subpage for design 108 can be found here.]

Intermediate Sheets of a 108 Process Set and the Finished Print (Foster Booklet, page 9)


100 SERIES PROCESS SETS

Rakusan process sets are known for two edition III 100 Series designs. Each set has sheets with full margins, and each sheet is numbered in the center of the upper margin in the order in which they are intended to be displayed. The font style of this numbering is identical in both sets which suggests they are of closely similar age. The last numbered sheet in each set has the later reprinting signature, 楽山篁子生, Raku-zan Kou-shi-sei and no seal. A diagnostic edition III watermark appears on each sheet of the privately owned set, and is inferred present on the other set as well.

6 Process Set: A complete process set for edition III of design 6 is currently in a private collection. The original woodblock print of 6 is reported on page 31 [later moved to page 5] of the Foster booklet to have required '150 printings' [impressions]. Although this 6 Process Set has only twenty-nine sheets, several sheets include multiple impressions; and the total reported by Foster is likely correct. Each of the sheets is on washi paper bearing the most common of the edition III watermarks and therefore dates to the early 1950s (1950-1955).

[The main gallery subpage for design 6 can be found here.]

Final Sheet (No. 29) of a 6 Process Set

2 Process Set: A process set for edition III of design 2 is preserved in the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu, HI, USA. Unfortunately, only a single sheet, the final one, is currently illustrated in their online archive.

The printed 'No. 23' in the center of the upper margin indicates that this is the 23rd sheet of the process set. Comparison with the complete 6 Process Set shows that because the signature has been printed and no seal appears, that No. 23 is the last sheet of a twenty-three sheet 2 Process Set. The full lower margin is preserved and the diagnostic edition III watermark should also be present, but is invisible in the only available image (below).

The printing on this particular sheet is abnormal. The coloration of the foliage to the right of the birds should be just like that to the left. However, here the white pigment (which should be restricted to the plumage of the birds) has spread over the leaves at center right near the signature.

[The main gallery subpage for design 2 can be found here.]

Final Sheet (No. 23) of a 2 Process Set (Honolulu Museum of Art, (1991) 21637)


Regrettably, the status and whereabouts of the three process sets Rakusan created for Foster are unknown. The privately owned set is apparently safe for the moment. However, the only portion of a Rakusan process set considered truly secure today is the complete Honolulu set.

© 2012 (revisions © 2013, © 2017) Dr Michael J P Nichols