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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 larger 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 just six have been even partially documented. Of these only one dates from before World War II, and the other five are all from after the war, including three prepared for Walter Foster.

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 at least 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).


108 Edition I Process Set: A partial process set for 36 Series design 108 edition I, morph 108 (a) has been preserved in the Delaware Art Museum, Wilmington, Delaware, USA. Although the collection was obtained in 1978, it has not been on display and is only now available for viewing online. The Delaware material comprises thirteen sheets of what was originally a thirty-one (or thirty-two) sheet process set with each sheet illustrating only a single sequential impression. As with other contemporary 36 Series prints, the original margins of the woodblock-printed images have been trimmed so that they fit within the recessed wells of their embossed presentation sheets. In the upper left corner of each presentation sheet is a specially printed number indicating the stage of the process set sequence.

The Delaware process set had been broken up into several parts which were apparently separated relatively early on. The thirteen surviving sheets were given to the museum by the same donor in two batches within the same year. On arrival the sheets in each batch were individually accessioned. The earlier batch, consisting of eight sheets (those numbered 3, 6, 10, 13, 17, 20, 25, and 30) were assigned accession numbers 1978-277 through 1978-284. The later batch of five sheets (those numbered 9, 18, 19, 23, and 27) were assigned accession numbers 1978-685 through 1978-689. In the online images the sheets in the first batch appear faded relative to those in the second batch. It remains unclear if this is just an artefact of imaging the two batches under different lighting conditions, or if the two batches have each had a different prior storage history and the difference in appearance is real. Note that the sheets of the two batches were originally intercalated in sequential numerical order, and that both the first and last sheets of the process set are missing from this selection.

Although individual copies of 108 edition I, morph 108 (a) were printed and reprinted many times between its first publication in early 1934 and the wartime closure of the Rakusan Studio in 1941, the Delaware process set probably was produced circa 1936-1937. Rakusan's practice was to display a process set and then offer to sell copies of the finished prints to his guests. Until the 36 Series publication was complete in mid 1935, the studio would have been tied up with its production and distribution to initial subscribers. Only thereafter could preparation of a process set and the necessary extra sales stock have followed. Rakusan also likely waited until the popularity of design 108 had been demonstrated since he would have wanted a process set supporting established interest and demand. The abrupt decline in tourism with the beginning of the war in China in 1937 would have made subsequent production of the process set unlikely. The circumstances of production and distribution are undocumented, but what became the Delaware collection would have been purchased in Japan directly from Rakusan, most probably a previously printed example rather than a special commission.

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

Intermediate Sheet No. 30 (of 31 or 32 total) of a 108 Edition I Process Set (Delaware Art Museum, (1978) 1978-284)


Three Process Sets for Walter Foster

In the late 1940s Rakusan had been encouraged that he would be able to have published a definative book of his life and work, including a personal history, an account of his printing methods, and a complete catalogue raisonné. Rakusan had hoped that his friend Walter Foster would arrange such a publication. To that end in the early 1950s Rakusan produced two complete 36 Series process sets for Foster with the expectation of their inclusion in a large and comprehensive Foster publication. However, when that project became impractical, Foster opted to reduce the format to that of his typical instructional booklet. (See also the Foster booklet article.)

With the consequent limitations in booklet size and space it became evident that the relatively large format of 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 (see below).

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 the sets were eventually published on page 8 of the Foster booklet, and four sheets of the other on page 9. Consequently, the images of these Rakusan process set sheets are well known, but they are seldom recognized as representing sheets from process sets because Foster included them as parts of his drawing demonstrations.

On each of these two pages 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 for each design. This misleadingly implies that the process set sheets woodblock-printed by Rakusan are part of Foster's hand-painting sequence. (Rakusan would have originally supplied each of these process set sheets with ordered sheet numbers printed in the upper margins. However, for the booklet Foster edited out the original margins and placed his own handwritten numbers within the image area of the selected sheets.)

108 Edition II Process Set: The partial process set for edition II, morph 108 (b) appears on page 9 of the Foster booklet.
Foster omitted the first sheet of the 108 edition II 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'. Although an edition II printing, there is no secondary cursive Rakusan signature since as the final stage of a process set, it was not intended for individual public sale through Foster.

Foster reported on booklet page 31 [later moved to page 9] that the edition II woodblock print of 108 required '32 printings' [impressions]. Given the size of the earlier Delaware 108 edition I process set (see above), it is likely that this postwar 108 edition II process set originally consisted of thirty-two numbered sheets with each sheet illustrating a single impression; including the final version with a seal as the last sheet.

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

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

123 Edition II Process Set: The partial process set for edition II of 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'. Although an edition II printing, there is no secondary cursive Rakusan signature since as the final stage of a process set, it was not intended for individual public sale through Foster.

Foster reported on page 31 [later moved to page 8] that the original woodblock print of 123 required '37 printings' [impressions]. The exact number of sheets in the original process set is unknown, but it may have included thirty-seven sheets, each illustrating a single impression.

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

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

WC5 Edition II 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, but it is unclear if these are the original Rakusan markings or are later Foster replacements. A winter card process set was ideal for Foster's use in the booklet because it could be reduced in size to save page space while still 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.

By far most of the documented individual copies of WC5 have edition I markings, including all of the uncirculated copies in Rakusan's family collection. However, the WC5 Process Set is a later edition II of WC5 which has attribution markings different from those in edition I. The few documented individual copies of WC5 edition II were likely all produced around the same time as the process set. However, there are some slight but significant differences in the process set. The seal (which may have been hand-applied to the last sheet of the process set) is slightly offset to the right relative to other edition II copies. More importantly, all of the sheets of the process set appear to have been shaved narrower along the right side and the marginal line redrawn.

The present location and status of the original Foster WC5 Process Set are unknown, and it is documented only from the booklet reproduction on page 3.

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

Sixteen Sheets of a WC5 Edition II 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.)


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. (Note that this Rakusan font style is different from the font used on the prewar 108 edition I process set described above.) The last numbered sheet in each set has the later edition 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 Edition III Process Set: A complete process set for edition III of design 6 is currently in a private collection. In the Foster booklet on page 31 (later moved to page 5) the original woodblock print of 6 is reported to have required '150 printings' [impressions]. Although this process set has only twenty-nine sheets, several sheets include multiple impressions; and the total reported by Foster is closely accurate. The 6 Process Set illustrates how Rakusan built up his richness of color by overprinting closely similar hues in thin layers. For example, at least six to eight separate impressions of greens were used to create the textures on the bamboo leaves in this design. Each of the process set 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 Edition III Process Set

2 Edition III Process Set: Since 1991 a process set for edition III of design 2 has been preserved in the collection of the Honolulu Museum of Art, Honolulu, Hawaii, 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 twenty-third sheet of the process set. Comparison with the 6 Edition III Process Set suggests that No. 23 is the last sheet of a twenty-three sheet 2 Edition III Process Set since the signature has been printed but no seal. The full lower margin is preserved and the diagnostic edition III watermark should also be present, but is invisible in the only available image (see below).

All known edition III copies of 2 (including this process set) contain a printing anomaly. In all of the earlier editions the coloration of the foliage to the right of the birds is just like that to the left. However, in these edition III copies the white pigment from the plumage of the birds has been smeared 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 an edition III 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 portions of any Rakusan process sets considered truly secure today are those in the Honolulu and Delaware collections.

© 2012 (revisions © 2013, © 2017, © 2020, © 2022) Dr Michael J P Nichols