The Influence of Japanese Woodblock Prints on my Illustration Style 

Illustration styles are made up of peoples’ experiences, interests and the way that they see the world. For me, one interest which influenced my life in many ways was Japanese woodblock prints, a fascination which began in childhood. I loved the expressions of the characters, ranging from serene to manic, the bold shapes and the unexpected compositions. It was the text to the side of wood block prints that gave me the curiosity to begin studying the Japanese language. I believe this art aesthetic has had an enduring impact on my relationship with art, illustration and language, and in turn my path in life.

One of the prints I grew up with. ©︎ Ottilia Stephens[[[[[[[[[[
Woodblock printing originated in China, but appeared in Japan around the 8th century. The prints are created by layering of light to dark colours, with each block hand carved to print a specific part of the image, such as the lines, background or designs on the clothes of the characters in the image. The level of detail is staggering.

The images produced have a flat quality, similar to the linge claire or ‘clear line’ style employed by artists like Hergé. The prints often depicted scenes from myth and legend, famous kabuki performers, or erotic encounters. Wood block printing became a very distinct art form that reached exceptionally high levels of precision.

Knowledge of the Japanese style of woodblock printing came to Europe when items from Japan began to be imported during the 17th century. More items arrived after Japan re-opened to the world with the Meiji Restoration of 1868, and interest in Japanese art boomed. Items arrived wrapped in Japanese woodblock prints, fueling a fascination with Japanese art that formed the base for the Japanomism movement. Japanese wood block prints ultimately influenced many well-known painters at the time, including the post-impressionist, Vincent van Gough (1853 – 1890). He told his brother from Antwerp, where he acquired his first Japanese prints, “My studio’s quite tolerable, mainly because I’ve pinned a set of Japanese prints to the walls that I find very diverting.”

Portrait of Père Tanguy, 1888 (Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

These images included conventions not seen in Western art; empty middle ground, cropped elements peeking into the image from the edge of the page, flat colour and unfamiliar uses of blank space. Van Gough and his friend Émile Bernard (1868 – 1941) began to stylise their paintings in similar ways; by adding lines, bold colours or changing the composition.

In the winter of 2017, I took part in a woodblock print making course at the Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints. This experience made me understand the incredibly high level of skill and precision required. Namely, because I possessed neither!

My first and only attempt at wood block printing. ©︎ Ottilia Stephens.

Although I did not go back to physically printing any hand-carved blocks after that course, I began to incorporate elements into my work. Simply by drawing naturally, I noticed the pervasive way in which elements from Japanese prints found their way into my work. The linge claire style of some of my drawings has become more apparent since 2018. Although I do appreciate shadows and depth, I found myself valuing form and layout beyond realism, and stylising my work accordingly. This street scene is one example. I use lines which have little variation from foreground to background, and repetitive mark making to give a sense of foreground detail to background vagueness.

A Vietnamese street scene, based on my visit
in May 2018. ©︎ Ottilia Stephens 2018

My current attraction to fine lines and flat colour will, I’m sure, morph into something else as I evolve as an illustrator, but for the moment this style comes very naturally. It expresses the unity of my interests, of which Japanese prints will remain an underlying inspiration.