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Ancient Art, Modern Medium
Block Printing in the 21st Century
By Jamie Malden – Founder of Colouricious
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Block printing is one of the most ancient forms of decorative art in existence. Its origins lay in the valley of the Indus some four and a half thousand years ago. Craftspeople living in what is now Rajasthan, Pakistan and Gujarat, carved astonishingly fine and delicate patterns into local teakwood blocks. These blocks would then be soaked in olive oil for ten days and dried in the Indian sun. Then they were ready to be used to press on to vibrant, dyed cloth to create the most inspiring patterns. If you visit North West India today, you will see that artists are engaged in this same process four and a half thousand years later.
Block printing, however, is not confined to a corner of India but is making a global resurgence in the world of textile and mixed media arts. Two hundred years ago artists like William Morris, a pre-Raphaelite poet and artist, and a favourite of Queen Victoria, brought the beauty of block printing to the general public. The brilliant designs of William Morris, combined with Victorian industrial zeal, meant that block printing fabric changed form a hand worked craft to an industrial process and printed fabric patterns spread across the world and became the vogue for fashionable society. Further industrialisation of the fabric printing process rendered the blocks redundant and gradually, block printed fabric became sadly neglected. Now, the world is changing and with it comes the return of this simple and beautiful art form.
As modern society turns away from multi-national corporations and mass production, block printing takes its place as a simple and effective way of creating individual and unique patterns that form the starting point for any surface you create on or with. The blocks are wonderfully tactile and simply enjoyable to print with. The process is uncomplicated, accessible to all and produces immediately satisfying results. The block requires a thin coat of ink or fabric paint, then, with a soft layer underneath the surface to be printed, a reasonably firm press of the block onto the surface ensures beautiful results every time. There really is nothing more to it than that. You can be up and printing in seconds, whenever the inspiration takes you. Background printing on plain paper or fabric ensures that, whatever your style is, your surface will be eye-catching and exciting.
However, block printing is not just a background art; they can form the central theme around which other designs revolve, be incorporated into a larger pattern, overlaid to create a multi-layered effect, or utilised in a multitude of other ways. Nor are you limited to printing with paint or ink, the blocks can be so detailed that using embossing powders or printing into a material that takes impressions will create a stunning textured pattern. Wooden blocks are also incredibly easy to use; being made of hardwood they are extremely durable and, if you are printing with water based ink or fabric paint, only require wiping at the end of each printing session. If you are printing into an impressible surface or with embossing powder then it is necessary to be more careful when cleaning then in order to preserve the pattern, however a soft brush will normally suffice to clean the blocks.
The unique inspiration you can get from block printing is not the only benefit. Five years ago the industry was in a steady decline and talented artisans were leaving traditional work of carving blocks to find more stable work in the factories of India’s massive population centres. Companies like Colouricious saw that there was a market for the work of these craftspeople. Now beautiful wooden blocks, handmade in India, are being imported for sale across the world. The craftsmanship of these Indian masters is combined with the infrastructure of a number of Western companies to make these wonderful artefacts available to everyone, provide a stable working wage to the indigenous people and keep this wonderful art alive.
Block printing is incredibly simple and deeply satisfying. Even when you are not using the wooden blocks for printing they stand alone as lovely pieces of art. I would urge everyone to get involved in block printing. Not many of us are fortunate to be able to travel to India and see the skill of the craftsmen as they hand make each block with what we would consider quite primitive tools. Or to watch the printers as they effortlessly print rolls of beautiful fabric. However, it is almost ironic that the march of progress that caused the decline of the industry now makes it accessible to all via the Internet. Colouricious are leading block printing specialists. As Colouricious is an online craft store, you can buy wooden printing blocks, book textile art workshops and even book