Saturday, September 7, 2013

Well, He Does Kind Of Steal Souls

If you're well-versed enough in medieval Japanese culture, you might be familiar with the art medium of woodblock printing; specifically, the ukiyo-e format. How ukiyo-e works is, first you make a master drawing in ink. You then trace that drawing, and put the tracing, face down, on a block of wood. You then carve the drawing into the wood, leaving the trace lines alone so that they're in relief. You ink that block, print copies from it, and then put those copies on additional blocks which put each of the additional colors you wish to use in relief. The final product is the result of a sequence of prints from each of the blocks, some of them impressed on the paper more than once to get the shading right.

An extremely labor-intensive format, as you can imagine, with a lot of potential failure points and no way to fix a mistake. If you go watch someone creating online art- a webcomic, for example, and after Strip Search came along I've watched quite a few of these things because artists will livestream it- you'll note liberal use of the Undo function. The artist will make a rather daring, sweeping attempt at a particular line, and if it doesn't look right, they'll hit Undo and make another sweeping attempt until they get a line they like. The art is also done in several layers which can be individually moved around at will- a layer for the trace, a layer for the background, for the foreground, for each of several key elements of the piece. In ukiyo-e, there is no undo and no freedom of realignment of elements. One wrong carve, one slight misalignment at printing time, and you've got a lot of work to do over again from the beginning.

As time passed and artists found different methods and different mediums, and as German printing presses made their way into Japan and made for a much cheaper and easier way of doing things, ukiyo-e faded away to the point where literally nobody was making new prints, merely copying existing prints. Those practicing ukiyo-e today have all spent their entire lives copying older prints for tourists.

Normally, if I were to tell you someone was making video game art, a lot of you would roll your eyes at it. But when someone wants to make video game art in ukiyo-e... well, the ukiyo-e creators of today still did, because they were convinced nobody wanted new prints anymore. Then the project Ukiyo-e Heroes set a Kickstarter record for the most-funded art project in site history, a record that was held for 51 weeks before being overtaken about two weeks ago. Ukiyo-e Heroes was the brainchild of one Jed Henry, spurred on when he noticed how much early video game design seemed influenced by ukiyo-e, chiefly black outlines and solid color fills. So he went off and tried to make video game art that was a more direct homage to it, making it look more evocative of the Edo period, getting tutelage from British woodblock printer David Bull. But Bull, having run into his own roadblocks from apathetic interest in ukiyo-e, didn't think new prints would sell. Henry won Bull over with a Kirby design in which Kirby, a little pink puffball who swallows enemies to gain their powers, was reimagined as a soul-stealing frog demon, depicted attacking longtime foe King Dedede. The time and expense of doing a series of such prints resulted in the Kickstarter campaign. They were seeking $10,000. They ended up getting $313,341...

...and a lot of people wondering why nobody was doing woodblock art these days.

You can go here if you want one.

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