Featured Creator: Jed Henry on Ukiyo-e Heroes

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For those of us that love video games, there's almost nothing more delightful than seeing your old favorites interpreted in new ways. Jed Henry has brought our classic Marios, Links and Pikachus back a couple hundred years not only in design, but also in medium — he's teaming up with artisan craftsman Dave Bull to make a series of ancient Japanese woodblock prints featuring remixed versions of modern video game images. The results are playful and beautiful. We picked Jed's brain a bit to get a little insight on his process and inspiration.

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You say that each image is lovingly researched — could you point to what parts of the character design were nods to the history of the movement in the first place, and then talk about how you decided to craft it to look the way it did? 

First off, I do a LOT of research. I scour my own collection of books, the public library, and online print dealers for reference. Because I'm not a 19th century Japanese person, the visual vocabulary to execute these images has been hard-won. I've completed a dozen or so designs, and with each one I can feel my proficiency increasing.

After spending a few days acquiring references, I start to sketch. Sketching is done almost completely in Photoshop. I prefer to sketch digitally because it allows me to bend, move, and resize elements of a drawing, rather than having to redo things over and over. An interesting thing about that – Dave informed me that, except for the obvious digital developments, Hokusai used to work in the exact same way. He would draw different pieces of a composition on separate scraps of paper, and then paste them together for the final composition. It's interesting that Hokusai and I are both used available technology to get the job done quickly and efficiently. I bet Hokusai would totally geek out if he ever encountered something like Photoshop.

When the sketch is done, I print it out, and do a final pass with a brush and ink, to form the line work. This is basically tracing, with a purpose. All the compositional and design decisions are already made, which allows me to focus on just making pretty lines.

I scan those inked lines back into the computer, and design the colors in Photoshop. Coloring takes a LOT of time, since I refuse to use flood fill. Rather, I simulate Dave's carving process by "carving out" color fields, right down the middle of the inked lines. If you look closely at the giclées, you can see the difference, as color fields meet just beneath the inked line, creating a subtle color effect.

I print the giclées on handmade Okawara washi paper. It's beautiful paper, and gives the print a "faux woodblock" appearance, rather than just a poster with a pretty picture.

In the case of making a woodblock print, Dave takes over with his amazing process. Because I'm not a woodblock artisan myself, I'm reluctant to explain the complex process here. But luckily, Dave has documented his work, step by step.

Can you get into the details of how the art of Japanese traditional woodblock printmaking works? How did the collaboration between you and Dave Bull come about?

I first emailed Dave in 2010. My query probably sound like a lot of comments he gets – something to the effect of, "I want your life. I want to move to Japan and be an artist/craftsman like you." Surprisingly, Dave got back to me very quickly. He was courteous, despite my stalker-ish professions of hero worship. He even called me on the phone one day, and listened to my aspirations as an artist. We threw some collaborative ideas around, but nothing really materialized from that first contact.

Then about six months ago, I came up with Ukiyo-e Heroes project. I quickly emailed Dave, asking him about the possibility of a collaboration. Unfortunately, Dave was very busy at the time, and didn't have room on his plate for a new project. So I proceeded to make new designs on my own, collaborating with a different woodblock workshop in Tokyo. Then one day in May, I got an email from Dave. He was impressed that my designs had improved so much (admittedly, the first batch were a little shaky) and proposed that we reconsider the collaboration.

And just three months later, here we are! In just a few weeks, we've planned this successful Kickstarter campaign. Imagine what we'll be able to accomplish in a few years time! Or even decades, God willing! We're going to make some beautiful artwork for our much appreciated fans. Our end goal is to entertain, to dazzle, and give our customers a meaningful experience through our prints.

Jed outlines some Japanese references for his own design
Jed outlines some Japanese references for his own design

Part of the fun of this project is figuring out which games each image references. Was it a deliberate move to make each illustration a coy nod rather than a blatant parody?

Historically, Asian art has been much more concerned with design and symbolism, rather than naturalism. You can see this in India, Indonesia, Tibet, China. All over Asia, art has offered a vision of how things could be, rather than how they actually are in reality. Japan's woodblock prints are no different. There's a prescribed visual vocabulary for how cloth bunches, hair flows, and muscle flexes. By tapping into that symbolic vocabulary, I've been able to automatically distance myself from the original game characters' designs. I'm drawing them how they could be, not as they actually are. But the fun thing is, they're still recognizable! The things that make them heroic, strong, admirable – those things remain. This is crucial in the act of making a parody. It's legally permissible if the form is approached from an original angle, and makes a comment on the original work's nature. And in our project, I'm saying "See how uniquely Japanese these games really are? We've been participating in a foreign culture, ever since the first time we "pressed start to play". We're in a global dialogue about what a hero is, and Japan's voice has been very loud indeed.

A woodblock print of "Rickshaw Cart"
A woodblock print of "Rickshaw Cart"
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