Printing on Washi Papers: A User’s Experience

Posted: 01 June 2021
Author: Elliot Puritz, M.D.

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In this Case Study I present my experience with digital ink jet printing on Japanese “Washi” paper, in the hope is that readers will feel comfortable exploring washi and embrace the artistic advantages that are possible when printing on these fascinating papers.

Washi has been hand-made in Japan for hundreds of years. The Awagami brand is likely the best-known producer of a variety of washi used for ink jet printing. The exceptional quality of their papers is acknowledged and are used by digital ink jet printers around the world. In most cases locally sourced plants including Mulberry (“Kozo”), Hemp and others are used. The plant fibers are separated, cleaned, and placed into large vats. Experienced artisans use screens to form papers from the fiber slurry. The newly formed papers are then dried, cleaned, and cut into sheets. In the manufacture of other Awagami papers the slurry is placed into a mold making machine exclusive to the Awagami mills and formed into paper sheets of varying thickness. Moreover, the ink jet coating of Awagami washi uses proprietary methods unique to Awagami and is done directly and under the supervision of artisans at the Awagami mills.

Awagami provides ICC profiles for their papers. In general, I have found the profiles to be excellent. However, as is the case with other ink jet papers, bespoke ICC profiles are often capable of producing prints with superior tonal separation and better color fidelity.

In the United States Moab supplies versions of Awagami Unyru and Kozo. Other varieties of Awagami washi are offered under the Awagami name and can be easily purchased from established online sources. An excellent sample pack[] of many Awagami papers is also available and allows one to become acquainted with their papers.

This Case Study will deal with the use of Moab Unyru and Kozo. In general, color images printed on washi will have less contrast and color saturation than images rendered on conventional ink jet papers. Consequently, prints will evidence a more “painterly look”. Washi is unique in that the plant fibers are IN the paper rather in a coating that is applied ON the paper. Some varieties of washi are more transparent, which allows light to come through the paper making the paper fibers an integral part of the print.

Unyru is produced from the Mulberry plant and is characterized by unique, embedded swirling plant fibers. Images with “empty space” are particularly well seen when rendered on Unyru.

This image is from a walk below Victoria Peak in Hong Kong The ethereal sense of the scene is enhanced by the mist and the lower contrast and muted colors. In addition, the swirling fibers become an integral part of the “negative space” of the print and increase the impressionistic and painterly appearance of the image. I mounted this print so that light is reflected through the print and back to the viewer and the sense of space and dimensionality are enhanced.

Kozo is one of the most traditional washi papers and is produced in several thicknesses. The print of the red barn door illustrates that Kozo, while not producing colors that are as saturated, will easily separate shades of color while also reproducing fine details in the wood.

Details in the sky and clouds are particularly well seen in this image printed on Moab Moenkopi Kozo. Subtle differences in the black and gray tones are revealed and add to the sense of dimensionality.

Exploring the artistic options offered by printing on Awagami washi is interesting. One is forced to challenge assumptions that highly saturated prints with expanded dynamic range is the artistic goal. Evaluating and viewing digital photographic images on bright computer monitors reinforces such perceptions. Washi presents an alternate vision which concentrates on more measured tones and a more artistic approach. The photographer becomes reoriented and more appreciative of the subtle details in an image. Indeed, the use of washi can become a “transformative experience” which allows one to approach digital photography in an entirely new way.

Craig Ancelowicz of Awagami Japan provided help and guidance that allowed me to explore the range of Awagami washi. Eric Joseph of Freestyle Photo graciously produced exceptional ICC profiles for Awagami Kozo. Doris Boyden allowed me to use her iPhone image.