I don't often post about contemporary Western printmakers because they occupy a relatively small space in my own art collection. A lot of their prints tend to be non-representational or too abstract for my tastes, and my knowledge base about their work is thin. The major exception is Paul Binnie, who can more than hold his own with the best of the artists, carvers, and printers of the shin hanga movement (though he carves and prints his own work) and whose prints I collect religiously. A few years ago, however, I became aware of the work of the Oregon woodblock printmaker Walter Padgett (1945- ), and I recently made the leap from a distant admirer to a collector of his work.
Given that Padgett is now almost 77 years old, he can hardly be considered a promising young artist and, in fact, has been actively producing woodblock prints off and on for over 45 years. Born in North Carolina and raised in Atlanta, Georgia, Padgett started out studying architecture at Clemson University, but then pursued Bachelor's and Master's of Fine Arts degrees at Florida State University in the field of sculpture. In 1969, he became an Instructor of Art at Florida A&M University, and beginning in 1971 he became a member of the faculty of Rogue Community College (RCC) in Grant's Pass in Southern Oregon. Padgett was an Instructor of Art at RCC for 32 years and the Chairman of the Art Department for 12 years. Although he retired from teaching in 2003, he continues to guest lecture and conduct workshops on the subject of woodblock printing on college campuses and at art centers on the West Coast.
Padgett works in a number of different mediums, including painting, sculpture, photography, and intaglio printmaking. However, due to his increased interest in woodblock printmaking, Padgett took a sabbatical from RCC in 1983 to study woodblock printing in Japan. (He had made his first woodcuts back in 1976.) He had an intensive month-long stint at the Yoshida Hanga Academy in Tokyo where he worked on three print designs. During that time he took a day trip to Kamakura which later inspired another print. Padgett returned to Japan the following year to undertake an adventurous two-month, 600-mile bicycle trip across Japan. On this second trip he documented the historical Tokaido (highway) and the associated 53 stations between Tokyo and Kyoto, searching for the Tokaido Road subjects that were featured in the prints of woodblock print artists Utagawa Hiroshige and Sekino Juni'ichiro. (Tokaido print series often contain 55 prints, by including the start of the trip in Tokyo and the end of the journey in Kyoto.)
To this day, Padgett continues to produce prints inspired by early trips to Japan, augmented by further research and four subsequent trips to Japan. In 1996 he traveled to Kakegawa with a Sister City delegation from Eugene, Oregon. In 2005 he and his family visited such places as Karuizawa, Takaoka, Shirakawa, Takayama, Nikko, Obuse (the last residence of Hokusai), the Kegon Waterfall, the Shiraito Falls, Matsumoto, and Kyoto. In 2009, he traveled to Omachi with a Sister City delegation of artists from Mendocino, California. In addition to visiting Nagano and a wasabe farm outside of Matsumoto, Padgett traveled for a week alone, investigating and photographing the Kisokaido, an alternate route from the Tokaido between Tokyo and Kyoto. In 2019, he returned to Japan for two weeks, returning to Omachi to make arrangement for a potential exhibition of his prints. He spent three days hiking along the historic Shiomichi (Salt Road), and then traveled on Matsumoto, Lake Suwa, the Kiso Valley, and Kyoto, taking thousands of reference photographs along the way. The Covid-19 pandemic has delayed recent trips to Japan, including an artist-in-residence position in Omachi to produce prints of the Omachi area, but Padgett is scheduled to return to Japan next year.
All of Padgett's woodblock prints are self-carved and self-printed. His
printing matrix is usually Japanese shina plywood, although other woods
may be employed when he wants texture. He uses traditional Japanese
brushes and barens to ink and print his blocks. Although he used tube
watercolors for many years, since 2003 he grinds and mixes his own water-based
pigments, unless he needs
specific colors or to print very small areas. (His early woodcuts, however, were inked with oil relief ink, hand-burnished with a wooden tool.) He usually prints on expensive white or natural Echizen Kozo paper.
Although Padgett carves and prints in the Japanese manner, his design development process is somewhat different from the norm, especially when depicting actual specific landscapes or historical buildings. He seldom creates a true "key block" which outlines everything in the design. Instead, he generally starts with one or more of his own color slides taken from the actual site in question, which he reverses, projects onto drawing paper, and copies by hand (so that it will eventually be printed in the original direction). However, rather than gluing the master drawing to the woodblock, carbon paper is used to transfer the master drawing to the woodblock. Additional tracing drawings are prepared that will provide details to be imparted by the color blocks. (Other permutations may occur, such as using tracing paper to copy details from printed photographs or, rather than reversing the slide, flipping the tracing paper over before using carbon paper to transfer it to the block.) Padgett will then carve along the lines of the transferred master drawing as needed for accuracy of shapes and edges, and freely carve other areas where textural effects such as grass, bark on trees, clouds, shading effects, etc. The result is an image partially based on nature and partially based on inventive interpretation.
Padgett designs his blocks to incorporate a lot of overlapping of areas to create composite colors and textures, and overprints to build up richness of color. To achieve this result, instead of pasting printings from a key block onto the color blocks, he retraces the edges of shapes as needed with the baren through the tracing paper and develops the color scheme block to block. However, because the use of tracing papers is not as accurate as the use of a hanshita drawing, he needs to make multiple test prints of this color blocks to identify discrepancies between the blocks and the problem areas prior to the actual inking of the blocks. The carbon paper printing enables him to do this in monochrome. Carbon paper never prints solid black/dark blue except possibly in linework, and functions almost like pigment in that values can be tested. The carbon printing of one area or shape, overlapping another, actually produces a combination value very similar to transparency pigment printing.
Some of Padgett's prints bear a signature (sometimes hidden) inside the borders of the print, such as in his "Red Pajamas Over Mt. Fuji" and in all of his Tokaido prints. Although it looks like highly stylized kanji, it is actually his signature printed in reverse. Nonetheless, Padgett tells me that two Japanese individuals have erroneously translated this writing as "Fukuroi," which coincidentally is Station 27  of the Tokaido.
A word now about Padgett's print editions. Some of Padgett's prints are numbered, and a few of his Tokaido series prints have been produced in editions of 200 (though he says it is doubtful that he will ever print all 200 copies "so the edition ends when the artist dies"). Moreover, even if he has initiated an edition, he reserves the right to make alterations to the blocks or to the color scheme before the edition is completed. Most of his prints, however, are labeled "s/p," which means "state proof." He typically will start out printing ten or twenty copies at a time, release them to the public, and then gauge his own (and the public's) reaction to them. That will lead him to produce further batches of experimental printings in which, for example, certain details may be added (or dropped) over time, or different color schemes may be tried out. His "Miya Canal" print is one such example, which was printed in four major different color schemes of radical variation over the course of several years. Each version had its own development, and the final version was achieved only because of the experimental development work on the earlier three states.
Here are the other Tokaido series prints Padgett has commercially released to date. ("Toyokawa Atari" is Tokaido-adjacent, being only a couple of miles from Station #34  Yoshida and Station #35  Goyu.) The dates provided are the years that various versions were first printed. With one exception (Sakanoshita - Keeper of the Shrine), no attempt has been made to illustrate each variation of a given design.
Of course, not all of Padgett's woodblock prints feature Japanese landscapes. Many depict scenes such as Yellowstone Bison, Hart Mountain, and Mt. Rainier, as one might expect of a Pacific Northwest artist. His work can be found in the permanent collections of such Oregon institutions as the Portland Art Museum, the University of Oregon's Jordan Schnitzer Museum of Art, the Grant Pass Art Museum, and the Oregon State University Library, as well as other venues ranging from the Wichita Art Museum to the Kakegawa City Museum in Japan and the National Museum of Jordan.