Tuesday, March 11, 2008

The elements of ukiyo-e

This post aims to provide an overview of the different elements of design used in a Japanese wood block print - ukiyo-e. For an explanation of the elements of design see this post - Composition - The Elements of Design

Otoko Mountain at Makigata in Kawachi Province
Ando Hiroshige
Famous Views of the 60 provinces 1853 1856
Publisher Koshihei
Engraver: Hori Take or Suji

  • bokashizuri is the name for shading and the gradation of colours when printing a woodblock
  • forms tend to be devoid of all volume and shade as presented by value
  • woodblock prints were initially monochrome - and reflected the prevailing style of brush and ink drawings; colour was added later
  • kento - register marks were introduced to create a precise alignment when printing in different colours
  • colours are usually simple and clear
Shape (2 dimensions)
  • shapes are frequently stylized to exaggerate and simplify
  • there are no soft edges to shapes
  • shapes are frequently cropped to give just an edge
Pheasant among Young Pine on a Hill in Snow
Ando Hiroshige
Setchu Komatsuyama ni Fiji
Date: 1832-34
Publisher: Jakurindo
  • the ability of some artists to 'freeze' a shape - such as a bird in flight - is astounding. This was a particular talent of Hiroshige.
  • shapes can be influenced by the formats used - such as the vertical scroll
  • silhouettes are important -and often used for hair - which is never ever out of place!

Form (3 dimensions)
  • figurative forms are exaggerated
    • posters for kabuki characters led to an emphasis on and exaggeration of the form of the characters
    • women become tall and curvy
Praying for Rain Komachi (Amagoi Komachi), c. 1755
Ishikawa Toyonobu (Japanese, 1711-1785)
Color woodblock print (benizuri-e), hashira-e; 27.2 X 10.6 cm
Art Institute of Chicago Clarence Buckingham Collection, 1925.2847
  • faces are captured in a few lines and are often ambiguous as to sex - perhaps because on the kabuki stage women are played by men?
  • line is also used in a graphic form to represent atmospheric phenomena such as rain, cloud and list. The artist most skilled at this was Hiroshige.
  • some artists attempted to adopt linear perspective from the west - hence creating a sense of spatial depth. Uki-e is the name given to perspective pictures in this way.

  • the space between the lines is important. It is often left empty. The quality of the emptiness determines the rhythm and tension present in the drawing.
  • a 'field' of space has exact contours - and if it is to be left untinted becomes is the space which is scraped away with a chisel

Utagawa Kunisada and Utagawa Hiroshige.
Modern Genji: Viewing in Snow (Fûryû Genji yuki no nagame), ca. 1840.
Color woodblock print, ôban triptych, 15 in. x 10 in. each.

Prints and Photographs Division (66)
(LC-USZC4-8447, 8448, 8449)

This triptych is a joint work by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) and Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858). The signature "Painted by Toyokuni" (Toyokuni-ga) appears on the left and right prints, while the center piece is signed "Brush of Hiroshige"(Hiroshige hitsu). The careful recording of physical objects, typical of Ukiyo-e, is in abundance here--including the elaborate dress of the male figure delicately holding an umbrella above him, and the female figure elegantly brandishing a broom.
Library of Congress Exhibition - The Floating World of Ukiyo-e
The floating world is the drama of lines - their currents, their sweeps, their curves, their loops, their zigzags and their thrusts. It is the rhythm of their directions, as they run with and against each other, as they diverge and snap together again.
extract from Cherry Wood Blossom by Thomas Zacharias in Japanese Prints (Taschen)
  • artists were schooled to produce a highly focused but animated brush stroke - and this translates to the lines used for the drawings which became prints
  • the economy, flow and sensitivity of line are all important.
  • the line carefully records and reflects but does not copy the subject - it extracts the essence
  • lines are always well-defined and nothing is blurred. They give the appearance of being drawn briskly and with confidence (as required when drawing with ink!)
  • the shape of the line is important - for example, curvilinear lines are often used in the entanglements associated with the shunga
  • the line often hints at ambiguity - nudging and suggesting at the not quite visible
  • Hokusai was highly regarded for his great precision of line
  • line is used to caricature some faces
  • texture is conveyed through line and mark-making. It was this particular aspect which was hugely influential in Van Gogh's drawings with a reed pen.
I've updated yesterday's post for some Japanese terms and additional references. This post may well be updated as I continue with my reading plus more links added below.

This is hard work folks - but it's beginning to make sense........



  1. I have been reading about the life of Hokusai and came across a wonderful story. He struggled financially all his life. Often, to get money to buy art supplies, he did demonstration paintings. His reputation was so well known that the shogun invited him to the palace to do a demonstration. Hokusai took with him a large sheet of rice paper, red and blue ink, a brush the size of a small broom, and a rooster in a cage. Once he set the paper out on the ground, he dipped his brush in the blue paint and began to paint waving lines across the paper. He then grabbed the rooster, dipped its feet in red ink, and let it run across the paper. When he was done, he happily announced to the shogun that his painting of maple leaves falling on a stream was complete.
    Thanks for this study. I am enjoying doing some biographical and historical research along with the art form.

  2. What a delightful story Miki.

    I'm just off to do the rounds of all the blogs of people who said they were interested in the project - so see you soon!

  3. This really is a marathon effort on your part, Katherine! I thought your link to Edu Japan - A virtual Tour was wonderful.

    I am determined to join in, I just have to decided what to focus on. What struck me yesterday is how much I love the Japanese approach to trees. So I think that is one area of study and, of course that should lead me to attempt some landscapes.

    My particular favourite is Hiroshi Yoshida - 1876 -1950. Does that make him too contemporary for your study? He traveled a lot in the west, so it is wonderful to see his approach to western landscapes and landmarks.

    He also cut many of his own blocks which, as you know, was very unusual.

    I'm hoping this study may lead me back to my linocut tools as well. It is just a matter or time. I have no idea how you manage to fit it all in!

  4. Robyn - what a great idea - sounds as if that will keep it very manageable.

    After two days of marathon posting (ie getting information collected and then distilled down to something relatively straightforward takes some time!) I'm also beginning to wonder how I find the time. But the great thing for me is I get the bonus of the lessons learned being absorbed as I work - which is great for me.

    What I value so much is the information and perspectives that other people bring. Just look what I've got in the first two comments! :D

  5. Thank you for this fascinating account of Japanese artists, their style and influence.
    As a new artist I appreciate the opportunity to broaden my views and eastern art and ideas are inspiring.
    It is an honour for me to link "Making A Mark" at my Blpgspot, as I am sure others would benefit.


COMMENTS HAVE BEEN CLOSED AGAIN because of too much spam.
My blog posts are always posted to my Making A Mark Facebook Page and you can comment there if you wish.

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.