A triptych of coloured woodblock prints by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864)
What are woodblock prints?
Woodblock prints are prints made on paper using a wood block or blocks. They are produced by creating a design, transferring this to wood, creating a printing surface on the wood and then printing from that. They're not unique to Japan, although in western countries they're often referred to as woodcut prints.
You can see a selection of woodblock and woodcut prints produced in different countries and different times here. Next week I'm going to be doing a blog post about woodblock/woodcut printing in the west.
Woodblock prints in Japanese Art
The use of woodblock prints in Japanese Art is very old and started in the eighth century. It was largely associated with the production of books until the eighteenth century when it became more widely adopted. (See the item on Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style in the Timeline of Art History produced by the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Wikipedia article - Woodblock printing in Japan)
The technique is essentially the same as that which is called woodcut in Western printmaking.
As with most things, technology was at the root of the major change in the use and scope of woodblock printing in Japan. Enabling artists and printers to use more colours really got the ball rolling!
In 1765, new technology made it possible to produce single-sheet prints in a whole range of colors. Printmakers who had heretofore worked in monochrome and painted the colors in by hand, or had printed only a few colors, gradually came to use full polychrome painting to spectacular effect.Some prints of Kabuki actors (which were th most popular prints) were made from colours from up to 20 woodblocks. You can find out about pigments and preparation here.
Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style
How are woodblock prints produced?
This is how woodblock prints in Japan were produced:
- First the artist drew the design for a woodblock image onto paper. The paper would usually follow the traditional japanese paper dimensions
- The design was then transferred to thin, partly transparent washi (Japanese paper) - usually mulberry paper
- This paper was then pasted to the woodblock. In Japan, this was usually made of cherry wood.
- A carver then chisels and cuts the design out of the wood using special tools (see basic tools). This creates the design in negative. The lines and areas to be coloured are raised in relief. You can see some old hand caved cherry wood blocks here.
- The printer then applied ink(s) to the surface of the woodblock. The print was produced by rubbing a round pad or baren over the pack of a piece of paper laid over the top of the inked woodblock.
- Prints with multiple colours required multiple blocks.
- Prints were produced according to defined dimensions. The most common sheet size was the oban (39x26.5cm - which is approx. 15.3" x 10.4 - a 3:2 format). You can find details of different sheet sizes and their dimensions here.
- The print would then be published - often as a series.
Traditionally, the artist, carver, printer and publisher were not the same people - see the quotation below from the Metropolitan Museum. This traditional approach is called Shin-Hanga.
Despite the fame of great print masters like Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770) and Ando Hiroshige (1797–1858), each print required the collaboration of four experts: the designer, the engraver, the printer, and the publisher. A print was usually conceived and issued as a commercial venture by the publisher, who was often also a bookseller. It was he who chose the theme and determined the quality of the work. Designers were dependent on the skill and cooperation of their engravers and of the printers charged with executing their ideas in finished form.This form of organisation is similar to that used for engravings which were being produced round about the same time. However it's unlike many woodblock / woodcut prints produced today where the artist / carver / printer are very frequently one and the same person.
Metropolitan Museum of Art - Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style
In the early twentieth century a new movement started in Japan called Sosaku hanga meaning 'creative prints'.
The Sosaku hanga (literally creative prints) art movement in early 20th century Japan, during the Taishō and Shōwa periods advocated the principles of “self-drawn” [jiga], self-carved” [jikoku] and “self-printed” [jizuri], according to which the artist, with the desire of expressing the self, is the sole creator of art.You can find a dicussion of traditional versus creative printmaking on David Bull's excellent woodblock encyclopedia site here.
Wikipedia - Sosaku hanga
Japanese art and print-making also has its own schools and movements. These are described by Wikipedia below.
Japanese printmaking, as many other features of Japanese art, tended to organise itself into schools and movements. The most notable schools and, later, movements of moku hanga were:
- Torii school, from 1700
- Kaigetsudō school, from 1700-14
- Katsukawa school, from about 1740, including the artists Suzuki Harunobu and Hokusai
- Utagawa school, from 1842, including the artist Kunisada
- Sōsaku hanga, "Creative Prints" movement, from 1904
- Shin hanga "New Prints" movement, from 1915
This has just been my effort at an overview. You can read a lot more about wood block printing by those who know a lot more than me. Here are suggested links
- Wood-Block Printing by F. Morley Fletcher - complete text online through Project Gutenberg
- Japanese Woodblock printing by Hiroshi Yoshida (e-version)
- David Bull's Woodblock site - This site comes highly recommended by me. Any printer and all those interested in woodblock printing will find this site to be absolutely fascinating. It's produced by an English born Canadian who lives in Tokyo and has made his living as a woodblock printer for the last two decades.
- take a look at his portable carving kit
- see him work on his woodblock webcam
- see how the prints are made
- have a look at the woodblock widget
- here are some of the FAQs he has provided answers too
- Mokuhan - a modern Japanese woodblock printing operation run by David Bull and friends
- Viewing Japanese prints - by John Fiorillo. He discusses the different print movements in Japan in the 19th and 20th centuries.
- Metropolitan Museum of Art
- David Bull - The [Baren] Encyclopedia of Woodblock Printmaking
- Resources for Artists on Squidoo: