Thursday, April 10, 2008

Japanese Art and ukiyo-e: How do you make a wood block print?

Imaginary scene of women producing woodblock prints, (Edo 1857)
A triptych of coloured woodblock prints by Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1864)

This blog post is part of my project on Japanese Art (see other posts) and is concerned with how Japanese wood block prints associated with ukiyo-e were made. It contains an overview of what they are and how the prints were made and provides links to further information.

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.
Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style
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.

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.
The role of the artist in production

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.
Metropolitan Museum of Art - Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style
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.

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.
Wikipedia - Sosaku hanga
You can find a dicussion of traditional versus creative printmaking on David Bull's excellent woodblock encyclopedia site here.

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:

Other artists, such as Utamaro, Sharaku, and Hiroshige did not belong to a specific school, and drew from a wider tradition.
Wikipedia: Woodblock printing

More information

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


  1. Now how does one get to spend a year in Dave Bull's studio? Heaven!

  2. This is another great post. I would love to have these posts on japanese art in printable format to read and study them offline.

  3. Thanks both of you.

    Martin - I can look into doing printed copies.


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