An Introduction to Japanese Woodblock Printing

Japanese woodblock printing originated in ancient China and was brought to Japan after the unification of the country and Shogunat rule was established. Japanese woodblock prints, also called ukiyo-e (which means image of the floating world), are a traditional art form, which started to grow very popular in the newly created capital Edo (now Tokyo) from around 1600 and are now strongly sought after by art enthusiasts all over the world.

Buddhist origin

Woodblock printmaking came to Japan from China probably around the 8th century. At that time, the two countries were connected by an intensive cultural exchange. Probably under Chinese consulting, in 770 the print of some of the first known text prints ordered by Empress Shotoku was finished: the dharani (Buddhist verses), each stored in a small wooden pagoda. However, it is not proven from which material these plates were made.

In the beginning, woodblock printmaking was done only in Buddhist monasteries, for the purpose of reproducing Buddhist texts and images, later also for books. In the beginning of the 17th century, private printmaking studios opened. The first prints were just black-and-white.

Colored woodblock prints

In the middle of the 17th century, the artist Moronobu as one of the first created a single sheet woodblock print. These new, reasonable priced prints became very popular within the Japanese society. The first just black-and-white prints (sumizuri-e) were soon coloured by hand (sumizuri-hissai). The available color palette soon became bigger and also metal dust was used.

In the first half of the 18th century, the printers began to print from two or three plates, whichi means also to print in two or three colors. Soon the invention of the pass mark, the kentō, made the multicolor print more precise, because this technique made it possible to print from many plates with high accuracy. The artist Harunobu was one of the first who brought this technique to its prime by designing prints, which in the printing process require more than 20 plates. These magnificent new prints were called brocade images (nishiki-e).

Ukiyo-e in the Edo Period

Japanese woodblock printmaking had its prime during the Edo period (1603-1868). After centuries of civil war, this was a time of inner peace. In 1603 the sovereign Tokugawa Ieyasu had won an important battle and became the new shogun. This position was kept by members of his family until 1868. He chose the fisher village Edo (today Tokyo), where he already had installed his headquarters, as the new capital, far from the Emperors court at Kyoto. The new capital grew very quickly and attracted crafts- and salesmen. A rich middle class developed with an intense cultural life, especially because the restrictive regime refused its citizens any access to political power. Theatre, sumo and brothels got very popular.

The artists expressed the spirit of this new time in their images, the “image of the floating world” which is the translation of the term ukiyo-e.

The process of japanese woodblock printing

How a woodblock print is created

The process of making a Japanese woodblock print is generally divided into three main tasks:

  1. the artist is drawing the design on thin paper. Then the artist leaves his designs to a workshop with
  2. a woodcarver. The wood carver places the paper on wooden blocks, mostly made from cherry wood and engraves the blocks with the appropriate chisels and gouges. One block is carved after each other, each colour a new woodblock. From the hands of the carver, the blocks are then taken to the printer who arranges the blocks in consecutive order and prints them on Japanese rice paper (which is made from mulberry bark) using water colors.
  3. The third task is to sell the woodblock prints. Therefore, and for the responsibility of decisions any other kind, a publisher took over. More than 2.000 publishers during Edo-Period (1603 – 1868), including book publishers are known. Also involved were craftsmen like papermakers.

Topics of ukiyo-e

There was a big variety of themes. In the beginning, legends were the main theme, and images from the popular kabuki theatre. The artist Harunobu designed prints showing scenes of everyday life. Utamaro was famous for his fine portraits of beautiful women. In the end of the 18th century, landscape and animals too became themes of artists as the masters Hokusai and Hiroshige.

Japonism

In 1853, American ships forced Japan to open her harbours. This resulted in strong social changes. The shogun had to resign and a Meiji Emperor (1868-1912) was enthroned. Japan now began to open herself to the Western culture. In opposite to the time before, when contact with Westerners was strictly forbidden, this now was strongly supported. Western printmaking techniques were introduced in Japan and the traditional woodblock print lost its meaning. It also hadn’t been considered to be highest fine art in the Japanese society.

The prints were exported to Europe and caused big admiration. They strongly influenced art movements as the Jugendstil and the new poster movement. Many Impressionists as van Gogh, Gauguin, Monet and many others not only started to collect Japanese woodblock prints, but obviously got influenced to combine the ukiyo-e style into their own works. Many European artists travelled to Japan and studied the original technique of Japanese woodblock printing.

Western influence in Japanese art

In Japan meanwhile, artists who came back from studies in Europe, got influenced by the way European printmakers design, cut and print their prints by themselves. This followed in the sosaku hanga movement (“creative print”). The artists started to create a print completely by them selfes and developed prints of modern expression including abstract images. On the other way, the shin hanga movement (“new print”) was initiated from publishers like the famous Watanabe, who wanted to keep the traditional woodblock print alive by publishing prints which were done in collaboration work as in the early days and resembled them also in their themes.