Japanese Woodblock Prints
From beautiful women, picturesque landscapes and ghoulish folklore to highly imaginative scenes of eroticism. These are some of the ukiyo-e subjects depicted in Japanese woodblock prints. It’s often referred to as ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) and has seen the rise of many legendary artists along with great works of art during its extensive 400+ year history. In this guide we’ll be looking at famous examples, how they are made, various genres and the fascinating history behind it.
Famous Japanese woodblock prints
First row: (1) Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre (1797-1861) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi Source. Second row: (2) A woman staring into a mirror (17th to 19th Century) by Kitagawa Utamaro Source. (3) Young woman blowing on a poppin (1790) by Kitagawa Utamaro Source. (4) Shiba Zojoji (1925) from the 12 views of Tokyo series by Kawase Hasui Source.
How ukiyo-e prints are made
Production normally involves four people with different skill sets. There’s an artist who draws the image, an engraver who carves the woodblock, a printer who makes copies and in some cases a publisher who initiates the project. The woodblock printmaking process is a combined team effort because the quality of a print doesn’t solely rely on the standard of work produced by the artist; it’s equally dependent on the workmanship of the engraver and printer.
This video series shows Tokyo resident, David Bull, doing a reproduction of Hokusai’s ‘The Great Wave off Kanagawa’. The Video is owned and created by David Bull.
The traditional woodblock printmaking process
- In the first step the artist draws the art piece followed by a tracing method known as hanshita. Its where the original image outlines are traced with black sumi ink onto a thin, yet durable type of paper known as washi. The first drawing is put aside while the hanshita aids the engraver in carving the woodblock for the next step.
- The engraver secures the hanshita in reverse onto a solid block of catalpa or cherry wood. Cherry wood was preferred for 2 reasons: a) It’s a stronger wood and the printer could therefore get more prints done before it became too worn out. b) It naturally gave off a much desired tone to the print. White sections of the hanshita are carefully cut away leaving only the image outlines behind. All areas are then carved and chiseled excepting for these lines which results in a woodblock with a raised image.
- Once the woodblock is inked or dyed the printing process can begin. It works by pressing a new sheet onto the inked block thereby transferring the image from wood to paper.
Production methods evolved throughout the history of Japanese woodblock prints. The method explained above worked well in earlier days when woodblock prints only consisted of black outlines. Color could be added and often was but had to be painted in by hand.
A better method for creating color prints were discovered during 1740 when pioneering artist Suzuki Harunobu, started using two woodblocks for additional colors. By 1765 true color prints became a reality when up to 12 blocks would be used to create a single colorful print. A sheet got pressed down onto each individual woodblock with absolute precision resulting in a vivid full color print. As a result, this improved woodblock printmaking process is what made it so incredibly popular among the general Edo population.
Commonly used printmaking tools
If you’re interested in creating your own Japanese style woodblock prints I recommend starting with an affordable beginners kit. Additionally, if you happen to be in Japan then take a look at these ukiyo-e workshops where you can learn from professionals.
|Kento Board||In true Japanese tradition a block of cherry wood (sakura plywood) would be used but most types of plywood such as birch, magnolia and shina works fine. Thickness of the board can range from 4mm to 15mm.|
|Paper||Washi paper such as gampi is traditionally used while tracing can be done with tracing mat film and carbon paper.|
|Baren||A baren is used for pressing paper onto the kento to allow the ink to be absorbed.|
|Knives||A quality knife set are the most essential items among Japanese woodblock printing tools. There are various knives used for specific tasks. These include a bull-nose chisel, a V shaped gouge, a U shaped gouge, the main cutting blade and a V shaped cutting blade.|
|Ink Roller||An ink roller for applying ink to the kento board.|
|Hake||A hake is a specialized brush used specifically for spreading ink evenly onto the woodblock. It’s recommended to have a separate hake for each color.|
|Sharpening Stone||A sharpening stone for keeping knives sharp.|
Types & genres
There are various genres focused on different topics or particular styles. Many of these genres are closely related to one another and emerged throughout different parts of Japanese woodblock printing history. Select any of the types below for further information.
Pictures of the floating world
Ukiyo-e are the most famous types of Japanese woodblock prints in existence and often perfectly combines multiple genres into one. It mainly illustrates Edo citizenry from all walks of life and subjects include beautiful women, fashionable courtesans, well-known kabuki actors and sometimes scenic landscapes among others. The word ukiyo-e is a Buddhist expression from medieval Japan which means ‘this world of pain’.
New meaning was given to the word during the 17th century Japanese renaissance and the newly assigned meaning translates to ‘floating world’ which describes hedonistic pleasures and entertainment.
Ukiyo-e prints pictured left to right: 1: Two Lovers Beneath an Umbrella in the Snow (1767) by Suzuki Harunobu Source. 2: Two young women relaxing (1894) by Toyohara Chikanobu Source. 3: Opening shellfish at Fukagawa (19th Century) by Utagawa Kuniyoshi Source.
Fukei-ga came about at the start of the 19th century thanks to artists such as Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) and Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849). Landscape woodblock prints were common long before the arrival of fukei-ga but what set it apart from previous versions was its adoption of western art techniques such as distance and depth. Famous examples include Hokusai’s legendary series “Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji” and Hiroshige’s “Fifty-three stations of the Tokaido”.
Fukei-ga print pictured: Suwa Lake (1849) from the 36 Views of Mount Fuji Series by Katsushika Hokusai Source.
Pictures of birds & flowers
Most Japanese woodblock prints depicted beautiful landscapes (fukei-ga), erotica (shunga) and famous people while kacho-e was more focused on the deeper cultural side of Japan. The most common subjects were birds and flowers but many also included fish, trees, insects and other animals. These subjects all carry symbolic meanings in Japanese and Chinese culture.
Kacho-e print pictured: Irises by Katsushika Hokusai Source.
Okubi-e are portraits featuring only the head and sometimes the upper torso section too. The first of these were created by Katsukawa Shunko (1743–1812) and Katsukawa Shunsho (1726-1792) in the late 18th century and were mainly of kabuki actors. Although, Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806) is credited for creating the first okubi-e prints of beautiful women (Bijin-ga). In 1800, the shogun imposed a ban which lasted 8 years on all okubi-e artwork simply because they stood out too much.
Okubi-e prints pictured from left to right: (1) A Woman Wiping Sweat (1918-1923) by Kitagawa Utamaro Source. (2) Large head portrait of kabuki actor Matsumoto Koshiro by Katsukawa Shunko I Source. (3) Beauty with Animals Signs of the Zodiac (1795-1798) by Tamagawa Shucho Source.
Pictures of kabuki actors
Yakusha-e depicts Kabuki actors and were some of the very first Japanese woodblock prints ever made. They were highly popular from the 17th century up until the 20th century.
Yakusha-e prints pictured from left to right: (1) The actor Iwai Hanshiro VII in the role of Tsuchiya Umegawa (1852) by Utagawa Kunisada Source. (2) Kabuki actor Sawamura Sojuro III as Kujaku Saburō Narihira (1794) by Kinokuniya Tosshi Source (3) The Actor Ichikawa Kodanji IV as Akogi no Heiji (1852) by Utagawa Kunisada Source.
Pictures of warriors
Musha-e are of Samurai warriors in either poses or engaged in historically important battles. The 47 Ronin were common subjects in this genre as they are often depicted in various battles.
Musha-e print pictured: (1) A triptych featuring a Samurai battle (1894) by Toshikata Mizuno Source.
Pictures of sumo wrestlers
Attending sumo wrestling matches was a favorite form of entertainment in Edo just as it is today. Wrestlers, much like today, enjoyed a celebrity-like status which is why they were popular subjects all throughout the history of Japanese woodblock prints.
Sumo-e prints pictured from left to right: (1) Sumo wrestler throwing a foreigner at Yokohama (1861) by an unknown artist Source. (2) A sumo Wrestler Tossing a Foreigner (1861) by Utagawa Yoshiiku Source. (3) Sumo wrestler Musashino Monta (between 1848 and 1854) by Utagawa Kunisada Source.
You would be forgiven for thinking shunga are images related to spring season. It’s actually a substitute word which describes Japanese erotic art. Interestingly, eroticism in Japanese art long pre-dates woodblock prints and made its first appearance as hand painted scrolls during the Heian Period (794-1185). It made a huge comeback in the form of shunga woodblock prints during the Edo Period (1603-1856); only this time produced in much higher quality and larger quantities.
Interestingly, every renowned woodblock artist produced shunga prints at least once at some point during their artistic careers.
Shunga could be purchased in single sheets or in book formats known as enpon. These were extremely popular and sold well among all social classes despite repeated attempts by authorities to ban it.
Shunga-e pictured: Shunga enpon books from the Edo Period (1603-1856) on display at an Italian museum Source.
Abuna-e shows its subjects (mostly women) in partially nude poses and came into being during the 1720’s after constant government crackdowns on the more explicit shunga prints.
Pictures of war
Senso-e depict war scenes and started surfacing during the Meiji Period as Japan became more involved in external wars. Most are about the Sino-Japanese (1894–1895) and Russo-Japanese (1904-1905) wars with some even from both World Wars. They were originally intended as illustrations for war corresponding newspapers but quickly became much sought-after art pieces among patriotic Japanese citizens.
Senso-e print pictured: A triptych woodblock print depicting the Battle of Pyongyang in Korea during the first Sino-Japanese War (1894-1895) by Mizuno Toshikata Source.
The history of Japanese woodblock prints
The Chinese invented woodblock printing as a means of printing Buddhist scriptures. During the 8th century the two countries underwent a cultural exchange and with it woodblock printing was introduced to Japan where it was used for duplicating religious scriptures throughout Japanese monasteries. It wouldn’t be until the start of the Edo Period, 900 years later, that the technology became revolutionized into an art form.
Edo period (1603-1868)
Ukiyo-e has its origins in sixteenth century Japan – a time of immense political turmoil and continuous civil wars. Peace and stability came under the Tokugawa Shogunate rule in 1603 which came to be known as the Edo Period (1603-1868). During the following two and a half centuries the rulers of Japan secluded the country from the rest of the world and the only international trade which took place were with Chinese and Dutch ships a few times a year in the port of Nagasaki.
Japanese culture flourished as a result of its isolationist policy and that inevitably lay the foundations of the ukiyo-e movement. The very first Japanese woodblock prints were created at the start of this period and were poster sized prints advertising sumo matches, pleasure quarters and kabuki theaters.
The process used up until this point didn’t allow for true color artwork as everything was either monochrome (sumizuri-e) or hand-painted (sumizuri-hissai). However, in 1740, true pioneering artist, Suzuki Harunobu (1725-1770), created the first color prints.
Suzuki Harunobu’s innovative method worked by using two blocks with each containing the exact same engraving. Each individual block would be inked with a different color and the same sheet got pressed down onto each block with absolute precision; which resulted in colored prints.
The golden age of ukiyo-e
It wouldn’t be for another 25 years in 1765 before true color prints would emerge when up to 12 blocks were used to create a single print. Artists, Shigenaga and Masanobu, perfected the new polychrome printing technique which made it easier to mass produce vividly clear and colorful ukiyo-e woodblock prints.
It wasn’t long before these polychrome prints went for sale among the general Edo population. This period in Japanese woodblock printing history became known as the golden age of ukiyo-e because of its overwhelming popularity.
The most popular art were of samurai (musha-e), beautiful women (bijin-ga), kabuki actors (yakusha-e), landscapes (fukei-ga) and erotica (shunga). There were no shortage of highly skilled and talented artists either.
Artists of the time included Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806), who was renowned for his ukiyo-e prints of beautiful women. Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849) is regarded as a true master of ukiyo-e and his landscape images are internationally acclaimed to this day. He is best known for his “Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji” series which are 36 (with 10 additional) woodblock prints depicting Mount Fuji from various views under different conditions.
Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) is regarded by many as the last master of the ukiyo-e tradition; famed for his many individual pieces and “The fifty-three stations of the Tokaido” series.
|Famous artists from the Edo period:|
|Suzuki Harunobu||Kitagawa Utamaro||Toyokuni Utagawa|
|Ando Hiroshige||Hokusai Katsushika||Katsukawa Shunsho|
|Kitao Shigemasa||Chokosai Eisho||Utagawa Hiroshige|
|Utagawa Hirosada||Hishikawa Moronobu||Tsukioka Yoshitoshi|
|Torii Kiyonaga||Utagawa Toyoharu||Torii Kiyomine|
Meiji period (1857-1912)
Immense social changes to Japan in 1853 when the American navy forced the country to open its harbors for the first time in over two centuries. Japan had now gradually begun the process of opening up to Western influence and trade. A few years later the shogun had no choice but to resign and the Edo Period ended along with his resignation. Emperor Meiji was enthroned as emperor and one of the changes bought in by the Meiji Restoration was the modernization of Japan; which ultimately led to declining interest in Japanese woodblock prints within Japan itself.
Declining interest within Japan
Modern technology of the time hadn’t existed in Japan prior to the Meiji Restoration. Cameras, for example, became increasingly common year after year as more people started developing a bigger interest in photography as opposed to the more traditional Japanese woodblock prints. Another contributing factor to its decline was the influence of Western art. Many Japanese woodblock artists studied western art techniques in Europe and the US which had a noticeable effect on the type of art Japan started producing. Thus, styles such as lithographs, etchings and even abstract art eventually became the norm among Japanese artists.
Rising interest in the West
As interest in Japanese woodblock prints were declining within Japan, the opposite effect took place in the West. Ukiyo-e prints were now being shipped to America and Europe in massive quantities. Interestingly, it wasn’t only the ordinary citizens of western nations who were intrigued by it; but also the most influential artists of the time. Artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet along with many others were buying hundreds of cheap Japanese woodblock prints as they arrived. Not only did it influence legendary Western artists but it also played a substantial role in shaping the most important art movement in history – the European impressionism movement. Vincent van Gogh invented the word Japanesery to explain ukiyo-e’s influence on Western artists and his entire 500+ collection of woodblock prints can be seen today at the Van Gogh museum in Amsterdam.
|Some Western Artists Influenced By Ukiyo-e:|
|Arthur Wesley Dow||Georges Ferdinand Bigot||James Tissot|
|Aubrey Beardsley||Gustav Klimt||Mary Cassatt|
|Auguste Renoir||Helen Hyde||Paul Gauguin|
|Camille Pissarro||Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec||Vincent van Gogh|
|Claude Monet||James McNeill Whistler||William Bradley|
The Shin-hanga movement (1910-1960)
Western interest in Japanese woodblock prints eventually began winding down which is why Watanabe Shozaburo (1885–1962) started the Shin-Hanga (new prints) movement in 1910. The subjects depicted in shin-hanga were the same as it was with ukiyo-e and mostly included landscapes, actors, popular places and women. The only difference was its implementation of western art techniques such as distance and depth; as opposed to the more flat and two-dimensional imagery of its predecessor.
Shin-Hanga enjoyed much success across the West from 1915 to 1955, but unfortunately had little to no effect in Japan itself. After decades of modernization and Westernization the Japanese merely saw it as an alternative version of the now obsolete ukiyo-e. However, a number of new and talented woodblock artists emerged from this movement including Yoshida Hiroshi (1876–1950), Hasui Kawase (1883–1957) and Torii Kotondo (1900–1976).
Where to find Japanese woodblock prints for sale
- Amazon: A number of reputable art galleries provide high quality reprints at affordable prices through the Amazon.com website.
- eBay: Hundreds of mostly private individuals have Japanese woodblock prints for sale through eBay’s auction portal. Many are claimed to be originals but are not and thus the auction site has earned itself a rather bad reputation from serious ukiyo-e collectors. There are endless stories about people who thought they purchased originals when they were actually fakes. It’s not to say there aren’t any originals on eBay but they are few and one has to know how to distinguish between them.
- Art Galleries: There are many reputable and trustworthy art galleries from around the world. Sales are done on an individual basis and sometimes even through auctions – both online and in person. A simple Google search will reveal many of them.
A compilation of some of the best woodblock artists to have ever existed..
Learn how to make your own ukiyo-e prints at these workshops in Japan..
Shuji is the artistic writing of the Japanese language. Learn more here..
Read more about woodblock printing in its earliest forms here.
Vincent Van Gogh invented the word Japanesery to explain the profound effect ukiyo-e had on European artists of the time. Read an interesting article on it here.
Watanabe Shozaburo created the Shin-hanga movement in an attempt to modernize and revive ukiyo-e. Find out more about him and the movement here.
If you ever thought of buying Japanese woodblock prints then it would be beneficial to determine their value just by looking at their condition. Read more about doing this here.