The Making of Japanese Woodblock Prints

triptych by Utagawa Kunisada process of ukiyo-e makingThis triptych presents seven women working at different workstations showing the process of woodblock printmaking, although women were not typically working as artists or crafters in the Edo era. This picture, a woodblock print itself, was made by Utagawa Kunisada (歌川 国貞 1786–1865) in 1857. On the left we see the painter with different colors and brushes. Wood carvers are working in the back at small tables. The person in the middle is brushing on paper, and the woman on the right is sharpening tools.

The making of Japanese woodblock prints is a complex and laborious process:

  • It is always a collaboration between artists, wood carvers, printers and publishers.
  • First, the painter is drawing the artwork on paper, using black ink with a brush. These outlines are called hanshita-e.
  • Second, a skilled wood carver is laying this drawing on a wooden plate and carves the outlines into the wood. Most commonly cherry wood is used in Japan.
  • The painter produces more different hanshita-e for each color. These are also handed over to a carver, who produces several woodcuts accordingly.
  • These woodcuts are now used as printing-plates one after another. Usually painter and printer discuss the printing order.
  • This woodblock-printing technique was established in the 1760s in Japan. It is called nishiki-e 錦絵. The style was made popular by the artist Suzuki Harunobu (鈴木 春信 1725-1770). It was also used later for the ukiyo-e, which became famous in the Edo era, and are therefore known as Edo-e 江戸絵.

Examples for black and white hanshita-e

hanshita-e by Hokusai Drawings (hanshita-e) for a three-volume picture book from Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849). The drawing was made in 1823-33. (Picture source: https://collections.mfa.org/download/129501)

Utagawa Yoshimune (1817–1880) ca. 1860, from the chapters 4, 5 of Legends of the Dog Warriors. (Picture source: https://www.metmuseum.org/art/collection/search/78752)

Video
For a better understanding the following YouTube videos show the fascinating process of Japanese woodblock printing:

1. Japanese Woodblock Printmaking
“Local printmaker Jennifer Worsley demonstrates the Japanese woodblock printmaking process, also known as moku hanga, using a mix of traditional and contemporary techniques and tools.”

2. Woodblock Printing Process – A Japan Journey
“Tokyo-based woodblock printmaker David Bull narrates a video showing the step-by-step process of making one of the woodblock prints in the 2019 subscription series ‘A Japan Journey’, designed by Jed Henry.”

Art on Tuesday: Dawn at Isawa

woodblock print by Hokusai -Dawn at Isawa
This ukiyo-e is from the series ‘Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji’ 富嶽三十六景 by Hokusai (1760-1849).
The series was made in the early 1830s. This is picture No. 43 with the title ‘Dawn at Isawa in the Kai Province’ (甲州伊沢暁—kôshû isawa no akatsuki). The Kai province is located in today’s Yamanashi prefecture of Japan. Here you see typical historical Japanese houses with thatched roofs. On the middle road groups of merchants are transporting commercial goods, some on horses. They are carrying items like rice, food and various products in wooden boxes or in bundles.

Art on Tuesday: Sumida River

woodblock print Sumida River at the Massaki district by Utagawa Hiroshige

Utagawa Hiroshige 歌川 広重 (1797-1858) made this woodblock print as part of his series: ‘One Hundred Famous Views of Edo’ (名所江戸百景 Meisho Edo Hyakkei). It is picture No. 35.

You see a cherry tree trunk on the right side in full bloom with many cherry blossoms hanging at the top. The Sujin Shrine is located in the valley on the right in a little forest. The Sumida River at the Massaki district is in the center and in the background you see the famous Mount Tsukuba (筑波山). The mountain’s double peak consists of the so called female-body-mountain (女体山) and the male-body-mountain (男体山). Some of the oldest legends are related to them.

Art On Tuesday: The Golden Pavillon in Kyôto

woodblockprint Kinkakuji Hasegawa Sadanobu I

This ukiyo-e shows a snow scene with the famous Kinkaku-ji 金閣寺, the Golden Pavillon in Kyôto. The picture was made by Hasegawa Sadanobu I (1809-1879) around 1870. The temple was build in the 14th century, and it is located in the northwest of the former capital. In the background you see the mountains. On the right side is the beautiful Kyōkochi lake 鏡湖池 which mirrors the Golden Pavillon. The temple was rebuild several times. In 1950, it was set on fire by a novice monk and reconstructed. Today Kinkaku-ji belongs to the UNESCO World Heritage.

 

Art on Tuesday: Winter Scene in Kyôto

It is still winter.
This woodblock print shows a scene of the old Japanese capital Kyôto. It was made by the ukiyo-e painter Hasegawa Sadanobu who painted a series of famous places of the city.
The name of the picture is ’Nawate-street and Yamato-bridge seen from the Shijo-bridge’ in 1858. The Shijo-bridge leads over the Kamo-river, here it is still in part icy, but with small water streams. The four people in the front are wearing umbrellas against the snowfall. They are dressed in warm layered kimonos and their shoes are called geta. They are made of wood. In the background you see Japanese houses snow capped with the Yamato-bridge at the center.