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.”

International Ninja Day

Today is the ‘International Ninja Day’. Ninja 忍者 were covert agents or mercenaries. Most people know them from fiction and movies. Utagawa Kunisada 歌川 国貞 (1786-1865) painted a scene of a ninja on a Kabuki stage about 1830.

If you are interested in ninja and their history you will find a comprehensive article on the English website of wikipedia. See also an article about famous ninjas at https://www.thoughtco.com/famous-ninjas-195587 and about the allegation that maybe everything you know about ninjas is wrong at https://kotaku.com/all-you-know-about-ninja-is-probably-wrong-5932403.

Art on Tuesday: Snow


These are three paintings of a Japanese man standing in the snow on high wooden shoes holding an umbrella. The woodblock prints are made by Utagawa Kunisada 歌川 国貞 who is also known as Utagawa Toyokuni III (三代歌川豊国) living from 1786 to 1865. The scenes are enjoyable. The picture on the left shows the man walking in heavy snowfall. He holds the umbrella closely over his head. Additionally he wears a shawl around his neck. He obviously feels cold. On the second picture the snow has stopped falling. The man checks if there is some snow with his right hand. He has loosened his shawl. It might be a little warmer. On the third picture he looks skeptical and he is opening the umbrella as the snow is falling again.