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:

Utagawa Yoshimune (1817–1880) ca. 1860, from the chapters 4, 5 of Legends of the Dog Warriors. (Picture source:

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: Nihonbashi

One Hundred Famous Views of Edo 名所江戸百景 by Utagawa Hiroshige 歌川 広重 (1797-1858). This is the first picture of his well-known landscape series. The title of the ukiyo-e 日本橋雪晴 means clearing after snow. It shows a scene in early spring at the Nihonbashi-bridge at the Nihonbashi-river. It is located in the Chuo-district in Tokyo. The wooden bridge, built in 1603, shown in this picture does not exist any longer. Today there is a stone bridge completed in 1911 nearby the Nihonbashi subway station. In the front on the right side of the river the Edo-era fish market is located and in the back you see the flat houses of the Edo castle and Mount Fuji.

Utagawa Hiroshige also chooses the Nihonbashi bridge for the first picture of his series The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road 東海道五十三次 Tōkaidō gojūsan tsugi no uchi. (1833-34). This ukiyo-e shows the starting point of his first journey along the Tokaido, it is called Morning Scene (asa no kei) 朝之景. The Tokaido was the main route from Edo to Kyoto. The artist was travelling with an official delegation and depicted main stations along the route. 

A variation of the same bridge with the title of The Daimyō Procession is Setting Out  gyōretsu furidashi, 行列振出.

Art on Tuesday: Geisha by Brazier


Takahashi Shotei 高橋 松亭 (1871-1945) painted this ukiyo-e in 1925. You see a geisha with a brazier. The painting is showing extraordinary details. Look at the pattern of the kimono, obi and even at the hair. The face in contrast is plain white, because of the mask-like makeup, but she is not expressionless. She is pushing two sticks into a brazier. They look like incense sticks. Takahashi Shotei is a Japanese artist with a wide range of themes. If you like this painting, look for more works at wikiart.

Art on Tuesday: Snow


This snow beauty was painted by the most famous ukiyo-e artist Hokusai Katsushika 葛飾 北斎 (1760-1849) known from Japan. The elegant Japanese lady is walking through heavy snow. It has recently stopped to fall down, as one can see some snow is left on the umbrella and on the wooden shoe. She is feeling cold, although she is wearing multiple layers with different colors and patterns.  Her hands are covered in her kimono sleeves. The whole scene is presented in light colors reflected by the snow.

Art on Tuesday: Waterfall

The waterfall theme is very popular. One sees it very often in Japanese paintings. The waterfall is a symbol of the duality of persistency and change. Hokusai painted his waterfalls abstractly. It seems that the water is flowing right out of a bowl, a giant blue moon.

The second picture shows a couple on a bridge visiting a waterfall of Nikkô, a famous sightseeing spot in the north of Tôkyô. This painting is more naturalistic. Although the water flows down in giant streams, there is no danger for the two people.

The third painting shows a little waterfall in autumn, this could be one in a Japanese garden. The fourth example is another Hokusai painting, where the water stands like a concrete wall.

From Left to Right:

Katsushika Hokusai 葛飾北斎: Kisoji no oku Amida ga taki: “Amida Waterfall on the Kiso Road, approximately 1832.

Shôtei Takahashi (1871-1945), Nikkô Shirakumo Waterfall, approximately 1930.

Hasui Kawase (1883-1957), Senju Waterfall, 1951.

Katsushika Hokusai, Ono Falls on the Kiso Kaido Road (Kisokaido Ono no bakufu), approximately 1833.