The Making of a Woodblock Print

The Japanese Woodblock Print is an art form, which highlights flowing, curved outlines, simplistic forms as well as the detailing of flat areas containing color. This form of art has not only existed for a long time in Asian history, but it has also deeply impacted artists in both Europe and North America throughout the 19th century.

Woodblock printing was first used in Japan in the 8th century to print religious texts. Buddhists traveling from China brought these texts, as well as the printing method itself, to Japan. These first prints were made in a single color using only Sumi ink. The world would have to wait nearly 900 years for the first colored prints to appear. Early color prints were made using a single block and black ink. The colors were hand painted by workers in the print shops. It was only when the popularity of these prints exceeded the production capacity of the workshops that the true woodblock print evolved.

To meet the rising demand, the printers employed master carvers to make individual blocks for each of the colors in the print. Many of the finer woodblock prints contained 15 or more colors, requiring 15 different expertly carved wooden print blocks. Each of these blocks had to be carved with great precision to ensure that the colored sections met perfectly. Earliest among these images were private calendars that were printed without first by Suzuku Hornbook (1725-1770), and later with other various artists. One of the most famous of Suzuku Hornbook’s print was the image “The Køya Jewel River”.

Beginning in the mid-1760s, the newly discovered color prints were sold commercially; their depictions included themes that were both classical as well as contemporary; these themes included literary scenes, the lives of celebrities, women of beauty, travel scenes, erotic scenes, as well as actors in their different dramatic roles. During the 19th century, some of the most exhibited and represented artists of Japanese Woodblock Prints are Utagawa Toyokuni I (1769-1825), Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865), Utamaro Kitagawa (1750-1806), and Andø Hiroshige (1797-1858).

The techniques that were used were varied, but were absolutely critical to the final print. While working, the artist is required to keep a very specific goal in mind while creating the blocks. This mindset should be in line with the Japanese tradition of demonstrating the precise direction of the brush that would be painting the picture, so that the features of the original piece, as well as the written characters, are not in any way destroyed. So from the artist’s point of view, the direction of the knife should match identically the direction of the brush, which initially inscribed the picture. This being said, it is easy to understand that it takes an extremely skilled hand to replicate the unique and exact features captured in the originals, while simultaneously demonstrating the artist’s own skill and character.

For woodblock prints to be created, there had to be the artist, the block maker/carver, the printer, and of course, the paper maker. A Japanese artist would create the artwork using ink to draw a line symbolizing color. From there, the student within the school would take the design, copy it onto thin, translucent paper, after which the publisher would secure thick and seasoned blocks of cherry wood to the sides being used. As the copy of the artwork was placed onto the blocks, the lines would be cut out by the block maker.

Next, the block maker would eliminate the wood so he was only cutting around the lines. This way, a key-block effect was created in which the lines were high. The step following included rubbing ink onto the raised lines and then proofing paper applied on top. This paper would be rubbed by the block maker to produce a copy of the image. Also known, as “pulls”, the paper with the image could then be used to create other blocks using colored ink if so desired. From that point, the blocks would be carefully carved.

When these parts of the process were complete, the printer took the key-block, again rubbing ink on it, left alone so the outline would dry. Colors would then be mixed by the printer with all of the blocks being covered in paint and then color printed. As you can imagine, the process of wiping the color on to produce a gorgeous design was painstaking and key to the printer’s success. Keep in mind that to maintain colors and keep everything aligned, precision was required when passing between blocks. Finally, the registration marks were applied by the block maker.

Interestingly, most colors used for woodblock prints were derived from vegetable extracts until the latter part of the 19th century. While the colors were beautiful, consisting of blue, violet, and pink, if the dye were exposed to sunlight, they would fade to gray or ivory. To enhance the beauty of the blocks with a shinier surface, some printers would add small particles of metal dust or mica. Additionally, the number of print runs during the 18th century had to be limited to 200. Otherwise, the key-block lines would start to show significant wear and tear. In fact, over time the colors were so saturated that producing good results was near impossible.

With time came new options such as the one-sheet design now, being stretched out to two or even three sheets in the late 18th century. For this to be successful, the edges had to join yet at the same time, the artist and printmakers needed to keep each sheet as an individual piece of art. Again, it was common for prints to be done in series, some as many as 100 or more pages. Most often, people would store the multi-page prints in boxes or sometimes, mount them in albums.

Often times, sheets would be joined horizontally and rolled up similar to a scroll. In most cases, these sheets would show a gorgeous landscape or city scene. While some woodblock prints were merely the actual artwork, some publishers also allowed consumers to request additional work such as writing done in the form of poetry, a birth announcement, New Year’s greeting, and so on. Typically, these paintings were elaborate and the detailing incredible.

The wood that is used for Japanese Woodblock Prints is selected very carefully. The woods considered include only very specific types of trees, and only certain textures of wood within those different species. No matter what, the texture of the wood must be extremely fine and very hard.

The differences between old and modern methods of Japanese woodcutting are as follows: the method of cutting on wood – as the ancient woodcuts is deeper than the ones that are made today. However, though more shallow, the present day pieces allow for much greater detail.

The majority of the woodblock prints were produced in the cities of Osaka, Kyoto, and Tokyo (formerly Edo). Workshops in Kyoto still produce woodblock prints today.

Reference: Asian Art Mall