Japanese Woodblock Prints - History, Technique, and More

Woodblock printing is a technique that allows artists to print patterns, images, or texts on paper and textiles. It is often associated with Japanese paintings but is not something that is exclusive to Japan, only. The method actually originated from China, where it was initially used as a way to print books and articles.

In Japan, it is referred to as mokuhanga and is considered to be a popular technique used in the art of ukiyo-e, a particular artistic style unique to Japan. Although the method shares similarities with the printmaking of Western countries, mokuhanga separates itself from the rest by making use of water-based inks, which offer a wider range of shades, transparencies, and glazes.

The History of Japanese Woodblock Prints

The very first glance the Japanese community had of woodblock prints can be traced back to the eighth century when Chinese Buddhist temples presented woodblock-printed books to the country. During the same century, Empress Koken had a million small pagodas commissioned and distributed them to the temples scattered across the country. Each of these pagodas contained a small woodblock scroll that featured a Buddhist text.

Woodblock-printed books became abundant during the eleventh century when Japan’s Buddhist temples focused on preserving Buddhist doctrines for future generations. Up until this period, woodblock printing was a method reserved for the Buddhist sphere, given its expensive materials and the local community’s deficiency in literacy.

It was only during the latter years of the Heian Period that Japan was able to discover that paintings could be created using the same technique.

Centuries after, particularly during the late 1500s, the first secular woodblock-printed book known as the Setsuyo-shu was produced. This book served as a Chinese-Japanese dictionary and consisted of two volumes.

Roughly six years later, the first Japanese movable type was developed through the commissioning of Tokugawa Ieyasu. Instead of using metal for the mechanism’s type-pieces, the shogun demanded that wood be used to keep in line with woodblock printing. Around a hundred thousand type-pieces were created for the purpose of printing historical and political documents.

Tokugawa Ieyasu’s promotion of school, museum constructions, and literacy during this time ultimately led to the transformation of the native locals into well-educated urban groups.

However, the moveable type failed to reproduce the same quality that could be acquired using woodblocks. As such, woodblock printing again rose in popularity during the Edo Period, particularly by the year 1640.

From that point on, the method continued to evolve to produce different art work, images, hand scrolls, and many other printed items. Literary mass production also became quite prominent as more and more publishing houses popped up from different regions to reproduce single-sheet prints and original books.

The Technique Used in Making Japanese Woodblock Prints

When it comes to printing texts and images, the ideal techniques used do not stray far from one another. In fact, they only differed with each other in terms of the number of pages they could produce in a single pass and their use of complex colors. During the earlier years of Japanese woodblock printing, most texts and images were monochromatic, given that only black ink was used.

Woodblock printing requires the desired text or image to initially be drawn on a thin piece of Japanese paper known as washi. Afterward, the paper is then pasted face-down on a plank of wood, typically a close-grained kind such as cherry. Using the drawing as a basis, the unnecessary parts of the wood are then chiseled away to create the needed block for the design.

A brush is used to apply ink to the final block. Subsequently, a tool referred to as baren is used to press the textile or paper against the woodblock. This tool is described to be flat and consists of three main parts:

  • The inner core – a coil made out of bamboo leaves that have been twisted to create a rope-like structure

  • The ategawa – a sort of disk made out of incredibly thin pieces of paper that have been glued together to house the inner core

  • The outer core – a final wrap of dampened bamboo leaves around the tool

Over time, the baren was modified to make use of stronger and more accessible materials.

Different Styles Used in Making Japanese Woodblock Prints

As previously mentioned, woodblock prints were mostly done in monochrome during the craft’s earlier years. However, as the popularity of ukiyo-e rose, the demand for woodblock prints to provide more complex techniques and colors also increased. As such, the following styles were developed:

  • Sumizuri-e – refers to images or texts printed using black ink

  • Benizuri-e – refers to images or texts printed using black ink then added with hand-painted details/highlights using red or green ink

  • Tan-e – refers to printed images or texts that feature orange details/highlights

  • Aizuri-e / Murasaki-e – refers to images or texts printed using purple ink or to printed designs that feature purple details/highlights

  • Urushi-e – refers to a method of making the ink thicker using glue or other substances to make the images or texts stand out even more

  • Nishiki-e – refers to a method that makes use of multiple woodblocks to print different sections of the images or texts, allowing the artist to make use of complex color combinations to create more details.

Common Designs/Themes Used in Making Japanese Woodblock Prints – Flowers, Folk Tales, Landscapes, Etc.

As with the other forms of Japanese art, Japanese woodblock prints often feature scenic landscapes, flowers, legends, and the four elements.

Animals, Birds, and Insects

In line with the country’s native religion, Shinto, common symbols or motifs used for different works of art include animals, birds, and insects. These creatures are used to bring emphasis to the Shinto belief of seasonal succession and how all things play an important role in the course of life.

In terms of Buddhism, these creatures are seen as symbols of humans keeping a harmonious balance with nature.

Natural Landscapes/Features

Everything about the natural world such as the oceans, the clouds, and the mountains are typically used in paintings to represent different things. For example, bodies of water symbolize resilience and power, while mountains symbolize stillness and unwavering strength.

However, it should be noted that the interpretation of these themes may differ when seen from Buddhist and Shinto perspectives. Clouds, in particular, may be interpreted to be a symbol of paradise in Buddhist context but may also be construed as dead spirits in Shintoism.

Illustrated Narratives

When it comes to illustrated narratives, the picture rarely leans towards realistic elements and, instead, focuses on giving life to a particular concept. During the 18th century, woodblock prints of this kind often featured city/region views combined with mythical or historical icons.

Flowers and Plants

Flowers and plants are often used as a simple but effective way of adding a touch of nature to the overall image. Depending on the artist’s style, these may be done as life-like as possible or as far from reality as can be imagined.

Shapes, Lines, and Color

In line with the Japanese community’s belief on maintaining a sense of peace and harmony in one’s life, many contemporary artists make use of different shapes, lines, and color combinations to create well-balanced images.

Common Sizes Used for Japanese Woodblock Prints during the Tokugawa Period

Throughout Japanese history, what was considered to be the standard sizes for Japanese woodblock printing varied from period to period. Among all existing records, those from the Tokugawa Period showed a stricter sense of consistency than the others. However, it should be noted that, more often than not, the paper undergoes trimming after being printed on.

Nonetheless, the terms used to refer to the common sizes used for Japanese woodblock prints of the Tokugawa Period are as follows:

  • Aiban – 34 cm x 22.5 cm / 13.4 in x 8.9 in

  • Bai-oban – 45.7 cm x 34.5 cm / 18 in x 13.6 in

  • Chu-tanzaku – 38 cm x 13 cm / 15 in x 5.1 in

  • Chuban – 26 cm x 19 cm / 10.2 in x 7.5 in

  • Hashira-e – 73 cm x 12 cm / 28.7 in x 4.7 in

  • Hosoban / hoso-e – either 33 cm x 14.5 cm / 13 in x 5.7 in or 39 cm x 17 cm / 15.4 in x 6.7 in

  • Kakemono-e – 76.5 cm x 23 cm / 30.1 in x 9.1 in

  • Koban – 19.5 cm x 13 cm / 7.7 in x 5.1 in

  • Nagaban – 50 cm x 20 cm / 19.7 in x 7.9 in

  • Surimono – either 35 cm x 20 cm / 13.8 in x 7.9 in or 12 cm x 9 cm / 4.7 in x 3.5 in

  • O-tanzaku – 38 cm x 17 cm / 15 in x 6.7 in

  • Oban – either 38 cm x 25.5 cm / 15 in x 10 in or 58 cm x 32 cm / 23 in x 13 in

In line with this, the terms used to refer to portrait and landscape orientations are tate-e and yoko-e, respectively.

Signatures on Japanese Woodblock Prints

For Western countries, the signature on a painting often serves as its proof of authenticity. For Japanese woodblock prints, however, signatures are merely used to inform the viewer of the artist’s name. As such, the signatures of Japanese artists are rarely handwritten and are often put on the image or text using a stamp or seal.

An artist’s signature typically consists of kanji characters which are presented in a vertical fashion and read downwards. Common characters used by artists include:

  • Aki (明) – to form the name Kuniaki

  • Ei (英) – to form the names Eisho, Hokuei, Eisen, Eizan, Shunei

  • Ei (榮) – to form the names Eiri, Eisui, Eisho, Eishi, Eiju, Shunei

  • Haru (春) – to form the names Harunobu, Harumasa, Harushige, Kuniharu,  Nobuharu, Shigeharu, Toyoharu, Kiyoharu, Yoshiharu

  • Hiro (廣) – to form the names Toyohiro, Nobuhiro, Shigehiro, Sadahiro, Kunihiro, Ashihiro, Hironobu, Hirokage, Hirokuni, Hiroshige, Hirosada, Hirokuni

  • Kage (影) – to form the names Sadakage, Hirokage, Kagetoshi, Kagematsu, Kunikage

  • Kiyo (清) – to form the names Ashikiyo, Kiyotada, Kiyoshige, Kiyosada, Kiyonobu,  Kiyonaga, Kiyomitsu, Kiyomasu, Kiyomasa, Kiyokuni, Kiyohiro,  Kiyoharu, Kiyochika

  • Kuni (國) – to form the names Yoshikuni, Toyokuni,  Shibakuni, Masakuni, Kokunimasa, Kiyokuni,  Hirokuni, Hidekuni, Ashikuni, Kuniyoshi, Kuniyasu, Kunitsuna, Kunitora, Kunitomi, Kuniteru, Kunishige, Kunisada, Kuninao, Kuninaga, Kunimori, Kunimitsu, Kunimasu, Kunimasa, Kunimaru, Kunimaro, Kunikazu, Kunikage, Kunihisa, Kunihiro, Kuniharu, Kunichika, Kuniaki

  • Masu (升) – to form the names Sadamasu, Kunimasu, Masunobu

  • Naga (長) – to form the names Shigenaga, Kuninaga, Kiyonaga, Nagakuni, Nagahide

  • Raku (糸) – to form the names Soraku, Shoraku, Sharaku

  • Ryu (龍) – to form the names Koryusai, Horyu, Ryuunsai

  • Sada (貞) – to form the names Nobusada, Kunisada, Kiyosada, Hirosada, Sadayoshi, Sadatora, Sadanobu, Sadamasu, Sadamasa, Sadakage, Sadahiro, Sadahide, Sadaharu, Sadafusa

  • Sai (斎) – to form the names Shokosai, Shinsai, Ryuunsai, Osai, Mosai, Koryusai, Hosai, Housai, Gyokusai, Gyosai

  • Shun (春) – to form the names Shunzan, Shuntei, Shunsui, Shunsho, Shunsen, Shumpusha, Shunko, Shunju, Shunjo, Shunei, Shundo, Shuncho

  • Toshi (年) – to form the names Yoshitoshi, Kagetoshi, Toshinobu, Toshihide

  • Toyo (豐) – to form the names Yoshitoyo, Toyoshige, Toyonobu, Toyomasa, Toyomaru, Toyokuni, Toyohisa, Toyohiro, Toyohide, Toyoharu

  • Yoshi (芳) – to form the names Yoshiume, Yoshitsuya, Yoshitoyo, Yoshitoshi, Yoshitora, Yoshitomi, Yoshitaki, Yoshimori, Yoshikuni, Yoshikazu, Yoshiiku, Yoshiharu, Yoshifuji

  • Zan (山) – to form the names Shunzan, Eizan

Notable Japanese Printing Artists – Hiroshige, Yoshitoshi, Etc.

Katsushika Hokusai

  • Date of Birth: October 31, 1760

  • Date of Death: May 10, 1849

  • Popular Work: The Great Wave of Kanagawa (1832), Fine Wind, Clear Morning (1832), Hokusai Manga (1814)

Utagawa Hiroshige

  • Date of Birth: 1797

  • Date of Death: October 12, 1858

  • Popular Work: Sudden Shower over Shin-Ōhashi bridge and Atake (1856), The Sixty-Nine Stations of the Kiso Kaidō (Series), Eight Views of Omi (Series)

Tsukioka Yoshitoshi

  • Date of Birth: April 30, 1839

  • Date of Death: June 9, 1892

  • Popular Work: Looking Capable: The Appearance of a Kyoto Waitress of the Meiji Era (1888), Emperor Sutoku Refusing to Receive the Priest Ennyo in Exile (1882), A Sudden Police Raid on Unlicensed Prostitutes (1875), January: Celebrating the New Year (1869)

Hiroshi Yoshida

  • Date of Birth: September 19, 1876

  • Date of Death: April 1950

  • Popular Work: Yozakura in Rain (1935), Avenue of Cherry Trees (1935), In a Temple Yard (1935), A Garden in Okayama (1933), Ghat in Benares (1931), Fujiyama from Okitsu (1928), Glittering Sea (1926)

Katsukawa Shunsho

  • Date of Birth: 1726

  • Date of Death: 1792

  • Popular Work: Twee Acteurs (1790), Abalone Fishergirl with an Octopus (1774), Katano: Admiring the Scattered Cherry Blossoms (1773)

Utagawa Kunisada

  • Date of Birth: 1786

  • Date of Death: January 12, 1865

  • Popular Work: Fan print: Fuga joshi den Shizuka gozen (1864), Going to a Cherry Blossom Viewing Party (1856), Portrait of the actor Segawa Kikunojo V (1830)

Kobayashi Kiyochika

  • Date of Birth: September 10, 1847

  • Date of Death: November 28, 1915

  • Popular Work: First Sino-Japanese War (1894), Russo-Japanese War (1904) The Great Victory of the Japanese Navy (1904)

Finding Valued Japanese Woodblock Prints for Sale

Japanese woodblock printing continues to remain alive in modern times, with many Japanese artists still using it as a primary technique. Those interested in having an authentic woodblock print should make it a point to visit the following online sites that offer international shipping:

  • Shukado Co., Ltd. (http://www.japanese-finearts.com/)

  • Fuji Arts (http://www.fujiarts.com/)

  • Trocadero (https://www.trocadero.com/)

  • Invaluable (https://www.invaluable.com/)

  • Stuart Jackson Gallery (http://jacksonarts.com/)