Today, just about everyone has seen a Japanese Woodblock print. Most people are at least familiar with the famous print The Great Wave off Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai shown above. Prints like Hokusai’s are a testament to the enduring power of the prints and the allure of Japan.
Indeed, some of the most iconic images of the people and places of Japan are found on woodblock prints made during the Edo Period (1603 – 1868 CE), although spectacular prints were made after the Edo period as well. A popular genre of these prints is called ukiyo-e (pictures of the floating world) and capture brief and beautiful moments of everyday life in Japan. Although, the majority of the subject matter came out of the entertainment district in metropolitan Edo (modern-day Tokyo). The prints feature kabuki actors, beautiful women, landscapes and famous places, flowers and birds, as well as scenes from Japanese stories and folklore.
These prints were mass produced and inexpensive, allowing more people access to the art.
You can find a wide variety of subjects in ukiyo-e prints. Below is a brief list of a handful of the most common subjects you find in these prints.
Bijin-ga: images of beautiful women
These images are of both actual women and idealized women. The women are often depicted in different activities, such as playing games, looking in a mirror, or picking cherry blossoms.
Lady in Silkworm Raising Room, about 1843-1846
Yakusha-e: images of kabuki actors
These images are referred to as “actor prints” and often coincided with a specific Kabuki performance. The prints feature famous actors in dramatic scenes. You can think of these prints as the predecessors of today’s movie posters. Kabuki theatre is a classical form of Japanese drama+dance performances featuring heavy makeup and extravagant costumes.
Actor Ichimura Uzaemon XIII as Izutsuya Shinsuke by Utagawa Toyokuni, 1861
Kachō-ga: images of flowers and birds
Japan has long admired and appreciated the beauty of nature. Images of flowers, birds, fish, insects, etc. were sought after. Especially because these images do not include evidence of man. No humans or man-made structures are found in these prints.
Goose and Moon by Ohara Shoson, 1835-1839
Landscapes and Scenic Places
Landscape did not start out as a popular subject in ukiyo-e prints, but eventually became a very sought after subject thanks to artists like Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige. During the Edo period, travel became easier and so people were eager to visit different places in Japan. You can think of landscape prints as postcards!
No. 48 Seki, from the series Fifty-Three Stations of Tōkaidō by Ando Hiroshige, about 1840
Folktales and the Supernatural
When we think of ukiyo-e, we typically think of snapshots of everyday life. But Japan has a long history of storytelling. Whether it’s a tale of monsters, ghosts, witches, heroes, and villains, these awe-inspiring prints are a great window into the creativity and imagination of the artists of the time.
No. 1 Kintarō Referees a Match between a Rooster and a Tengu, from the series Mountain after Mountain by Utagawa Yoshitsuya, about 1860
KEY STYLISTIC TRAITS
There are a few key stylistic characteristics of ukiyo-e that will help you identify the woodblock prints.
- Unshaded, flat color
- Experimental cropping of figures
- Bold, clear outlines that look like they were drawn on with calligraphy brushes
- Asymmetrical compositions
- The viewpoint of many prints have an aerial perspective, meaning that the view is from a point above where the action is taking place
- The composition of Japanese prints often extend beyond the picture plane (the edge of the paper)
- Landscapes typically have a foreground, middle ground, and background to convey perspective
You’ll notice banners or blocks with script on the prints. These banners are called cartouches and this is where you will find the artist’s name (person who designed the print), the title of the work, and the title of the series (if the print is part of a series of images).
WOODBLOCK PRINT MAKING PROCESS
We often associate Japanese woodblock prints with the artist who designed them, but it actually took four specialists to produce a print: the artist, the publisher, the block carver, and the printer. Japanese woodblock printmaking is a form of relief printing. An artist would draw an image onto paper. Then that paper would be glued to a block of wood. Using the drawing on the paper as a guide, the block carver would then carve the image into the surface of the wood. After the carving is complete, the printer would then apply ink to the carved surface. A blank piece of paper would be placed on top of the inked surface. To incorporate multiple colors into the same print, artists would repeat the entire process, creating separate woodblocks for each color needed.
Key Japanese Woodblock Production Terms
- Shita-e: the ink line drawing design produced by the artist at the first stage of producing a woodblock print
- Iroita: color blocks made out of sakura (cherry wood), which is strong enough to withstand the carving
- Horishi: the carver who pastes the drawing onto a wooden block and carves the image into the surface
- Surishi: the printer who applies color to the blocks
- Kôzo: is mulberry, which is what is used to make washi (paper) for the prints
- Baren: the circular rubbing pad used to transfer color onto the paper from the printing block