Japanese Prints

Prints have been made in the ukiyo-e style since the 1650’s, and originate from Edo, now known as Tokyo. Ukiyo-e translates as ‘picture of the floating world’, and the floating world was the culture developing in Edo at the time, mainly formed around the stage. The prints were produced and sold as art objects in their own right, rather than the western view of a print as a way to reproduce and sell paintings cheaply to the masses. In fact, very few original drawings survive, as they are destroyed in the printmaking process. Early prints were handcoloured, until the development of the kento system of carved registration marks and ability to use multiple coloured blocks on a single print.

There are books full of things to say about these prints, so I am focussing on just the printmaking process for this piece. Having read about them, I also visited the Victoria and Albert Museum to look at some examples for myself. Printmaking in this style is a hugely skilled task, and apprentices would start by clearing areas on colour relief blocks, moving up to cutting details, the highest skill level being the cutting of the nose of faces, which was cut in a single action. Apprentices in printing from the blocks would start by printing the colours, and the master printer would print the keyblock with all the outline detail on it. Individual printmakers were rarely identified, with the publishing house being the main credit.

Prints were made from blocks of cherry wood, carefully selected to ensure minimum knots in the wood, and grain patterns matching on all blocks for a single print as much as possible. The wood was prepared carefully and sundried, with warped blocks being discarded at this point. The surface was plained to a polished smooth surface, and prepared by spreading thickened rice starch (nori) with the heal of the hand over the whole surface. The original drawing was then flipped face down and smoothed onto the block. Once dried, the top layer of paper was removed, and the surface painted with camelia oil leaving a transparent reversed drawing adhered to the surface enough for cutting. This will become the keyblock.

The keyblock is cut first with a hangito knife, held like a dagger and supported by the other hand. A slanted cut is made towards this cut to carve a v-shaped channel. The space around the design is then cleared with a selection of specialist tools and chisels. Registration marks are cut outside the frame of the picture, and the edges of the printing paper will rest in them for printing. Several prints are taken from the keyblock, and these prints are in turn used to cut the colour blocks by a similar method. Some colour blocks were carved in with patterns, and these blocks could be used to emboss without ink by rubbing the reverse with the elbow (kimedashi) or printing with ink using a baren in the usual way (karazuri).

"The Fifth Month" from the series "The Tale of Genji in the Twelve Months", c1850-1858. V&A Museum Collection

Detail from “The Fifth Month” from the series “The Tale of Genji in the Twelve Months”, c1850-1858. V&A Museum Collection

Printing would start with the keyblock, and colours would be printed in turn, paler tones first. Any embossing would be done last. Water-based inks mixed with nori were painted onto the block with a brush, and printed on dampened washi paper. Heavy even pressure was applied on the reverse with a baren in zig-zag movements so that the ink is pushed into the fibres of the paper. The prints were allowed to dry naturally by layering in specific formations. If ink was present on the surface of the paper, too much ink had been applied to the block. The design would be visible on the reverse of the paper. It’s also common to see areas of graduated colour on Japanese prints. This effect was achieved by painting a block with water, and drops of ink applied at one end. A line of rice nori would also be applied as a stopper for the colour half way down the block. A brush was then used to slowly draw the colour into the water, diluting it slowly across the block. This was a highly skilled task to achieve an even graduation of colour. This effect is shown in the fan below, in black fading to translucency, and in another area where blue fades away and red emerges.

"Yoshiwara O-mon Gate" from the series Five Seasonal Festivals" 1855 V &A Museum Collection

“Yoshiwara O-mon Gate” from the series Five Seasonal Festivals” 1855
V &A Museum Collection

The thing that struck me most by seeing the prints for myself was the scale of the marks. The detailing around the faces and hair has marks as  fine as hair. Mosquito netting is often depicted in Japanese prints, and these were printed with two seperate blocks of parallel lines to avoid clogging of the block during printing.


Salter, R. “Printmaking Handbook: Japanese Woodblock Printing” A&C Black, 2008

Tinios, E “Japanese Prints” The British Museum, 2010

vam.ac.uk (Victoria and Albert Museum website)



BBC DVD “The Private Life of a Masterpiece: Katsushika Hokusai: The Great Wave” first aired 2004, BBC2


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