Ukiyo-e translates to mean “pictures of the floating world”, and were images that depicted the hedonistic lifestyle of the merchant classes in Japan from the 17th to the 19th centuries. The images were made using the method of woodblock printing, a Chinese process that was used to reproduce Buddhist scriptures.
The prints featured popular subjects within the licensed pleasure districts, so production had to keep up with the rapidly changing tastes and favourites of the public. In order to quicken the process, the making of ukiyo-e was split into four groups: the publisher, the artist, the woodcarver and the printer.
The flat wooden blocks were carved into and covered in ink, a process that required much time and skill. The paper would then be put on top and pressed, and the ink would impress into the paper to create a design. Originally, ukiyo-e was carved out of just one wooden block and printed only in black. After advancements in tools and techniques, the printing process moved into full-colour, which would have required multiple carved blocks.
Although the process of ukiyo-e was male-dominated, Kunisada’s parody here shows an idealised image of the printing workshop, giving an insight into the tools and processes used:
"Artisans (a group of women in a workshop producing woodblock prints)" from the series A Parody of the Four Social Classes - Kunisada, 1857
The Publisher (Hanmoto)
The division of labour meant that producing ukiyo-e was a complex collaborative process, overseen by the publisher. Not only did the publishers manage the projects, they’d also decide on the subject matter of the designs. This often required them to research their environment, to assess the market and choose what was popular. After deciding on the subject, they would choose and commission an artist to make the design. At the end of the entire printing process, they would distribute and sell them the finished prints to the public.
"Publisher Nishimuraya Yohachi" - Utagawa Toyokuni I, 1799
The Artist (Eshi)
After receiving a commission from the publisher, the artist would sketch many designs before settling on one. They would then use black ink to draw their chosen composition onto a very thin sheet of handmade paper. Usually they also marked these original drawings with notes for the printers, such as which colours to use. But much to the frustration of the artists, these requests were often ignored.
"Memorial Portrait of Hiroshige" - Kunisada, 1858
The Woodcarver (Horishi)
Once they’d been given the artist’s design, the woodcarver would paste the paper face-down onto a smooth block of cherrywood. Sometimes they would also apply a little oil onto it in order to bring out the lines. The carver would then pull away the paper, which left the original drawing marked onto the wood. Using various sized tools, they would then cut away the wood, carving out the negative of the image. This created the ‘key block’.
As the artist’s drawing was usually a loose sketch or guide, the quality of the print actually depended on the skills of the woodcarver. For instance, some woodcarvers were experts in carving very fine lines - as small as one millimeter width - which they’d use for portraying delicate hairs.
The Printer (Surishi)
After removing any remaining wood dust and paper residue from the woodblock, the printer would brush ink onto it. They would prepare the handmade ‘washi’ paper for printing by dampening it, as this helped achieve a crisp design. After placing the damp sheet onto the block, they would rub the back of it with a ‘baren’, which pushed the paper into the carved block and helped the print have an equal impression of ink.
In the printing workshop they would first print a test piece in black ink in order to send the design off to the Government’s censor for approval. After being approved, the artist would colour the test print by hand and send it back to the carvers. The carver would then repeat the process of carving away the negative of the drawing, this time using multiple woodblocks: one for each colour. Often there could be up to 20 colours in a design, meaning there could be as many as 20 blocks needed to print it. Once they were carved, they were passed once more on to the printer, who brought the final image together by printing the lightest colour first, gradually getting darker with each colour printed.
Many of the stylistic elements in ukiyo-e were actually created by the printers. ‘Bokashizuri’ is the term for gradation. This was often used in landscapes, to imitate the colours of the sky. To do this, the printer would spread and thin the ink across the woodblock using different techniques, creating a shading effect.
Around 200 prints could be produced in a normal day. Often blocks would be put into storage and reprinted at a later date, but due to the process of applying pressure when printing, the wood would wear away and the quality of prints would deteriorate.
Kogatanaare the knives used to carve around the lines of the design into the wood. These knives come in different sizes, but could be thinner than a sheet of paper, allowing for carving incredibly intricate detail.
Nomi are the chisels that are used to carve away the unnecessary areas - the negative of the design. Again, these would come in different sizes, depending on the size of the area needing to be carved away.
Baren are rubbing pads, tools used for printing by hand. They consist of a round case with layers of washi paper and covered in a wrapper and rope handle made of bamboo skin. The soft cushioning of the materials used help to achieve an even impression of the ink from the woodblock onto the paper.
Hake are horsehair brushes, which were used for brushing the ink onto the woodblock. They come in different shapes and sizes, depending on the area of the woodblock being inked. 'Shu-bake' are smaller brushes and 'Maru-bake' are larger brushes.
Sakurais the name of the wood used for the wooden printing blocks, which comes from the cherry blossom tree. This wood was favoured because it was smooth with a fine grain and even consistency, making the carving easier and more precise.
Carved sakura blocks
Kôzois the name of the paper most commonly used for printing, which was made from the mulberry tree. This type of washi paper contained many layers and was very durable, flexible and strong. The most common size for printing on was called ‘oban’.
Kôzo. This is the back of a Hiroshige print. Often the backs of the paper would show the print impressions and marks from the printing master's oban.
Mizu-bakeare the brushes used for dampening the paper before printing. The handles are made from magnolia and the bristles are sheep’s hair.
Pigments used for the inks were mainly botanical and mineral. The most used colour was ‘sumi,’ or black, followed by the primary colours red, yellow and blue. The primary colours would then be mixed by the printer in order to create the desired printing colours.
Aobana (Asiatic dayflower) petals, used for a blue dye that was popular in the 18th and early 19th centuries
Watch a modern ukiyo-e artisan recreate Hokusai's iconic print and explain the process:
To find more of the floating world’s treasures, keep on learning in our ‘Read and Learn’ section and browse in-depth or introductory articles.
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