The World of Woodblock Prints

In Japan, autumn is referred to as "Autumn for Arts," "Autumn for Big Appetite," "Autumn for Reading," "Autumn for Playing Sports," etc. It is the time of the year when the weather turns pleasantly comfortable, and is the perfect season to spend time on various hobbies. In this article, we will focus on the "Autumn for Arts," and invite you to the world of woodblock prints, one of the most popular art works on our online store, as a way to enjoy this beautiful time of the year. 


Printing technique blossomed in the Edo Period


Woodblock printing is a multi-color printing technique that is unique in its materials, techniques, and expressions, and is said to be the root of printing technology in Japan.


Its printing technology particularly evolved in the late Edo period (1603 - 1868) when pop culture flourished, and it was developed in the lives of the common people as a way to print physical media such as newspapers and magazines. It was around this time that woodblock art prints, ukiyo-e, emerged, with the themes of people's everyday lives, trends, Geisha and Kabuki actors. The term "Ukiyo" literally means "floating world," which is to say, the real life world with full of pleasant subjects and events. Through ukiyo-e, people at the time got inspired by acquiring the latest information on travel, fashion, etc., as well as appreciating all the entertainment exist in life through woodblock prints.


The development of ukiyo-e was supported by some of the famous artists such as Utamaro Kitagawa, Sharaku Toshusai, Hokusai Katsushika, and Hiroshige Utagawa. They competed with each other to produce new designs, creating a distinctive printing culture unique to Japan.

Utamaro Kitagawa's "Woman Playing a Poppin" is a famous work of Bijin-ga (meaning "Beautiful women portraits") style woodblock prints (Click / tap on the image to learn more about the item.)

The very famous artist Hokusai's "Red Fuji: Southern Wind, Clear Morning" is another iconic work from his woodblock series "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji." This must have made people from the Edo period dream of looking at beautiful Mt. Fuji in the morning glow. (Click / tap on the image to learn more about the item.)

Hiroshige Utagawa is another very famous name in the ukiyo-e world. His series "Tokaido 53 Stations" depict the sceneries from the post towns along the Tokaido road. The last station on Tokaido, of course, is where we are, Kyoto! (Click / tap on the image to learn more about the item.)


The popularity of woodblock prints was not confined to Japan, but it also reached overseas in the late 19th century, and had a great influence on European artists such as Monet, Van Gogh and Debussy. Even now, many ukiyo-e works are in the collections of museums around the world, and they are still widely loved as one of Japan's most representative art forms today.


The charms of woodblock prints


One of the most remarkable charms of woodblock printing is the vivid colors that can only be created by printing in multiple colors. Some prints are produced with as many as 20 to 30 woodblocks, each process with great precision to bring out the rich and vivid colors.


In addition, the paper is also selected with careful attention. It’s the highest quality Washi paper, which is strong and thick enough to withstand dozens of printing / rubbing processes. You can feel the gentle warmth from the texture of the thick and fluffy Washi paper.


Another unique characteristic is that you can see the traces of printing that appear only on hand-printed prints. If you turn the paper over, you will see on the backside that the pigment of picture on the front is soaked into the paper, and you will also be able to see the rubbing marks where the master printer left traces with the printing tool. Who would have imagined that we can appreciate the beauty of a woodblock print from the backside as well? This is certainly an attraction not found in other printing techniques.



The finest masterpiece created by the collaboration of masters


Generally, most art works are created by the artist alone from the rough sketch to the finishing touch, but woodblock prints are not created only by the artist / painter alone. They are created by the collaboration of master craftsmen from three different divisions, making it possible for them to perform the best skills in each process.

The woodblock creaters are:

The Artist / "Eshi" who draws the original picture;

The Carver / "Horishi" who carves the woodblock for each color of the design; and

The Printer / "Surishi" who prints the design onto the paper and finishes work.


In addition to those three craftsmen, there is:

The Publisher / "Hanmoto" who plans and supervises the whole production of work.


Although the publisher does not cooperate in creating process itself, they play a critical role, communicating closely with each master craftsman. The whole production is mainly supervised by the publisher and, if the artist is still alive, the artist checks all the detailed work to accomplish the original intention. Finally, the publisher and the artist check the outcome, and the work is completed after great many processes.


This division of labor in woodblock printing has not changed since it was established in the Edo period, and although Hokusai and other ukiyo-e artists are no longer alive, publishers still reproduce prints in collaboration with carvers and printers, based on the original works from centuries ago.

One of our woodblock prints suppliers, Unsodo is a specialist in woodblock printing (publisher) in Kyoto with a history of 130 years. Please take a look at how master printers work on Hokusai's iconic work, "The Great Wave Off Kanagawa."


Art that takes you back in time


In sum, we have focused on woodblock prints as one of the art forms that are unique to Japan in this article. We introduced the history of woodblock prints, especially ukiyo-e, as well as how to appreciate them and the production steps taken through the division of labor. We hope you learned that they are more than just mass-production prints, but rather, they are the finest works of art created by master craftsmen, even the reproduction prints. It is fascinating to know that works by the artists from centuries ago, with the theme of everyday lives of the people at the time, are still being produced using the same methods. We highly recommend you taking a closer look at woodblock prints and take a historical trip back in time.

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