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Ukiyo-e Woodblock Technique

by Carma C. Fauntleroy

The attribution of an Ukiyo-e woodblock print to an individual artist such as Hiroshige presumes an understanding of the printmaking process in Japan during the Edo period. Hiroshige was in fact only one of four essential participants in the creation of a masterful print. Although he designed the original composition and determined its coloration, the production of the final print also required the expertise of the publisher, the woodcutter, and the printer. It was the artist, however, that ultimately received credit for the piece.

The publisher coordinated the efforts of the artist, the master carver, and the printer's shop and ultimately determined the distribution channels for the sale of prints through wholesalers and retailers. The publisher initiated the process by engaging an artist to design a print, or series of prints. The artist may have studied traditional styles of painting, such as that of the Kano school officially recognized by the shogun, or he may have trained in the workshop and style of another Ukiyo-e master. Many woodblock artists were commissioned to create original compositions to decorate household interiors or design personalized surimono (small private editions of greeting cards) for upper-class clients, who could afford the luxury of one-of-a-kind works of art. However, the popularity of woodblock prints with a broad middle-class market of tradesmen made this category of work lucrative for any painter. Woodblock design was a ready source of supplemental income.

Once the artist had prepared the drawing, or hanshita-e, the exact size of the print to be published, he traced the outlines of the drawing on a sheet of thin paper in black ink. This traced version was conveyed to the master woodcutter, who proceeded to translate the artist's brushed composition into a panel of wood, known as the key block, with knives, chisels, and scrapers. Cherry or other very hard, fine-textured wood was used to assure that even the most intricate parts of the design carved in relief would endure the pressure of literally hundreds of printings. The master cutter placed the tracing face down on the wooden panel and carved away from the surface all wood except that indicating the outlines of the artist's drawing. Because a design carved in relief will produce a reverse image when printed, the tracing was reversed so that the final image would be oriented in the same direction as the artist's original conception. Beyond the edge of the composition in the lower right-hand margin of the panel, a small registration mark, or kento, was carved. It consisted of a small right-angled mark with a second horizontal mark just to the left and in line with the lower arm of the angle.

The key block was sent to the printer, who made several black-and-white impressions, roughly the number of colors to be used in the final print. A mechanical press familiar to Europeans did not provide the pressure required for woodblock impressions, but rather the printer applied physical strength to the baren, paper, and woodblock. The baren, a hard shield-like implement, was made of layers of paper pasted together, turned up around the edge to form a shallow disk, and covered with cotton cloth. A second disk of coiled, twisted cord was fitted into the paper shield, providing a rigid surface for rubbing across the paper laid on the inked woodblock. The outer covering of the baren was made of ribbed leaves of bamboo stretched tightly over the convex surface of the disk and twisted together at the back to form a handle. Grasping the baren by the handle, the printer leaned forward using the weight of his upper body to apply pressure through the baren as it moved in circular patterns across the paper and carved woodblock.

The proofs were sent back to the artist, who inspected the impression and indicated colors to be used for respective areas of the outline. The proofs were returned to the woodcutting shop, where the master then delegated to his assistants the carving of a separate block for each color. Full-color prints, or nishiki-e, could entail up to ten color blocks. Each color block included the kento mark, to be used during printing to insure the proper alignment of the key and color blocks. Once the carving was complete, the key and color blocks were turned over to the printer.

After the first color was printed, the paper was placed on top of a second block inked with a different color, and the process continued through the series of color blocks. Careful attention was paid to the precise alignment of kento marks. The paper used for printing was sized with animal glue and kept damp throughout the process of printing consecutive blocks. It was important that a uniform level of dampness be maintained to prevent shrinkage or expansion of the paper, which would m ake accurate registration of colors impossible.

Painting, woodcutting, and printing were trades at which young me, and occasionally women, apprenticed. Ten years was the average apprenticeship for a wood carver. The division of labor within a shop was determined by the degree of skill the task required. For example, the master woodcutter might cut the most delicate areas of the all-important key block. The color blocks would be delegated to his assistants according to their abilities and the difficulty of the carving. In the print shop, the tasks of an apprentice included mixing pigments, cleaning brushes, and sizing the paper.

The signature used by an artist often reflected the name of the master painted under whom he studied. Once he acquired the status of professional artist, a student assumed characters from the master's signature. For example, Toyokuni's pupils, Kunisada and Kuniyoshi, used a character of the name of their master for their own signatures. A favorite student might, upon the death of his teacher, assume the full name of his master; hence, artists bore names such as Hiroshige II and Toyokuni III. Artistic styles were named after especially influential masters and thereby were founded the Kano, Maruyama, and Utagawa schools. Repeating the character or the entire name of the master vouched for the quality of training received by the artist.

As a result of the collaboration among the shops of painters, woodcutters, and printers, thousands upon thousands of Ukiyo-e prints were produced in Japan during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Distribution of woodblock prints was carried out by guilds of publishers and dealers through a vast network of wholesalers, retailers, and street peddlers. European markets were supplied by export through trading ports such as Nagasaki. The importance of the publisher's role was demonstrated by the appearance of his seal on the print itself. After 1790, this seal was accompanied by that of a censor as a result of the shogunate's regulations banning erotic subjects and the representations of public officials in Ukiyo-e prints. At first, representatives of groups of publishers acted as censors; later the job was assigned to a government official.

The efficiency of the four-part process involving publisher, artist, woodcutter, and printer is evidenced by the sheer quantity of Ukiyo-e woodblock prints which inundated the native market of affluent merchants and townsmen as well as international collectors of Orientalia. How fortunate that these nineteenth-century collectors were sensitive to the beauty and charm of this "bourgeois" art form and initiated an appreciation that continues to this day. Thus, numerous Ukiyo-e woodblock prints have been preserved and offer telling visions of an era passed.

Reproduced from a Japanese Woodblock Prints Exhibition catalogue, dated February 15 - April 14, 1989 for an exhibition held at Sweet Briar College, with permission of the College Galleries, Sweet Briar College Sweet Briar, VA. Carma C. Fauntleroy is the former Director of College Galleries at Sweet Briar College.

To find more articles of interest, search on one of these keywords:

Japanese woodblock prints, Ukiyo-e, Japanese art, Japanese color prints, Hokusai, Hiroshige

Read more articles by Carma C. Fauntleroy

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