Though woodblock printing had already been prevalent in China for centuries, Japan did not widely adopt the technique until the Edo period from 1600 to 1870. Woodblock printing can be compared to the Western method of woodcutting. It begins with an image or text on washi paper, which is glued to a plank of wood that gets carved or cut according to the image on the paper. Afterwards, the inked woodblock is used to apply images to paper. Over time, techniques used for woodblock printing grew more complex, producing an array of colors.
The first images on Japanese woodblock prints consisted of deities or sections of sacred sutras. Religious in nature, these were given away to believers and distributed at temples. Buddhist temples had the monetary means to produce printed texts and images like mandalas and sutras.
Even after the moveable type printing press was introduced in Japan, woodblock printing remained popular as the preferred method for reproducing the Japanese style of running script. It was continually used for every purpose through the early 1600s on, and quickly became a favorite technique for artists. As a result, woodblock prints became prevalent in common homes and shops, more so than paintings and calligraphy, which were not as affordable. Hanomi Koetsu and Suminokura Soan were among the pioneers who used woodblock printing to make art books and who converted classical Japanese texts from handscrolls to printed books. Because woodblock printing was far faster than reproducing texts by hand, it was among the earliest means of literary mass production, with ownership of the original woodblock prints closely resembling today’s copyrights.
Ukiyo-e Paintings and the Edo Period
During the Edo period, woodblock printing came to be associated with Ukiyo-e paintings, or images of the floating world. The Edo period took a different spin on the Buddhist idea of transience and enlightenment by encouraging the indulgence in material joy and pleasure. Artwork produced during this time brims with scenes of lovers, kabuki actors, famous courtesans, or geisha. Single sheet woodblock prints were among the artistic forms used for this period’s expression.
Monochrome printing, or that using only black ink, was the most common method used for printing text. Sometimes, another color would replace black or be used in addition to it, and these were referred to as indigo or purple pictures. For more dramatic effect, the ink would sometimes be thickened with glue or other substances, like gold or mica.
To add color to the prints, various methods were used, such as highlighting by hand, after the printing process, or using several blocks to create different portions of a single image, allowing the use of many colors and techniques for one print.
Masters of the Woodblock Print
Masters of woodblock printing included Hishikawa Moronboy, Suzuki Harunobu, Kitagawa Utamaro, Toshusai Sharaku, Katsushika Hokusai, and Ando Hiroshige, each described briefly below.
- Hishikawa Moronboy. Hishikawa used woodblock printing to distribute his artwork to a mass public. His prints showed the customs of the Edo period, with many courtesans and Kabuki theater actors as subjects. His famous works include, “The Gay Quarters and the Kabuki Theater” and “A Beauty Looking Over Her Shoulder.”
- Suzuki Harunobu was one of the leading print artists of his time, and his subjects often included middle-class women at everyday tasks and women in mythological scenes. Also a painter of erotic scenes, Suzuki used color and technique to his advantage.
- Katagawa Utamaro was considered one of the greatest artists of the floating world movement, creating woodblock prints of women in portraiture. His famous works include “Women in Love,” and “The Seven Beauties of the Gay Quarters.”
- Toshusai Sharaku is known for his exaggerated prints of actors, meant to showcase their characters and methods of acting. He is considered one of the most original artists of the Ukiyo-e movement.
- Katsushika Hokusai is best known for his woodblock prints, which earned him fame both in Japan and overseas. He is famous for “Thirty-Six Views of Mt. Fuji,” which includes internationally recognized, “The Great Wave off Kanagawa.”
- Ando Hiroshige was best known for his landscape prints, everyday landscapes he translated into intimate and lyrical visions. He was influenced by Hokusai to become an artist and created traditional prints of women and actors before reaching fame for his landscapes.
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