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Japanese Woodcuts

Updated on January 25, 2013

The Japanese woodcut has influenced contemporary artists working in the medium in Europe and the United States for several generations. Early Japanese art was linked to the culture of China, particularly in the visual arts. The Japanese learned the same techniques in the application of color and use of line as were employed by the Chinese in their paintings.

Since the Japanese artists devoted themselves principally to the problem of decorative composition, it was a natural step to the color woodcut, on which they concentrated much of their genius. The line supplied the drawing, detail, form, and structure. This, coupled with the Japanese tradition of craftsmanship and sensitive interpretation in supporting the line with color, resulted in masterpieces which are now universally known.

18th century Ukiyo-e woodcut
18th century Ukiyo-e woodcut

The masters of the school of Ukiyo-e, which flourished during the Edo period (c. 1615-1867), and those who contributed most to the development of the color woodcut were: Moronobu Hishikawa (1618-1694), Harunobu Suzuki (1725-1770), Kiyonaga Torii (1752-1815), Utamaro Kitagawa (1753-1806), Hokusai Katsushika (1760-1849), and Hiroshige Utagawa (Ando Hiroshige, 1797-1858); there were also other masters of lesser importance. Their innate sense and inherent passion for design and composition were demonstrated in their power to illustrate fully the poetry and mystery of their artistic heritage. The tools, and methods of using them, differed little from those used by the early European masters, but there was a vast difference in the printing from the block.

Japanese Woodblock Technique

The method of transferring the original drawing to the block varied slightly from contemporary practice. The face of the block was covered with a thin coating of rice paste; the tracing from the drawing was then placed, face down, on the prepared surface and secured thoroughly by rubbing with a baren; when dry, the block, usually of a thin disk of stiff paper of papier-mache on which a coil or mat of tightly braided fiber was fitted.

This was encased in an unblemished bamboo leaf, which formed a hard, smooth surface for printing. The ends of the leaf were twisted on the reverse side to secure the rubbing surface and to form a convenient handle. When completed, this was known as the key block since it controlled the registration marks on the color blocks that followed.

The first step in printing was the preparation of the paper. Japanese rice papers, usually Torinoko or Hosho, were ideal for woodcuts because of their absorbent quality and capacity to receive color and the grain of the wood, if desired. The paper was first sized with thin gelatin and then dampened evenly and to the right degree with a soft brush. The block was wet with a sponge and made ready to receive the water color, which was mixed to the desired intensity according to the chosen color scheme. The colors were painted on with a comparatively dry brush in several directions on the block in order to ensure even, flat tones, if desired. To print gradations of color, one end of a wide moistened brush was charged with color and applied in the required direction. In the hands of an expert the color gradated itself and even diminished to a very light tone onto the white unpainted areas.

The number of colors used determined the number of blocks, which were all printed separately in sequence while the paper was still damp. This was necessary so that all states would register correctly. The key block, printed in black india ink, was the last to be made, and pulled the color impressions together into a well-coordinated whole. Some artists printed the key block first to facilitate registration.

The color and key blocks were transferred to the paper by rubbing the baren with the grain of the wood in an even or increasing pressure, according to the required result. The prints were then dried between weighted drying boards which were thick enough to absorb the remaining dampness in the print.

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