Woodblock prints

Woodblock prints Edo mokuhanga

Edo's popular culture
seen through bright color prints


What is Woodblock prints ?

Woodblock prints became popular in Japan during the Edo period (1603-1868) when the techniques were developed and refined, which contributed to spreading beautiful printed art forms such as ukiyoe (a genre of Japanese art). Woodblock prints are called Edo mokuhanga in Japanese, mokuhanga meaning "woodlock prints". Edo is Tokyo's former name.
The woodblock print production process usually requires an artist, a wood carver, and a printer to jointly create one piece of work for a publisher.
Paintings are often expressed using pigment colors while woodblock prints are expressed by a combination of fiber colors of Japanese traditional paper (washi) and pigment colors. The wooden blocks are made of hard cherry wood as it has a fine grain ideal for carving details and it is durable enough for printing hundreds of copies of a print.
The paper used is a handmade fine quality Japanese paper called kizuki hosho because it has a soft thick texture, but is strong enough to withstand multi color printing, making it ideal for woodblock printing.


It is said that the late Edo period (1603-1868) is when woodblock prints and their techniques were first established. Simple woodblock printing techniques already existed in the Asuka period (592-710) but they were not developed to the current form of woodblock prints until the late Heian period (794-1192).
At first, a technique of monochrome printing using only black ink (called sumizuri e) had religious themes mainly with Buddha figures. However, the prints started to be used for comical novels or commercial news flyer, which were popular amusements for the general public during the Edo period.
Around 1744, woodblock printing techniques further improved with the development of a new technique. It consisted in adding red or green highlights by a hand printing called benizuri e. This was the first step towards to the multi-color printing of the Edo period. However, there were problems in developing the techniques to prevent the misalignment of woodblocks and creating other colors beside red and green.
It was 1764 that multi-colored printing technique was finally established by Jinshiro OKUBO and Sanemon KOMATSUYA. It became popular with high demand in the following year under the name of nishiki e by the influence of remarkable work done by Harunobu SUZUKI, who is regarded as the founder of nishiki e. Finally, multi-color woodblock printing became a significant part of the mass culture of Edo and many artists were attracted to the medium resulting in the prolific production and sales of woodblock prints.

General Production Process

  1. 1. Original drawing The original drawing is first drawn in only black and white without any colors.
    Nowadays, the original drawings may be created based on illustrations, photographs, or using computer graphics.
  2. 2. Preparing for carving the blocks Three types of woodblocks are made during this process: an outline block, a black ink block and color blocks. Each color needs a block. For example, when five colors are used in the original drawing, five woodblocks need to be carved.
    A cherry wood block is planed smoothly then carefully and evenly coated with rice glue. It is essential to have an absolutely even layer of glue in preparation for pasting the original drawing which is faced down and pasted.
    Since the block is carved based on the pasted original drawing, the drawing is carefully and firmly pressed with palms to prevent any wrinkling before the glue dries. When the drawing lines rise to the surface, the preparation is complete. To raise the original drawing lines, camellia oil is sometimes rubbed on the surface.
  3. 3. Outline block The outline block is now carved. The block is carved out from the pasted original drawing using more than 10 types of carving knives and chisels. All the wood around the lines is cut away to make outlines and to prevent pigments from smudging. When the block is finished, marks are carved on the center toward the carver and on the corner on the right side, and then the paper is removed. This mark acts as a guide and prevents any misalignment of blocks in later work. A trial print is made and any misalignment or uncarved parts are corrected.
  4. 4. Printing of test copies Black ink is applied to the outline block to print test copies. These test copies will be printed for each colors. For example, five copies will be made if there are five colors used. This work is a vital part of the block making process as it creates the outlines of picture and will be the foundation for the following stages.
  5. 5. Specifying colors and carving color blocks Once colors are specified, color blocks are carved in the same way as the outline block based on the marks carved on the outline block.
  6. 6. Dampening Before starting the printing, Japanese traditional paper washi is dampened with water. It is difficult to apply colors if the paper is dried, so this is an essential part of printing. This task may seem simple but it requires high craftsmanship with a lot of expertise because coloration varies depends on the degree of dampness.
  7. 7. Printing Color pigments are first applied to the block and a piece of Japanese traditional paper (washi) is carefully set upon it and then rubbed by a hand rubbing pad. A proof print is made to check whether the colors match the directions given by the artist. The block print can be moved color by color. If there is no problem and all the color corrections are made, it can be passed onto the final printing. When all color blocks have been printed, the work is finished. In the printing process, such techniques as shading, drawing outlines or solidifying single colors are used to give great effects.

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