Woodblock prints

Woodblock prints Edo mokuhanga

Japanese traditional woodblock prints differ from the other forms of woodcuts in
that they use water instead of oil to show colors.


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 ukiyo-e.
Woodblock prints are called Edo-mokuhanga in Japanese. Mokuhanga means woodlock prints and Edo is the time period when woodblock printing developed throughout Japan. Edo is Tokyo’s former name.
The woodblock print creating 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 by using pigment colors while woodblock prints are expressed by a combination of fiber colors of traditional Japanese 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 hand-made 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 thought that woodblock prints were first produced in the late stage of the Edo period (1603-1868).
Simple woodblock printing techniques already existed in the Asuka period (592-710) but it was not until late in the Heian period (794-1192) that woodblock printing of images started to develop.
At first, a technique of monochrome printing using only black ink (called sumizuri-e) had religious themes and mainly depicted Buddha figures, but it was in the Edo period (1603-1868) that the prints started to be used for comic novels or commercial newssheets, which were popular amusements for the general public.
Around 1744, woodblock printing techniques further improved with the development of a new technique which consisted in adding red or green highlights by hand after the printing (called benizuri-e); the first steps toward the multi-color printing of the Edo period. The main problem, however, was developing the techniques to prevent the misalignment of separate woodblocks, and in those days two colors were the limit.
It was in 1764 that multi-colored printing was developed, and became popular in Edo (now Tokyo) the following year, under the name of nishiki-e.
The remarkable work of Suzuki Harunobu, who is regarded as the founder of nishiki-e, fueled the increasing demand for the prints.
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 black and white; at this stage, no colors are applied.
    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: an outline block, a black ink block and color blocks.
    One block is required for each color. For example, when five colors are to be used in the final print, five woodblocks are carved.
    A cherry wood block is planed smooth then carefully and evenly coated with rice glue; it is essential to have an absolute even layer of glue in preparation for pasting the original drawing.
    The original drawing is pasted face-down. Since the block is carved based on the pasted original drawing, the drawing is carefully and firmly pressed with the palms to prevent any wrinkling before the glue dries. When the drawing lines rise to the surface, preparation is completed.
    To raise the 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 prevent pigments from smudging. When the block is finished, a mark is carved on the center toward the carver and the corner on the right side, and 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 which are needed to make color blocks; as many copies as colors will be printed, for example, five colors for five copies. This work is a vital part of the block making process as it creates the picture outlines and will be the base for the following stages.
  5. 5. Specifying colors and carving color blocks While checking the test copies, the artist decides the colors. Once colors are specified, based on the marks carved on the outline block, color blocks are carved in the same way as the outline block.
  6. 6. Dampening Before the start of printing, Japanese traditional paper is dampened with water. If the paper is dry, it is difficult to apply colors, so this is an essential part of printing, and depending on the degree of dampness, coloration varies. As simple as this task may seem, it is highly skilled work that requires a lot of expertise.
  7. 7. Printing Color pigments are first applied to the block and a sheet of Japanese traditional paper 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. If there is no problem, we enter the final printing but the final printing cannot be made if any color difference is found until they are rectified. Only after the required number of sheets of one color has been printed is the next color block used on the print. 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 great effect.