Although many artists produced both prints and paintings, ukiyo-e is largely known for its masterful woodblock prints. While woodblock printing had existed previously within Japan for centuries, technological advancements in the eighteenth century led to creation of polychrome printing. Polychrome prints, or nishiki-e, were single sheet prints created using a set of woodblocks, each block carved to correspond to a single color in the image. This process eliminated the need for artists to print in monochrome and then manually paint colors onto a print, thus allowing a new generation of artists to bring the lavish beauty of traditional paintings in spectacular color to the market at large, triggering a gradual style evolution that eventually produced ukiyo-e as it is known today (“Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style”).
In his book Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print, author Frederick Harris explores the traditional process of creating a complete ukiyo-e print. Combining the perspectives of a historian and an artist, Frederick Harris writes on the key artistic innovations of Japanese woodblock printing in terms of the materials and techniques used by the masters to create their most iconic works, drawing much of his research from time spent apprenticing under a modern ukiyo-e master in Kobe (Harris 24).
Ukiyo-e was a commercial endeavor. Despite the enormously high skill required of its practitioners and artisans, ukiyo-e studios were not merely institutions of fine art but also small hubs of industry onto themselves, as the creation of any single ukiyo-e artwork involved four distinct processes: design, carving, printing, and publishing (Harris 24). The famous artists to whom ukiyo-e artworks are attributed usually acted only as designers, drawing the base image and employing professionals underneath them to execute the carving and printing work. Once drawn, the master’s design would be faithfully copied by professional draftsmen or highly advanced students in black ink onto semi-translucent paper, which would then be glued onto wooden blocks for carving.
Image: Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints, https://www.adachi-hanga.com/ukiyo-e-en/quality/flow/index_en.html
The wood blocks themselves were carefully measured and cut pieces of sakura wood, or cherry wood; sakura served as the industry standard because it is “a moderately hard, fine-textured, straight-grained wood suited to carving designs in high relief” that grew abundantly in the regions surrounding Edo (Harris 25). Once the design and wood were prepared, carvers armed with an almost surgical array of increasingly delicate chisels and knives would perform the painstaking task of carving out all excess wood surrounding the image, so that only the artist’s design remained at surface level (Harris 25). The final result of this process was fully-carved block that would be used to transfer all of the ink of one color onto the final image; to produce a fully-colorized image required several blocks, each demanding hours of intense and highly skilled artisanal labor.
Image: Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints, https://www.adachi-hanga.com/ukiyo-e-en/quality/tools/index_en.html
Harris, Frederick. Ukiyo-e: The Art of the Japanese Print. Tuttle Publishing, 2011.
Department of Asian Art. “Woodblock Prints in the Ukiyo-e Style.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. http://www.metmuseum.org/toah/hd/ukiy/hd_ukiy.htm (October 2003)
“Process.” Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints, https://www.adachi-hanga.com/ukiyo-e-en/quality/flow/index_en.html