The history of Woodblock Printing in Japan

The history of Woodblock Printing in Japan


Woodblock printing began around the eighth century in Japan, with artists only using it for hand-scrolls as written texts for Buddhist scriptures' reproductions. Nevertheless, it reached its full potential by the end of the 17th century, when Japanese artists started doing more contemporary artworks.


During the year 1600 and under the rule of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the last of the big three shoguns in Japan, a new era was born: the age of the Edo period. In 1603 Tokugawa Ieyasu was named Shogun by the Emperor of Japan. A Shogun was similar to an army's Chief Commander, and he was the ruler in the name of the emperor.


Procession to the Torinomachi festival by Hiroshige


Why do we mention this, and why is this relevant? Because during this period, Ieyasu created the Yoshiwara district, one of the red-light districts in Edo, Tokyo nowadays. Given this, many people came every year to Edo. The city was so famous that in a moment, it was even the most populated city on Earth with more than one million people. 


Therefore, we can connect Yoshiwara, Tokugawa and the woodblock Printing art directly. Tokugawa created this district to attract merchant from all over Japan who came with many samurais. They moved the economy in Edo, and to keep them happy; the Yoshiwara district offered all kinds of entertainment at the time. From courtesans to Kabuki actors who became stars, mostly thanks to these merchants. A contemporary culture was born, and publishers saw this as an opportunity to paint unique designs and sell them to all this floating mass of people who were continually coming and going during those years.


The Hour of a Dog by Kitagawa


Some of the most representative artworks came from the beginning of this period, but they also evolved in time. It started with geishas and Kabuki art, but then it changed to landscapes that typically included Mount Fuji and complex forms to make waves, clouds, trees, among others.


How were these woodblock made?


To create these pieces of art, artists had a rough time. First of all, it was not only the drawer but various artists. Woodblock printing was teamwork art. Making one print was a four-people task: a designer, an engraver, a printer, and a publisher. These four people took part during this creative process before the print was ready for sale. The first three craftsmen mentioned before were in charge of the production, while the publisher determined the artwork's quality and theme. Considering everything, he knew what sold the best.


In the beginning, woodblock printing was only possible in a monochromatic way. Eventually, and with time, around the year 1740, two more colours were added: green and pink. With this considerable breakthrough, printers could give better colour toning to their art. Still, it was not until 1765 when Harunobu Suzuki made the most significant improvement in this art of printing when he created a whole in-print colour palette.


Ehon Chiyomi-gusa by Nishikawa Sukenobu. Part of a book with illustrations of different women of Kioto. The British Museum. London, UK.


But, how did Harunobu master this new technique? He managed to create a whole set of colours to print by making different block bases. Maybe for some people, it can sound evident now, but at the time, it was a revolutionary form of giving more freedom and expression to these prints.


To achieve this, and as we mentioned above, he created a set of blocks to print. The first one had the original model. Harunobu drew the model in the paper. After that, he pasted this paper in the key-block and carved every single line and range of deepness he wanted to give to this print. By doing this and using the colours, the artist was able to paint his masterpiece. But how could they do that in different colours? Colours could mix and probably put in danger the final result.


To solve this, Harunobu made different blocks apart from the original. He thought that chiselling only specific parts of the block would allow him to paint other areas and objects of his work. That way, he was able to work by layers without interfering with the original print. And to keep everything in position, he carved every wooden base on one side so he could always place the paper on the same side without worrying about his work's alignment.


Utamaro Kitagawa


Utamaro Kitagawa is one of the most significant artists of Ukyo-e art in Japan. He started designing woodblock prints for books and texts in general, but eventually, he gave up doing that and decided to switch from written texts to portraits of women. 

3 Geishas at Cherry Blossom Garden by Utamaro Kitagawa


Kitagawa was obsessed with women's beauty, and he started printing blocks with one-fourth of their body. His inspiration and muse was Tomimoto Toyohina. Kitagawa chose her because, according to him, she was the most beautiful woman at the time. Furthermore, Toyohina's personality was unique, and she was the number one geisha in the Yoshiwata red-light district.


Geisha and a Fan by Utamaro Kitagawa


Katsushika Hokusai


Hokusai had a long career. He was making prints for more than seven decades. He was a skilled painter, and he learned that at a very early age. Hokusai is the artist who created The Great Wave of Kanagawa, one of the most -if not- the most representative piece of art of the Ukyo-e period. It is estimated that around 8.000 copies of it were made. The older the print, the higher the price. 


The Great Wave of Kanagawa by Katsushika Hokusai


The style was trendy in Japan, but it also became popular overseas. Europe, more specifically. Hokusai was so crucial to modern art that he directly influenced artists like Van Gogh and Edgar Degas. Van Gogh even wrote in one of his letters the following "All of my art is, to some extent, influenced by Japan". But not only among painters but also composers. Here there is a photograph of Debussy and Stravinsky posing while The Great Wave of Kanagawa is visible on the top right.


Composers Claude Debussy and Ígor Stravinsky


Hokusai also created a series called Thirty Six Views of Mount Fuji, a series that included - yes, you guessed correct- thirty-six views of Mount Fuji from different perspectives. Although the only difference was that the series had forty-six landscapes with this mesmerizing mount in the background.


Mount Fuji Red by Katsushika Hokusai


For a long part of his life, Hokusai identified himself with the Shinto religion, a religion with no imagery in terms of Gods' statues but in what life represents in nature. For this reason, Shinto followers believe that spirits take the form of things they -and most of the people- consider essential to life, such as trees, rivers, rain, among others. 


Yoro Waterfall by Katsushika Hokusai


Hokusai felt this connection to nature thanks to Shinto, and he inspired himself mostly in nature. Waterfalls were one of his favourites, and he made a collection of 8 woodblock prints inspired by several waterfalls in various provinces in Japan. Here, and in The Great Wave of Kanagawa, we can observe the use of the particular Berlin -or Prussian at the time- blue pigment, a deep blue colour Hokusai imported directly from Europe and a colour that was a total hit in Japan.


Suzuki, Kitagawa and Hokusai were not the only artists who perfect woodblock printing. There are others like Hiroshige, Kuniyasu or Kunisada. Here we leave you a couple more designs based on woodblock printing from the Edo Period. And if you want to see a complete collection of Japanese Art, do not hesitate in clicking here.


Sumo Wrestler by Utagawa Hiroshige


Fuji no Yukei by Utagawa Kuniyoshi


Osan by Kunisada



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