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Japanese Ukiyo-e Prints

Early ukiyo-e prints, like this image of a woman, were made by carving a single outline block and printing it in black ink.
Nishikawa Sukenobu (Japanese, 1671-1751), Courtesan Walking, 1739, from Picture Book: Asaka Mountain

Some images were hand-colored with paints. This one was printed in black ink and then painted with muted colors.
Nishikawa Sukenobu (Japanese, 1671-1751), from Picture Book: Field of Vines, 1736

To print this lively scene, a different woodblock was used for each color and one more for the black outline. Pictures printed this way are called nishiki-e (“brocade pictures”).
Utagawa Kunisada (Japanese, 1786-1865), Celebration for the Turning Color of Maple Leaves, 1857

key idea
A Team Effort

An ukiyo-e print was the result of teamwork. An artist, a carver, a printer, and a publisher all contributed to creating the print.

First, the publisher envisioned a project and hired an artist to design the prints. The design drawn by the artist was glued to a block of cherry wood. A carver, using chisels, carefully cut away the wood, leaving the lines of the design standing up in relief. Next, the printer applied ink to the carved woodblock and placed paper on top of it. The ink was transferred to the paper by rubbing the paper with a smooth tool. When the paper was peeled away, the image appeared on it. After the ink dried the print was sold. If the project included many different prints, the publisher would collect them to make a book.

Early prints were black and white. Sometimes color was added by hand painting. As ukiyo-e developed, color became an important part of the printing process. For multicolored prints, a separate woodblock was carved for each color and also one for printing the main outline in black. As many as twenty blocks might be needed to complete a single picture. Images made by this process are called nishiki-e, or “brocade pictures.” Ukiyo-e prints were the first images ever printed in color!

Collections of ukiyo-e prints were often bound together and sold in book form. Souvenir of Edo has many images of the city of Edo (modern-day Tokyo) and its surroundings and might have been sold to someone visiting the city.
Ando Hiroshige (Japanese, 1797-1858), Illustrated Book: Souvenir of Edo, volume 1 (East), 1850
May 2007