In line with the opening of the 2017 MAPS exhibition, this weekend’s written feature will be focusing on the process of making traditional Japanese woodblock prints. While not all of the prints in the MAPS exhibit are made in this manner, the process and its cultural resonance in Japan are certainly an integral part of and influence on printmaking worldwide.
(To see more details about MAPS 2017 see our home page)
Before delving into the process, first a brief introduction into the history of woodblock printing in Japan:
“Woodblock printing came to Japan during the eighth century and became the primary method of printing from the eleventh to the nineteenth centuries. As in China, the technology was first used to duplicate Buddhist texts and then later, books of Chinese origin. It was not until the 1500s that books originally in Japanese began to be printed. Black and white illustrations were a part of these early texts, to which color was sometimes added by hand, but eventually colored prints developed around 1765 as printing techniques improved. The first colored prints in Japan were original works of art, which soon led to the publishing of the popular, single-sheet ukiyo-e” (Khan Academy).
The woodblock printing process and the artistry of it that developed in Japan led the country to develop it’s own unique style, perspective, and craftsmanship in woodblock printing – a style which became known as ukiyo-e, or “images of the floating world”. While artists now are based less around the traditional ukiyo-e style, the technical process developed in Japan is still in use today.
The technical process of making a traditional woodblock print is intricate and requires an intense amount of concentration, accuracy, and skill. Listed below is the step by step methods of making such a print:
- The block carver begins with a flat piece of wood – typically cherry – and take the prescribed drawing and place it face down onto the block
- The piece of paper thus applied would then be made transparent by rubbing it with oil and then removing the paper so that the reverse image of the ink was transferred to the block
- The carver would then outline the areas that were to be inked/printed black and, after doing that, would carve away the areas that were to be left blank
- This part of the process creates the block which would be used to print the black lines and is known as the “key block”
- This process would then be repeated for every color that would be used within the image, resulting in different blocks for each different color.
- In order to retain accuracy in the printing of the different colors onto the single image/page, a registration key is used – typically a kagi (a raised “L” shape which fits to one corner of the block and into which a corner of the page is placed) and a hikitsuke (a raised bar usually laid along the long-side of the block and into the corner of the hagi)
- The printing process of a single sheet continues by using the various blocks and colors and re-registering the sheet until the entire image was completed to the artist’s satisfaction
To see the process described above with more intricate detail, watch a video here!
For more information on the history, techniques, processes, as well as more examples of Japanese woodblock printing, please see the following references: