Japanese Woodblock Printing: Artists & Techniques

Instructor: Stephanie Przybylek

Stephanie has taught studio art and art history classes to audiences of all ages. She holds a master's degree in Art History.

Japan is famous for colorful woodblock prints, but how do you create art with a piece of wood? In this lesson, explore Japanese woodblock prints and some of the artists who made them.

What is Japanese Woodblock Printing?

Art can be made in many ways. When an artist works in a type of art called printmaking, he or she can create multiple versions of the same image. While printing can be done using several methods, the country of Japan has a long history of beautiful woodblock printing.

In Japanese woodblock printing, an artist carves an image into a piece of wood. Using sharp blades called gouges, the areas that won't be printed are cut away, leaving the design in reverse on the block.The block is then inked and pressed onto a surface, for example, fabric or paper, leaving an impression of the image of the block.

Example of a Japanese woodblock print
example of a Japanese woodblock print

Woodblock printing is a very old art form. Most early woodblocks were done in black and white, although some were later painstakingly colored by hand. That's because each color added during the printing process requires a separate block. Making colored woodblock prints is a complicated and time-consuming process. It's also one that Japanese woodblock artists eventually mastered.

Techniques for Creating Japanese Woodblocks

Woodblock printing came to Japan from China around the 8th century. At first, it was used to print religious texts and by the 1500s, woodblocks became the preferred method of printing books. These early prints were mostly one-color but had, sometimes, one or two additional colors.

In the mid-1700s, during a time of growing prosperity, a style of art called ukiyo-e, or 'floating world' developed, initially for the wealthy upper classes. The style included both paintings and exclusive prints with a colorful, decorative quality. It featured scenes of sensual pleasures, beautiful courtesans and the latest in fashions. Eventually, the style became popular among all strata of society, and an innovative technology provided a way for the masses to also own images. In 1765, a printing process called nishiki-e, (the word means 'brocade picture,' so-called for its resemblance to colorful fabrics) was developed to produce brilliantly colored woodblocks using up to 20 different colors, each with its own block.

The technology of nishiki-e required large teams of carvers and printers. Ukiyo-e prints began as a collaboration between an artist and publisher, who discussed possible images to create. After the artist created the image, block carvers did the actual cutting of the woodblocks. To ensure that each separate color block matched up when the image was printed, L-shaped brackets, which were registration devices called kento, were attached to the edges of each block in an identical location. After the blocks had been carved, the printers then mixed the inks and carried out the actual printing process. The result was inexpensive, beautifully colored prints that could be mass-produced for audiences who were clamoring for them.

Famous Japanese Woodblock Artists

Several Japanese artists became famous for creating nishiki-e prints in the ukiyo-e style. One of the first was Suzuki Harunobo (1725-1770), who helped establish the art of nishiki-e. Harunobo began his career as a painter but it was woodcuts that made his career. He first made woodcuts for prints of haiku poems, and then became famous for images of stylish young women and sensual courtesans. He made almost 600 prints during his lifetime.

Woodblock print by Suzuki Harunobo
print by Suzuki Harunobo

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