Japanese prints of the XVIII –XIX century from the collection of the Pushkin State Museum of Fine Arts







The technique of xylography or printing using wooden blocks made its way from China to Japan in the 7th century at the same time as the dissemination of Buddhism. Prints of this kind were used for making black-and-white prints with depictions of various Buddhist saints and for illustrating sutra texts.

The artist, carver and printer all had a part to play in the creation of polychrome Japanese color woodblock prints. Another important role was that of the publisher, who would study demand and decide on the number of prints to be made for each edition. Often it was precisely he who determined the subject of a print or influenced the nature of an issue to be published, inviting a particular artist, carver or printer to carry out the work.

The creation of a woodblock print would begin with the artist making a preparatory drawing (shita-e) with a brush and black ink on thin paper. The sketch would be modified by its author many times, approved by the publisher and later by the censor as well. The definitive version of the composition would then be executed so that it could be copied onto a block already bearing the publisher seal and the censor mark and signed by the author (hanshita-e).




Photo 1

 Photo 2

 Photo 3

At the next stage – the preparation of the main block (omohan) – the carver-engraver would be involved in the work. The drawing would be pasted face downwards (Photo 1) onto the pre-prepared block of mountain-cherry wood (yamazakura) of the necessary size. All the lines would be clearly visible but in a mirror image of the drawing (Photo 2). The carver would mark off areas in black with his contour knife, cutting along the lines of the drawing with the utmost precision (Photo 3). All areas, which were to remain without colour or to be printed in other colours, were gouged out with special cutting tools of varying thicknesses.



From initial off-prints the artist was able to distinguish in which parts of the sheet other colours would be used. On the basis of the off-print made from the key block, the remaining ones (kyōgōsuri) would be carved. For each colour a separate block would then be carved as required (Photo 4). On the basis of the marks provided by the artist the carvers would make a separate block for each colour. So-called 'guide marks' (kentō),

Photo 4

Photo 5


were cut out on each block and at the bottom corners of each block low ledges in the form of the letter 'L' (Photo 5) were fashioned, so as to fix the position for the sheet of paper during printing. This ensured that the colours printed subsequently would be in exactly the right place on each off-print.

In the 'studio' system for the production of prints there existed narrow specialization among the carvers, which testified to the individual craftsman's particular skill. Cutter-engravers belonged to one of three categories: kashirabori – skilled craftsmen of the highest grade who specialized in depicting faces, hair-styles and so on, dobori who cut the less difficult lines of bodies and costumes and finally hanchiya, the apprentice block-carvers.




 Photo 6

 Photo 7

 Photo 8

When everything was complete, the set of duly prepared blocks was sent to the printer, who applied colour to each block (Photo 6).

After that a craftsman placed paper onto each of the carved blocks (Photo 7) and made off-prints by hand or with help of a special disk-shaped and flat-bottomed tool known as a baren (Photo 8). The colours for making the prints were of mineral or vegetable origin on a water base, to which rice paste and glue made from rabbit hide were added to bind them together. The washi, or Japanese paper, on which the prints were created was hand-made, long-fibred and thicker than the paper on which the original drawing and preliminary off-print had been made. It contained processed pulp from the paper mulberry (kōzo), vegetable sizing, lime and ground shells, which lent the paper additional whiteness. Many different kinds of washi paper existed: for ordinary prints paper of a lower quality was used made from Japanese spindle – masa, which also contained textile fibre (ramie) obtained from wild nettles, while for specially commissioned prints thick paper of higher quality - hoshogami – was used which only contained kōzo pulp.

It was the tradition to make up to 200 prints of each composition, but an edition could be extended, if the first series sold well. If necessary, worn down lines on the blocks could be modified and made sharper.

The publisher had overall control of the whole process involved in the creation of a woodblock print – from the drawing and subsequent production to sales and distribution.

The technique was based on precision and strict linear execution of the design, which did not allow for any blurred brush-strokes, such as would be found in painting. The traditional nature of the artistic language, the conditions dictated by the technique of woodblock printing and the 'studio' process, involving the division of labour between various stages, together ensured a coherent artistic logic of line, colour zones and decoration.


The Adachi Institute of Woodcut Prints©