What Are Some Japanese Woodblock Print Characteristics?

As I was writing this blog, I talked to my mother, and she reminded me that our aunt gave us a woodblock print many years ago. My mother asked me if that woodblock print was a Japanese woodblock print? I told her it was not; it did not have the characteristics of a Japanese woodblock print.

There are many characteristics of a Japanese woodblock print, from the woodblock print title, artist name, and publisher’s seal; other characteristics also include the color and subject matter. Japanese woodblock prints also have different artistic art movements.

Japan is not the only country that produced woodblock prints. Many other places and artists also use the same woodblock print technique.

If you are not sure if a woodblock print is a Japanese-style woodblock print, there are some things you can look for to help you determine if it is a Japanese woodblock print.

Here are 11 major characteristics you can look for to determine if your woodblock print is a Japanese woodblock print.

Japanese Written Characters

Most Japanese woodblock prints, especially the older ones, will have a series of written characters. To an untrained eye, these may look Chinese, but they are not Chinese but Japanese.

Classical Chinese influenced the old Japanese text, but even the classical Japanese text was meant to be read by Japanese readers and not Chinese readers.

So even if the writing may look Chinese to you, the writing is actually Japanese characters and meant for a Japanese, not a Chinese audience. One of the first characteristics of a Japanese woodblock print is there will be some Japanese writing on the woodblock print.

Woodblock Print Title

Most of the Japanese woodblock prints would have a title to the print. The woodblock print title would sometimes distinguish the title from other parts of the woodblock print with a block around the characters or title.

The woodblock print title is one of 4 characteristics or components that you will find on almost all woodblock prints. The four typical components on a Japanese woodblock print usually include the woodblock print title, artist signature, artist seal, and the publisher’s mark. The woodblock print title, along with these other characteristics, can help you determine and know this is a Japanese woodblock print.

Japanese Artist Woodblock Print Signature

The Japanese woodblock prints artist would usually sign or mark their work. On the Japanese woodblock prints, the artist would carve their signature onto the woodblock or stamp their signature on the woodblock print.

In reality, these signatures are not very easy to read. As a chisel made the signatures onto the wood, the same artistic signatures often look very different on woodblock prints made by the same artist. Because the signatures look so different, this makes some of them hard to identify.

After the artist’s name, many times, the artist would put the words in Japanese of “designed by.’ For some period of the woodblock art movement, these words were carved in what is known as Japanese “ga” or “hitsu” characters.

On some prints that may have been controversial for the time, the artist did not want their signature or mark on the print, so the signature or identification mark was omitted.

Rori Hakucho Chojun by <a href=
Rori Hakucho Chojun by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1753-1806), a traditional Japanese ukiyo-e style illustration of a brave warrior with katana in his mouth fighting through a hail of arrows. Original from Library of Congress. Digitally enhanced by rawpixel.

Japanese Artist Woodblock Print Seal

There is an artist seal on many Japanese woodblock prints, especially the ukiyo-e style woodblock prints. You can tell the artist’s seal as the seal is always done in red color.

An artist may decide to use one seal for his entire career or periodically change the seal’s design. If he changed the seal, then the artist’s seal can help determine the woodblock print date.

The artist seal was created by the artist and may reflect different aspects of the artist’s life. The seal could reflect family or studio crest, family names, significant emblems, masters or mentors, or other important aspects of the artist’s career or life.

Japanese Publisher Woodblock Print Mark

The publishers would also add their seal to the woodblock print. These publishers were not as well-known as many artists; Japanese publishers had a key role in the Japanese woodblock print process.

The artist did the design for the woodblock prints, but it was usually the publishers who oversaw the woodcutter who actually carved the woodblock for the print. The publishers were responsible for the printing and the inking of the design onto paper. Sometimes the publishers helped with the distribution of the prints.

The publisher had a key role in the Japanese woodblock print process; they also added their mark or seal to the woodblock print.

The publisher’s mark was often located at the bottom left-hand side of the woodblock block opposite the signature. But some publishers placed their mark on other parts of the print, maybe because of design or other reasons.

Like the artist, the publishers also had some unique seals. Everything from their seal being an outline with two fishes – a scroll – a cat or even a bottle. The texts inside each publisher mark are not the same; different workers may have put something different inside the publisher seal.

If the Japanese woodblock print was controversial, the artist might have omitted his mark and seal, but the publisher still sealed those works of art.

No Numbered Prints

One of the characteristics of Japanese woodblock prints, especially the old Japanese woodblock prints and many modern ones, is that you will not find a concept of marking the prints as 1/100 or having a limited or first edition as in the west.

In a nutshell, any Japanese print produced before 1945 has no concept of limited editions, the numbering of prints, or hand signing of prints. It is hard even to know the exact date of the woodblock print as they are usually not even dated.

The Japanese created the woodblock prints as long as they could sell the prints and the blocks did not deteriorate. For most Japanese woodblocks, you could print a maximum of 10,000 copies before you had to remake the woodblock.

The more the blocks have used for the printing, the more the print copy deteriorated. Even today, the most sought-after prints by Japanese woodblock collectors are those printed In the earlier print runs as the quality of the woodblock print is usually better than the later print runs.

Japanese Woodblock Subject Matter

The Japanese woodblock prints have a variety of subject matter. Everything and almost any kind of subject matter have been made into a Japanese woodblock print.

Before 1945 most of the subject matter of the woodblock prints was scenes, landscapes, beautiful women (many prostitutes), flowers, birds, animals, theater actors, warriors, characters from Japan’s history and legends. The subject matter referred to the day’s scenes, such as the Sino- Japanese (1894-1895) or Russo- Japanese War (1904-1905). Other prints would show westerners, western technology, and the industrialization of Japan.

After 1945 in the Modern era of Japanese woodblock prints, you can find any subject matter. Many modern Japanese woodblock artists have continued to make woodblock prints that are decidedly Japanese in subject matter and character.

Oyone Magoshichi Taheiji by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861)
Anyone Magoshichi Taheiji by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861), a woodcut diptych of the traditional Japanese play with three actors, two males with a sword, one protecting a woman, and one intimidating them. Digitally enhanced from our own original edition.

Rich Color Palettes

The Japanese woodblock prints are rich in color palettes. The prints are radiant red, vivid blues and greens, and wonderful yellow tones. This rich color palette makes these Japanese woodblock prints popular even today.

What continues to make this printing process so amazing is that many artists and printmakers achieved such detail in the shading of the woodblock prints. The colors and the precision of how they executed the colors with the woodblock prints are characteristics of these Japanese woodblock prints.

Use Of Bold Black Lines

The Japanese woodblock print masters were able to use black lines to contrast their rich color palettes. The woodblock print artists were masters of knowing when and how to use the black lines and how thick or thin those lines should be for the effect they wanted on their woodblock prints.

The Japanese woodblock print artists prefer strong shapes, graphic designs with bold black lines. The use of these black lines is something that continues to influence many artists today.

I love the strong black lines and have used them in my artwork. I admire and love how these Japanese artists could execute their work using the black lines so eloquently.

5 Major Japanese Woodblock Print Art Movements Characteristics

The Japanese Art Movement had 5 major art movements. Though they all produced Japanese woodblock prints, each movement has its own unique characteristics.

Here is a summary of each of these 5 Japanese Woodblock print movements and their characteristics:

  • Edo Woodblock Prints – Edo Woodblock prints are all the prints ththat were made before 1867. They are the classical woodblock prints. Many prints were created for mass media such as advertising sheets for the Kabuki Theaters or other forms of advertising.
  • Meiji Prints – Meiji prints are similar to Edo prints but they differ in that their style used some strong bold colors. Their subject matter was usually Japajnese people and featured some technilogical acheivement as the locomotives. Meiji prints art movement falls between the Edo and Shin Hanga Art Movement or from about 1867 to 1910.
  • Shin Hanga Art Movement – Shin Hanga Art Movement an Japanese art movement that literally means “new print.” This was a period of renaissance of the old Japanese woodblock printmaking with some western modernization. The Japanese started to use techniques they learned about light from the French Impressionists. The Shin Hanga art movement started in 1910 and lasted until 1950.
  • Sosaku Hanga Art Movement – The Sosaku Hanga Art Movement took place at the same time as the Shin Hanga Art Movement. Those in the Sosaku Hanga Art Movement learned about the western concept of creativity and felt that meant for it to truly be their artwork they needed to do the entire process from design, to carvng the wood, to making the prints. That is why many of the art in this movement can seem to be almost clumpsy or technically challenged as the artist did not have all the skills they needed to execute the art.
  • Modern Japanese Woodblock Print Movement – The modern Japanese woodblock print movement is from 1945 onward. The prints, techniques, styles and colors are varied and vast. But despite this many of the prints and artists have contnued to keep a distintive Japanese look and feel.

Not All Woodblock Prints Are Created Equal

If you are looking to buy or sell a Japanese woodblock print, one of the first characteristics you need to understand is that not all Japanese woodblock prints are created equal. You could have the same Japanese woodblock print as someone else, and your print could be worth much less or nothing at all because of the condition of the print.

Things that can damage the value of print would be faded colors, trimmed or cut-off margins, creases, spots, dirt, and more. All of this can damage the value of any Japanese woodblock prints. Prints framed and exposed to light can be damaged and be deemed invaluable as the colors are faded.

That is why many collectors may keep their most valuable prints stored in a cabinet between two sheets of acid-free paper and frame their reproductions or less valuable prints on the wall.

A Japanese woodblock print may not even be valuable or saleable. There are so many conditions and variables to Japanese woodblock prints that only the most experienced collectors or experts can really advise you.

If you have a print you would like to have accessed or valued; I would try to find a local expert that you can talk to. That way, they can personally see the print and help you access it if the print has any value. There are just so many variables that can make a difference in a Japanese woodblock print value.

At Anita Louise Art, #ArtThatMakesYouSmile, we love Japanese woodblock prints. We use them a lot for our artistic inspiration.  

If you are interested in my art, you can find out more by clicking here. If you are interested in what inspires me and my paintings, you can discover more by clicking here.

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Anita Louise Hummel

Hi, I am Anita Louise Hummel. I am an artist and a blogger. I paint mainly oil paints. I love to paint women, animals (mainly dogs and cats), and abstracts. I use a lot of gold and silver leaf in my paintings. I also love to blog about anything to do with art, business, Procreate, and all the wonderful artists that inspire me.

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