What Is A Japanese Woodblock Print?

Itsutomi by Eishi Hosoda (1756-1829)

I am fascinated by Japanese Woodblock prints. It is so amazing how the Japanese woodblock artists execute their art using this woodblock technique.

A Japanese woodblock print is, as the name implies, a print that is made by using carved woodblock and applying ink on the woodblocks to print a design on paper.   The Japanese woodblock artists use the woodblocks to print artistic prints and even books.  Artists have used the woodblock print technique in Japan for hundreds of years.  

Goten-Yama Hill, Shinagawa on the Tokaido by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)
Goten-Yama Hill, Shinagawa on the Tokaido by Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849)

Japanese Woodblock Prints Defined

Japanese woodblock prints are made by carving a design on a block or series of blocks of wood. The carved wood is then used to print the design onto paper.

As the woodblock is carved, Japanese artists can print multiple prints or even books using the woodblock printing system. This is why, even today, you can find multiple print copies for the same Japanese woodblock print design.

There is a basic process that most Japanese woodblock artists used for their woodblock prints. Here is the basic process that the Japanese woodblock artists used:

  • Drawing of The Designs – First, the artist would draw their design on a thin Japanese paper known as “washi.” The design drawn on the paper would act as a pattern for the actual carving of the woodblock.
  • Paper Glued on Woodblock – The thin, fragile “washi” paper is then glued onto the woodblock. The paper would be glued facedown as everything needed to be carved in a mirror image. The kind of wood used needed to be soft enough to carve and hard enough to keep the detail through the printing process; cherry wood was the wood of choice.
  • Oil Place on Paper – A lot of times, oil would be placed on the thin “washi” paper to help make the lines of the paper’s image more visible.
  • Wood Carving – The artist would then carve the design onto the woodblock, using the paper’s design as a guide.
  • Ink placed on the block – Once the carving is completed, the artist is ready to place the ink on the woodblock to print the design. The artist used a special tool to evenly rub the paper against the woodblock to make the print.

For a one-color print, the artists only needed one carved woodblock. But for additional colors, they would need to have several carved woodblocks for one print. The Japanese artists were able to layer the woodblock prints with multiple colors with great precision.

The ink used in the Japanese traditional woodblock prints was transparent enough to ensure that each layer would build upon the previous layer. That is one of the amazing techniques used with the Japanese woodblock printing.

Japanese woodblock artists became very sophisticated with how they have been able to use color layers. When you see many of these woodblock prints, you can see how sophisticated these Japanese artists were in using multiply colors in their designs.

This short video from the Utah Museum of Fine Art shows the woodblock process from carving the woodblock to printing the prints. There are wood blocks for each color used; each color must be aligned for the desired design and effect. This kind of carving and woodblock printing takes tremendous skill.

Japanese Woodblock Printmaking
Woodblock Printing Technique

Japanese Woodblock Prints History

The Japanese woodblock printing dates back to the eighth century. It was originally used to reproduce Buddhist text and scripture. It wasn’t until the early 1500s that books were printed with illustrations using woodblock prints. These books helped pave the way for the standalone woodblock images that many are familiar with today.

Snow from Momoyogusa–Flowers of a Hundred Generations (ca. 1909–1910) by Kamisaka Sekka
Snow from Momoyogusa–Flowers of a Hundred Generations by Kamisaka Sekka (1909–1910)

Here is some of the Japanese Woodblock periods of art:

Sumizuri-e – Black and White Prints

The first woodblock printed images were black-and-white prints known as the Sumizuri-e era of woodblock prints. The artist’s drawing would be transferred from paper to a cherry wood block; the woodblock was carved and each from blank sheets of paper or laid on top of the woodblock for printing. One of the great masters of this area was considered Hishikawa Moronobu (1618-1694).

Nishiki-e Woodblock Prints – The Begining of Color Prints

Printing more than one color on the prints using the woodblocks required a lot of skill. The Japanese Artist Suzuki Harunobu (1724 -1770) caused a huge breakthrough in woodblock printing as he began to master an array of colors in his woodblock prints.

Suzuki used a set of woodblocks and defined each of the woodblocks. This is how he defined each of them:

  • Key block – Suzuki started with what is called a key block. This was the design’s outline that was carved into the relief. The key lock was printed and then used to make additional woodblocks.
  • Color blocks – Each of the color blocks were carved according to the color that would be used. Each block would need to be carefully aligned. Also a registration system was used that helped ensure careful alighment between each of the color blocks.

The idea to carve first the key block and then print and use that key block for other blocks helped ensure that each print color would then be aligned correctly.

Itsutomi by Eishi Hosoda (1756-1829)
Itsutomi by Eishi Hosoda (1756-1829)

Ukiyo-e – Major Japanese Woodblock Print Era

The Ukiyo-e, the woodblock prints era, is considered the major era of woodblock prints. The subjects of the artists used are divided up into three major subject categories:

Courtesan and Kabuki Actors Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints

The name Ukiyo-e means “pictures of the floating world;” the name was about transient pleasures offered in the Edo (present-day Toyko) district of Yoshiwara.

To show their loyalty to the Shogun the feudal lord was required to spend one month in Ido or present-day Tokyo each year; they would leave their families in other parts of Japan. They will arrive in Tokyo with Samara and others which created a large community in Edo (Tokyo).

in order to ensure this large group was fully entertained, the Yoshiwara district of pleasure (red-light district) sprung up. Restaurants, tea houses, and brothels became a popular form of entertainment. Many courtesans and kabuki actors became the celebrities of this era.

The Japanese woodblock artists also caught on to this new market and started to do woodblock prints of these early Japanese celebrities. In fact, many of these woodblock prints became so prominent that a woodblock print of your favorite celebrity would cost you the same as a bowl of noodle soup.

Landscape Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints

In the early 19th century, many Ukiyo-e woodblock artists started to shift their focus from the celebrity culture to landscapes. This was because there was an increase in travel made possible by five major new highways that connected Edo (Tokyo) with the rest of Japan.

Two of the greatest landscape artist during this period were Hiroshige and Hokusai. Both of them focused on the woodblock landscapes from different viewpoints and different seasons of the year.

One of the most famous woodblock print series is Hokusai’s “Thirty-six Views of Mount Fiji. The most famous from this series is The Great Wave. The Great Wave is so popular that even today, there are emojis inspired by The Great Wave.

You can learn more about the great wave by reading our blog The Great Wave Off Kanagawa by Japanese Artist Hokusai (1790-1849) by clicking here.

Warriors and Japanese Heroes Ukiyo-e Woodblock prints

Another big subject matter for the 19th-century Japanese woodblock artists were warriors and Japanese heroes. One of the major artists for this genre and period was Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798-1861). Utagawa Kuniyoshi brought together the drama, dynamics, and imagination of the warriors and Japanese heroes to the woodblock medium. His woodblock prints proved to be hugely popular.

If you’d like to learn more about him and his life you can read our blog Who Is the Japanese Woodblock Print Artist Utagawa Kuniyoshi (1798 – 1861)? by clicking here.

Golden Pheasant in the Snow (ca. 1900) illustration by Ito Jakuchu.
Golden Pheasant in the Snow by Ito Jakuchu ca. 1900)

Woodblock Prints Influence On Western Artists

Before 1868, Japan was cut off from the rest of the world; this was a great isolation period. Japan had stopped all trade with all other nations and banned travel in and out of Japan.

In 1868 when the final shogun Takagawa was ousted, this isolationism situation change. Japan began to open its borders for trade. As part of this trade, the Ukiyo-e woodblock prints started to become exported to the Western world.

As these Japanese woodblock print started appearing in Europe and the United States, western artists such as Van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Whistler, and Toulouse-Lautrec were captivated and inspired by these Japanese Ukiyo-e woodblock prints.

One example of how these woodblock prints affected western artists was with Van Gogh. Van Gogh started to use brighter colors in his artwork and enhance contrasts. The Japanese Ukiyo-e prints influence is evident in Van Gogh’s later work, where the Japanese culture and traditions strongly influenced Van Gogh’s art. The use of black contours is also an element typical of Japanese woodblock prints that many European artists started to use in their art.

The Japanese woodblock prints are the kind of art that seems in many ways to be timeless. The art is still as relevant today as it was so many years ago when these Japanese artists produced these woodblock prints.

How Do You Identify A Japanese Artist’s Signature on Woodblock Prints?

The signature on a Japanese woodblock print is the Japanese characters above or near the red artistic seal or chop. Sometimes the artist would add words behind their own name, such as “designed by.” Other times the artist would use different chops or seals during different periods of their life. Many times the actual artist’s signatures are complicated to read.

You can read more by reading our blog How Do You Identify A Japanese Artist’s Signature on Woodblock Prints? by clicking here.

What Is The Main Difference Between Japanese and Chinese Art?

The main differences between Japanese and Chinese art include the materials used and how they were executed. Religion played a major role in influencing both Japanese and Chinese art. Both countries were Buddhist, but Japan also had the Shintoism influence, and China had Confucianism and Taoist.

You can learn more by reading our blog What Is The Main Difference Between Japanese and Chinese Art? by clicking here.

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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Itsutomi by Eishi Hosoda (1756-1829)