The Art of Ukiyo-e: Japanese Wood Block Prints

A remarkable art form in Japan is the ukiyo-e, the woodblock print or painting. The word “ukiyo-e” means “pictures of the floating world.”  This floating world refers to the idea of a place of impermanence where people live for the moment, through forms of entertainment (such as kabuki, noh, bunraku, geisha, and courtesans) that are removed from the ordinary everyday world.

“Daruma and a Young Woman in the Rain”, woodblock print by Suzuki Harunobu, 1765 | Clarence Buckingham Collection

The origins of ukiyo-e began in Edo (now Tokyo) in the latter half of the 17th century. Woodblock prints initially displayed images of popular geishas and courtesans, as well as scenes from the entertainment district.

Many were actually posters that advertised brothels and Kabuki plays. Ukiyo-e became popular during this time because it was easily mass produced, which meant that those who were strapped for cash could sometimes afford some of the woodblock prints.

Ukiyo-e was also used to depict the grandeur of nature. Hokusai and Hiroshige were two well-known artists who created beautiful landscapes.

During the 18th century, artists developed ways to make fully colored pictures through nishiki-e, a technique invented and popularized by Suzuki Harunobu, a skilled printmaker.

“Behind the Great Wave at Kanagawa” | Hokusai

The art form then suffered a major setback with the importation of photography from the West. Photography was preferred over Ukiyo-e in capturing real life events, which made Ukiyo-e nearly obsolete.

Thanks to the “shin hanga” (New Prints) movement of the 20th century, the popularity of Ukiyo-e resurfaced. Traditional themes were still used but this time incorporating elements of European Impressionism, such as the effects of light and emotion. The shin hanga movement, however, faded during WWII.

The sōsaku-hanga (literally “creative prints”) movement followed, established in 1918 by the Japanese Print Society.

Japanese wood blocks | paranoidnotandroid 

Traditional prints were made through the collaboration of the artist, the woodblock carver, and the publisher. However, in sōsaku-hanga, the artist must be involved in all stages of print making.

Ukiyo-e includes these basic steps:

  • A master sketch is made in ink.
  • A tracing of it is then made.
  • The tracing is glued face down on a piece of wood. Impressions were then carved into a block of wood, similar to a stamp.
  • The stamp is then inked and used to make more copies of the original drawing.
  • More stamps are made using the copies, but this time for different colors.
  • When a print is made, the printer adds ink on the woodblock and place a piece of paper on top of it. He then uses tools to evenly press the paper. This is repeated to add different colors.