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Reference » Ukiyo-e »  How Prints are made

Japanese print

The Process

Traditional woodblock printing integrates the expertise and skill of four artisans primarily. The artist creates the design and selects colours and their placement, the publishers commission the work, the carver traces the lines of artist’s design on a cherry or pear wood woodblock and the printer finally prints the design. In the initial phases of the process is a black ink block is used which is followed by the employment of coloured woodblocks.

The traditional ukiyo-e artists in Edo used to create preparatory designs as preferred by the publishers who commissioned their works. These initial illustrations differed widely in terms of drawing styles and other details. The artists concerned themselves with the drawing and creation of the main figures and backdrop in a drawing, while the details were completed by the advanced pupils of copyists, known as hikko. However, there was no hard and fast rule and at times the artists would independently add all the details to produce a finished illustration.

These finished illustrations were presented and submitted to a censor, who commonly either used to be a representative of the wholesale dealers or a government official. The approved illustrations and drawing were covered in a thin sheet of minogami paper and the lines of the design were traced using black ink. The resultant traced design was referred to as the final block copy, which was of the same size as the finished print that was to be rendered. These final block prints were called hanshita-e. 

Japanese gallery

The final print woodblocks or hanshita-e were than given to a carver, who pasted these blocks with their faces down, on a piece of straight grained cherry wood woodblock called sakura. The straight grained cherry woodblocks, having just the right level of toughness and rigidity and fine texture, provided an ideal surface for the carving of complex relief designs and illustrations. The cheery wood’s ability to remain stable under damp conditions further made it a suitable option for carving intricate designs, particularly during the stages of dying and colouring.

When carved, the wood grains on these woodblocks become prominently visible. However, as the block is subjected to wear and the surface is made smooth, the wood grains no longer remain as evidently visible on the wood surface.

The key blocks were often close grained and had extremely hard surfaces. On the other hand, colour blocks were relatively softer and at times, these were selected to have rippling patterns in order to add textural variation in sizably large flat areas, painted in a single colour. In order to add texture to the illustration, use of a paper to rub against the wood surface and bring up the wood grains was a common practice. 

Japanese print

Once the woodblock was prepared it was carefully carved in accordance with the design illustrated on the hanshita-e sheet, in high relief. Sharp chisels made in the same manner of Japanese swords were used to carve out the intricate and delicate details while a round or square chisel was use to dig out large areas.  The final design block that was produced was known as the key block.

These key blocks were transferred to the printer who covered these with a damp sheet of the paper and rubbed it along the length of the design with a circular shaped pad called baren, in order to print the design onto the wet sheet. Barens of different sizes were used to apply varying levels of pressure during the printing of the design, as required. These were moved in zigzag or circular motion and ten or more prints were rendered. These were sent to artist who explained the colour placement, for which separate blocks were prepared for each colour to be printed.

The rendered proofs were handed over to colour carvers who carved separate woodblock for the printing of each colour. The entire design was carved except for the area allocated to be printed in a particular colour. The outlines and edges were raised so that the allocated area for a particular colour remained as a relief only, on a single ink block. For higher accuracy and precision, guide marks known as kento were carved on the key and ink blocks. This made colour synchronisation in each separate print easier and more convenient. 

Japanese print A carver usually had to work as an apprentice under a master for at least ten years, before he was considered as an expert. The masters distributed work amongst their pupils according to their levels of skill and ultimately benefitted from the division of labour.

The finally prepared ink blocks and key blocks were transferred to a printer, who used to prepare printing sheets using a mixture called dosa to size up the sheets. These sheets were later moistened. To prevent the sliding of the blocks, printed stands were too covered with damp sheets.

An ink block was placed on the printing stand and was painted in black ink followed by the placement of a printing sheet on the block, in accurate alignment with the guide marks. The placed sheet was pressed onto the painted block with a baren. Once the design was printed onto the sheet, the ink block was replaced by colour blocks for the printing of a polychromatic design or illustration.

The final print accurately followed all the directions provided by the artist and was sent to the censor for approval. If a print was approved, it was sent for production- the number of printed copies depending on the success and appreciation of an illustration. Approximately, 200-300 copies were printed within two weeks. However, other factors like simplicity of design and limited use of colours significantly reduced the production time.

The paper commonly used for the final print was hosho, which was made using bark fibres of the Mulberry tree. It had the right balance of toughness and softness, allowing pigment penetration while withstanding the pressure exerted as a result of rubbing the baren. Handmade paper usually displayed thin vertical bands of lines called as chain lines or laid lines. These were a consequence of the traditional method of Japanese paper making, where bamboo mesh or screen was employed to capture the wet paper fibre during the draining of excess liquid. The structure of the screen led to the impression of these vertical lines onto the printing sheet of paper.

Traditional paper showed variation in texture and appearance due to differences in the methods of pulp preparation and application of dosa. The paper sheets were sized on both sides, in order to avoid excessive absorption of the colour pigments and sticking of the sheet onto the printing block.

Colour dyes and pigments were applied directly onto the printing blocks, using a brush. Later, a small quantity of a binding agent was applied to the painted dye in order to thicken the pigment and increase control and rubbing into the paper. The binding paste also ensured uniform application of colour without any appearance of unwanted grainy texture.

The absorption of colour dyes to the other side of the sheet renders the final print.

Ink and colour printer were separately classified and polychromatic printing was the work of colour printers.