The Production of Japanese Woodblock Prints


The production of classic Japanese woodblock prints is a fairly complex process, involving a number of steps, each usually performed by a different person, one skilled in that particular step.

I say "classic" because in the modern Japanese print movement, often the artist performs all the steps themselves. However, while classic Japanese prints were sometimes produced in limited editions as 'high art', more usually they were produced in far larger editions as popular, mass-produced art, art that was originally intended to be transitory.

As such, the production process rapidly evolved into one with various specialties, and during the hey-day of ukiyo-e, it was not uncommon for different steps to be performed in different establishments, each with a particular speciality.

The Publisher and Artist

Woodblock prints were almost always initiated by a collaboration between an artist (who is now, by convention, credited with the print, even though other people played almost equally important parts) and a publisher. The latter oversaw the commercial aspect of the operation, and either employed all the skilled personnel who actually produced the prints, or contracted out some stages of the operation to specialist establishments. The relationship between artist and publisher was usually a fairly straightforward contractual one, in which the artist was paid an agreed sum per design.

In general, the publisher would have an idea for a project, either a single print or a series, and approach an artist to see if they would undertake it. Some artists worked almost exclusively for a single publisher, such as the relationship between Utamaro and Tsutaya (in some cases, the publisher was the one who discovered the artist and made them popular); other artists worked with a large number of different publishers.

The artist would start by producing a preparatory sketch (gako), with the most detail in areas like faces, etc. He (and it was usually a 'he', although a few female woodblock artists are known from the pre-Meiji period) would make alterations and corrections by gluing new paper over the desired areas.

The artist would then pass this drawing to a block-copyist, who then made an elaborated final copy, a very fine black and white paper drawing, the hanshita-e ('under-drawing', sometimes given as shita-e) on very thin mino paper, which showed the (usually black) lines which outlined everything in the image. (This copying process explains why so many original sketches for prints are still extant, since the hanshita-e was destroyed in the process of creating the blocks, as we will see.)

The completed drawing would then be shown to the official censors, and after being passed, it would go to a carver, who specialized in carving the blocks used to produce the print.

The Block Carvers

The job of the block carver was a very important one, and it was reckoned that it took 10 years to become a good block carver. Artists would in general have some idea of the process, but they were not in general skilled block-carvers themselves, although it was not unknown; Hokusai spent several years learning to carve blocks while apprenticed to a wood-carver.

The carver would start with a block of single-petaled white mountain cherry wood, usually carefully aged and selected to prevent warping. (The size of the blocks used for the printing of woodblock prints was limited, precisely to reduce the likelihood of warping. Larger images were produced by linking together multiple independently printed images, in diptychs [both horizontal and vertical, the latter called kakemono], triptcyhs, occasionally pentaptcyhs - and even an occasional rare hexaptych for large scenes, with the prints arranged in two rows of three. In addition, larger prints were usually not produced in the summer, when higher humidity affected the dimensional stability of both the paper and the wooden blocks.)

He (again, usually this was a male occupation) would paste the original drawing to the block, face-down. The paper would then be made transparent by either treating with oil, or peeling off a thin layer of paper with the flat of the finger, thus revealing the reverse of the lines which the block had to produce.

He would then outline the areas which were desired to print with a sharp knife; during the Edo period, outlines were cut following the original direction of the brush stroke. All outlines were cut at a slightly inward sloping side, to prevent chipping of the wood. The carver would then carve away the material where no ink was to be printed, using a large set of chisels specially made for this task. (Although a wide variety of tools was available, most work was done with just a few.) This would produce the block to print the black lines, called the "key block".

A number of prints were then printed using just this one block, and the artist indicated, on one copy for each color, which areas should be in which colors. These copies were in turn pasted to blocks, and used to guide the carvers in making additional blocks for the colored areas, one block per color. It was not uncommon for prints to contain as many as 15 or so colors.

Apparently a complete set of average blocks could be carved in as little as three days, and even complex sets only took a couple of weeks. Detailed areas would be done by a master carver (atama-bori, or 'head carver'), and the rest left to a trainee (do-bori, or 'body carver').

Also critical, of course, was the ability to re-register the image for each color printed, so that the colors lined up. This registration was done with registration devices, called kento. One was raised "L" shape (called the kagi) on one corner of the block, into which one corner of the paper fitted; the other was a raised bar (called the hikitsuke) out along one of the sides (generally the long one) that went into that corner.

The set on the key block were carved before producing the first prints used to indicate colored areas. The registration devices were easy to carve on the color blocks, since they were printed on the sheets used to produce the color blocks. Discrepancies which appeared as blocks changed shape over time were fixed by plugging thin slivers of wood into the block, next to the kento.

Once printing had begun, alterations or addition to the blocks were made by plugging areas with new pieces of wood. This often happened where the names of actors or titles were changed, or in the head and hands of bijin, where the fine lines of the drawing showed wear the most.

The Printers

The third set of artisans were the printers, skilled in making the inks (both vegetable and mineral inks were used), and applying them, especially to get the shading (called bokashi).

The grinding of pigments was one of the steps traineee printers had to master; each was kept in its own porcelain bowl, and before use a few drops of water would be added to produce exactly the right consistency. Also, a stack of one of two kinds of mulberry (kozo) paper would be slightly moistened, and laid ready to hand.

The printing was done in fairly straightforward fashion; ink was applied to the block, which was face up, using brushes (hake) made from a horse's mane. Rice-starch was sometimes added to the block, to give better adhesion and color depth. The paper was then laid down on the block, using the kento to line it up, and the ink was rubbed onto the paper using a circular or semi-circular motion. The rubbing was done using a baren, a large circular flat pad, usually made of a bamboo sheath wrapped around a lacquered cover over a flat coil of straw and/or bamboo fiber, or some similar material; the strands of the coiled fiber produced an uneven surface which was important in pressing the ink into the paper.

Generally the printer would do a number of sheets with one color, and then the process would be repeated with the next color. There was no need to wait between colors for the previous color to dry, as the pigments are actually embedded into the paper by the pressure of the baren, so there is no concern with smearing. In general, a fixed sequence of colors was always followed, with light colors first, then dark colors, then finally dense blacks (which often needed several printings). Note that the keyblock was often not printed first; any dark colors can obliterate the thin black lines, and it is not uncommon to find prints in which it has been printed after the dark colors were.

The shading (called bokashi) is produced by a number of different techniques, such as:

One thing to note is that the printer will often vary the amount of bokashi in a single run - it is not at all uncommon to find two impression of a print which are completely different, so different is the amount and location of the shading.

A single sheet took around 15 to 25 seconds to produce, on a particular block, depending on whether or not bokashi was needed.

Repeat Printing

Actually, sometimes a block would get used more than once, as partial (i.e. the block is not completely inked, but only in one area, with a shading out to no ink on other parts of the block) overprints of an emphasis color.

Ironically, it appears that this technique appeared in response to sumptuary regulations passed by the Tokugawa Shogunate during the Tempo Reforms of the early 1840's, which limited the number of blocks which could be used in making prints!

You can see this technique being used in many prints, especially ones that show sky or water; in the middle or the edge of the water, which is generally light blue, there will be a band of dark blue water. This whole area would have originally been printed in the light blue ground color, and then that part overprinted in the deeper blue.

It can get even more complex, though. It is fairly common to take a block which is used to print a basic sky color (e.g. light blue-grey), and overprint with it twice after the initial printing; the first time with a one accent color (e.g. deeper blue) along the lower edge, and the second with another accent color (e.g. a black) along the upper edge. Even so, a complete print can use a large number of blocks.

Special Effects

A large number of special techniques were used to produce various unusual effects. The list is too long to cover completely here - interested readers may consult:
	Amy Newland, Chris Uhlenbeck, "Ukiyo-E to Shin hanga",
		Mallard Press, 1990
which contains an extensive section by Richard Kruml on print-making techniques, for more details.

The most common was blind-printing (called "gauffrage" in the West), or karazuri. This did not use any ink at all - rather, a pattern was impressed into the paper. The process involved lightly dampening the paper, and then using any one of a number of implements (a piece of ivory, or the edge of a baren, or even the printer's elbow) to produce three-dimensional effects in the paper. It was especially suited to depicting white-on-white, such as egret feathers, or clouds. Mesh patterns would be created by using two separate blocks, cut at right angles to each other.

Related to blind-printing is a rarer process called nunomezuri, wherein a piece of muslin or silk fabric was wrapped around an un-inked block; when printed, it left the pattern of the fabric embossed into the paper.

Also relatively common was a process whereby black areas could be surface polished, in the shomenzuri technique (but with the block behind the paper, and the rubbing from the front of the paper, instead of the opposite process used with karazuri) to give the impression of lacquer, or areas of woven effects on cloth.

In a related but rarer process, known as tsuyazuri, glue was applied to areas of finished prints to produce a sheen; it was most often used on animals' eyes, and areas of blood.

Occasionally seen is a process called itame-mokuhan, which was used for areas of unfinished woodwork portrayed in the print; it used a densely grained woodblock which had been soaked in water, in order to emphasize the pattern of the grain in the block.

The printing process could be finished off with applications of ground mica, called kirazuri, to make the picture sparkle, or give a glowing ground. Mica was sometimes used in the entire background of deluxe bijin and actor prints, but this was banned early on by sumptuary laws, after which it was often seen as an overlay on areas of color.


Apparently, the average print run was two hundred copies or so, although the number could run into the thousands for a popular design. Running a number of smaller editions allowed the blocks to 'rest' between editions, as taking too many impressions at one time increased the wear on the blocks, and caused the blocks to become saturated with color, producing uneven color transfer.

Runs were not limited through cancellation of the blocks, though, at least in the classic period. The blocks for popular series would be printed again and again, being recut as needed if they became worn. There is some indication that total runs of up to twenty thousand were made for popular prints.

The Creation of a Woodblock Print

There is wonderful little book called "The Process of Color-Block Printing", published by Watanabe (the famous publisher of shin-hange - the "new prints" of the 20th Century) which consists of alternate leaves, one showing each stage of the process as an individual printing (i.e. by itself, on a fresh sheet of paper), and the facing page showing the "accumulated" effect of all the blocks so far. This sequence is reproduced below.

Note that in a number of stages, a block which was used in a previous stage is used again, to overprint an accent color, always using bokashi to grade it in. Even with the repeat printing, the little book used 10 blocks, with two being overprinted twice, for a total of 14 separate printing stages.

The process starts with the key block (note that for this, as well as all the images below, you can get a larger image by clicking on the image):

Key Block

Now we add the rest of the blocks:

Stage Print Block Cumulative Print
1 - Brown 1st Stage Stage 1
2 - Pinkish Brown 2nd Stage Stage 2
3 - Grey 3rd Stage Stage 3
4 - Bluish Grey 4th Stage Stage 4
5 - Light Blue 5th Stage Stage 5
6 - Grey (same color as stage 3) 6th Stage Stage 6
7 - Dark Blue (same block as stage 5) 7th Stage Stage 7
8 - Dark Blue (same block as stage 5) 8th Stage Stage 8
9 - Grey-Blue 9th Stage Stage 9
10 - Green 10th Stage Stage 10
11 - Light Blue (same block as stage 9) 11th Stage Stage 11
12 - Black (same block as stage 9) 12th Stage Stage 12
13 - Red 13th Stage Stage 13

Note that apparently the same color is used in stages 7 and 8 (which also use the same block). If so, it is not clear why these two were not done as a single stage (with bokashi gradation on top and bottom).

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