The Development of the Woodblock Printing Process


The technical aspects of the process for the production of woodblock prints, as outlined here, were the outcome of a long history of experimentation, with gradual change and enhancement.

Early Printing

The notion of printing from carved woodblocks was apparently introduced from China around the eighth century. Originally, the process was used for the production of Buddhist religious works, both images and text, and it may have been Buddhist monks who introduced the technology. From the eleventh through sixteenth centuries, this use was expanded and developed, although considerations of both cost, and the lack of a literate population, impeded any widespread use.

The first non-religious printed book, a dictionary, was produced in 1590, and other utilitarian works soon followed. The next advance was the production of limited high-quality editions of Japanese literary classics, the first of which appeared in 1608. In the 1620's, with the growth of literacy under the peace and prosperity of the Tokugawa, Shogunate, production of cheaper, more numerous editions of illustrated versions of these classics came about.

Hand Colouring

Almost immediately, some illustrated books were given rudimentary hand-colouring, using tan (a pigment made from a mixture of red lead, saltpeter and sulphur, which intended to be orange, but turned to blue as it slowly oxidized), and roku (a green pigment produced from ground malachite, which turned black and often ate into the paper as it aged), producing so-called tan-roku-bon, or 'orange and green books'.

The artists and technicians who created these early illustrated books produced the foundations for the ukiyo-e which were originally mostly books of shun-ga. The earliest ukiyo-e prints, produced in the 1660's, appeared several years after the first ukiyo-e books. The earliest prints were sumizuri-e, printed in black ink on white paper, but tan-e prints, produced in the same way as tan-roku-bon, soon followed.

Although the colors were unstable, and usually fairly quickly underwent chemical changes that changed them, the color scheme proved effective, and this technique lasted well into the 1750's. However, the artists of ukiyo-e clearly wanted something better, and the first attempt to reach past tan-e were the so-called urushi-e (literally, 'lacquer pictures'), which used the techniques of laquer-ware, including a number of new colours such as red and yellow, along with gold dust, to produce exquisite hand-coloured prints.

Mechanical Colouring

The combination of cost, and the desire of the Shogunate to promote social harmony by supressing conspicuous consumption by the chonin through sumptuary laws, led to the major step in the technical evolution of the ukiyo-e print, which was color printing, or nishiki-e. This was introduced by the influential artist-publisher Okumura Masanobu (ca. 1686 - 1764) in about 1740, following experiments in the late 1730's by he and his fellow artist-publisher Nishimura Shinenaga (ca. 1697 - 1756).

The early color-prints reproduced the simple red and green color scheme of the tan-e prints, and were known as benizuri-e. Experimentation soon added more colors, though, and by the 1750's three or four colours were common.

Technical Refinement

Through the last half of the eighteenth century, the development of better printing techniques was principally driven by the private connoisseurs and amateur poets who produced surimono, including e-goyomi. Among the technical innovations thereby introduced into the wider world of ukiyo-e prints were the use of the harder and finer-grained cherrywood for the blocks, more and better pigments, and use of more colour blocks (as many as 10 in some of the experiments of the 1764-65 period).

At that point, the technical evolution of the ukiyo-e print was basically complete. A few specialized techniques, many described here, such as karazuri, shomenzuri, and kirazuri, remained to be added to the artists' and printers' armoury. However, their existence was not really needed to allow such later artists as Sharaku, Utamaro, Hokusai, Hiroshige, and Yoshitoshi to create a breathtaking artistic form which has made an indelible contribution to the world of art.

Back to JNC's home page