Japanese Woodblock Printmaking

New York Asia Week, September 514, 2019

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Scholten Japanese Art is pleased to announce our upcoming gallery presentation, BRUSH – BLOCK - BAREN: Japanese Woodblock Printmaking, an exhibition exploring the process of Japanese-style woodblock production.

Traditional Japanese woodblock prints are collectively referred to as ukiyo-e, which literally means pictures ('e') of the floating world ('ukiyo') and is derived from a Buddhist concept pertaining to the fleeting nature of life. However, during the Edo Period (1615—1868), the concept of ukiyo acquired a more nuanced meaning: the impermanence of our existence became a justification to indulge in the pleasures and entertainments that are available at this fleeting moment (for a price). As such, the realm of the floating world was that of the pleasure quarters, houses of assignation, teahouses, restaurants, leisure boats, and the theater districts. Images of these pleasures were affordable and widely available in the form of woodblock prints and illustrated books depicting an array of subjects including kabuki actors, sumo wrestlers, stylish bijin (beauties), meisho (famous places), legendary musha (warriors), and kacho (birds and flowers). It was a very big market indeed. At its height in the 1840s there were over 250 woodblock print publishers1, the majority of which were located in the largest city of Edo.

The production of prints was systemized in the 17th century and is known as the hanmoto (publisher) system, characterized by capital, collaboration, and commerce. A publisher put up the capital funds to hire an artist for the designs, carvers for the blocks, and printers to produce the prints. Prints were often presented in series issued over a period of years, necessitating a certain financial stamina to see the project through (and sometimes they were unable to do so). Mindful of this investment, the publisher would guide all aspects of the production process, collaborating with the artists, carvers, and printers to ensure a commercially successful result for their collective efforts. In order to keep up the pace of artistic production, artists would often collaborate with students in their atelier to help produce the designs, leaving the less important elements of a composition to their assistants. Carvers and printers would likewise share the workload within their own studios with their apprentices. The best artists worked with the best publishers, who could afford to employ the best carvers and printers. Although the resulting woodblock print is primarily credited to the artist, the entire process involved the coordinated efforts and the artistic eye of a number of craftsmen. Ultimately, however, it was the publisher who controlled the production and maintained ownership of the blocks and the inventory of prints to be sold.


The process began with the design from the artist, who used a brush with ink on thin paper for print projects. Preparatory works for prints typically have a loose, sketch-like quality and frequently reveal underdrawings in red or slips of paper pasted on top with artist's adjustments to the composition. In contrast, painting on silk was reserved for more finished work by a well-established artist. While some ukiyo-e artists were able to supplement their income with lucrative painting commissions, most were dependent on the somewhat reliable 'bread and butter' work generated by the print publishing industry. As most of the surviving preliminary drawings pertaining to prints are just that, preliminary, they are not always signed, and we may only be able to attribute them to specific artists with some degree of confidence if the design made it into production as a published woodblock print. These drawings also might represent the work of the master along with contributions from his students. After a design was approved (by both the artist and the publisher), it was converted into a hanshita (block design) which was a clean version of the composition professionally copied onto very thin translucent paper. Hanshita were likely produced within the artist's studio which would have allowed the master to maintain control of the final version of the composition.


The hanshita was then pasted face down onto a cherrywood board and used to create the black outline or keyblock of the print. The carvers first rubbed the paper to make it even more thin, then cleared away any wood that was not a visible part of the drawing, taking special care to capture the vitality of the artist's brush. Backgrounds and blank areas could be cleared by the junior carvers, but more experienced carvers would handle complex patterns, calligraphy and signatures. The faces and hands of the figures were considered the most important aspects of the composition and would command the attention of the master carver himself. In this way, the hanshita was usually destroyed in the production process. While many of the hanshita that remain extant today are from designs that never made it into production, the scarce extant hanshita that do relate to known prints indicate either that a change was made to the composition or that perhaps it was not unusual to produce more than one as a safeguard. Once the keyblock was completed it was used to produce several keyblock proofs (hanshita-e, lit. 'picture of the block design') which would only have the black outline of the composition. The lines of the finely carved keyblocks were so true to the artist's brush it can be difficult to distinguish hanshita-e proofs from the hand-drawn original hanshita. The keyblock proofs were then pasted face down on additional boards to create the color blocks by the same process. It was the carvers who were able to keep the color blocks in alignment with the keyblock by using kento marks; horizontal and vertical guides carved into each block. Each color or treatment might require a separate block, and color blocks were usually carved double-sided. An average Edo period print might require anywhere from 10 to 20 colors, so perhaps half of that number of boards would be needed.


A set of keyblock and color blocks would then be given to a printer. The artist and publisher would have already worked out the desired color scheme in order to give directions to the carvers regarding how many color blocks were needed, but in the lifetime of a set of blocks there were often changes to the palette and to the blocks themselves. Water-soluble pigment was applied to a block along with a binding agent derived from rice-flour. Then a pre-dampened sheet of high-quality paper called kozo (made from the pulp of a variety of mulberry) was carefully placed face down on the block using the kento marks as a guide to maintain alignment. Once the paper was in place, the kozo was vigorously rubbed from the verso with a small circular pad called a baren which would force the pigments into the paper fibers. The application of the color required skill with handling pigments and a brush, the placement of the paper in alignment with the kento marks (without smudging the color into unwanted areas) required deftly handling the damp paper, and utilizing the baren all day long required considerable strength, building shoulder muscles akin to that of an Olympic swimmer. While the quality of an impression was primarily in the hands of the printers, it was up to the publisher if he chose to pay for time-consuming techniques such as bokashi (brushed gradations of color), karazuri (lit. 'blind printing' or embossing), and shomenzuri (burnishing). Prints were produced in however many batches of 200 the publisher ordered, and recent research2 has revealed that at least 600 prints were needed for most productions to break even. While a block may have been used for approximately 200 'impressions' (or rubbings) at one go in order to fill an order for one set, it is estimated that perhaps a few thousand impressions could be pulled before the blocks would begin to show wear. The paper would be allowed to dry after a color was impressed in order to set the pigment, and then re-humidified for the next printing. Completing a batch would likely take weeks as each color was applied in the same manner. If a print sold well, new batches would be financed by the publisher, and the printers would repeat the process, possibly introducing changes. Successful prints or series were reprinted many times over, allowing the opportunity for numerous variations in impressions. The changes may have been intended as artistic improvements, corrections of mistakes in earlier printings, reducing the number of colors to simplify the design in an effort to economize on the labor costs, or perhaps skillful manipulations of the blocks to hide wear from frequent printings. Occasionally a deluxe version of a print or series would be produced utilizing additional bokashi, more color, and more expensive pigments with other embellishments.

As Japan opened to the West in the Meiji Period (1868–1912), the woodblock print production process gradually changed. The print industry, already on the decline, was soon rocked by the competition from other mechanical means of reproduction including etching, lithography, and photography. While Japan rushed to modernize, woodblock printing waned. From 1850 on, the number of woodblock publishers in business dropped every decade. The most precipitous fall was from the 1890s to the first decade of 1900 when the number of active woodblock publishers dropped from approximately 125 to less than 503. At the same time, artists were profoundly influenced by the sudden exposure to new artistic sensibilities, not just stylistically, but also in how artists regarded themselves and their role in the creation of art. The Western concept of 'artist as creator' gradually seeped into the collective consciousness of the art community. Young artists were no longer obliged to harness themselves to the old 'copying the master' model in which a student would be attached to a master who runs an atelier or school. Nor was the (now antiquated) woodblock print medium particularly alluring for an artist who wanted to make a name for themselves. By the beginning of the 20th century, most of the prints being produced were not original designs but either facsimile reproductions of classic works of the 17th, 18th, & 19th centuries, kuchi-e (woodblock printed frontispiece illustrations for novels) or prints based on original paintings. The model of producing prints made from original designs which were only intended to be prints was in decline, and the artist's contributions gained greater importance in the process. As a result, publishers, carvers and printers increasingly worked from watercolors or even finished paintings rather than hanshita, and were expected to replicate, as much as possible, the artist's intentions.

From that moment of divergence from the past in the early 20th century two woodblock print genres began to emerge: shin-hanga and sosaku-hanga. Shin-hanga (lit. 'new prints') was a continuation of the classic hanmoto system of production where a publisher commissioned the designs from the artist and hired professional block carvers and printers to produce the work. The significant difference between shin-hanga and earlier ukiyo-e was the influence, in the former, of Western art on the artists themselves. The prints were often described as Western-style art using Japanese techniques (woodblock printing) and subjects (traditional Japan). In contrast, the sosaku-hanga (lit. 'creative prints') movement abandoned the old Japanese production methods for a more individualistic, artist-centric approach; the artist typically would act alone as designer, publisher, block-carver and printer. The result was 'self-drawn, self-carved, self-printed' (jiga jikoku jisho). Both movements shared a common goal: the revitalization of the distinctly Japanese heritage of woodblock prints. Between the two schools it was only a question of how to accomplish that mission. The means to that end was where there was a divide.

This exhibition will offer items related to varying stages of the print production process, many drawn from the private collection of Darrel C. Karl. The presentation will include numerous keyblock proofs, preparatory drawings and watercolors (some paired with their related finished woodblock print), one original 19th century keyblock, and one process set. As the preparatory works were typically destroyed during the production process itself, it is not surprising that the majority of materials extant date primarily to the end of the ukiyo-e era. Artists (and their ateliers) represented include Shibata Zeshin (1807-1891), Toyohara Chikanobu (1838-1912), Imao Keinen (1845-1924), Watanabe Seitei (1851-1915), Kubota Beisen (1852-1906), Ogata Gekko (1859-1920), Takeuchi Keishu (1861-194), Mizuno Toshikata (1866-1908) and others. We are also grateful that the artist Paul Binnie (b. 1967) has generously loaned the gallery a set of wood blocks with a related process set of prints for display.

Scholten Japanese Art is located at 145 West 58th Street, Suite 6D, between 6th and 7th Avenues. For the duration of the exhibition, September 5 – 14, the gallery will have general open hours (no appointments needed), 11 – 5 pm.

1 Estimates on the number of active print publishers by decade from 1650-1990 are found in Andreas Marks, Publishers of Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Compendium, 2011, p. 14.

2 Ibid, p. 25

3 Ibid, p. 14


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Contact Katherine Martin at
(212) 585-0474 or email
to schedule a visit between 11am and 4pm preferably for no more than two individuals at a time.
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site last updated
December 1, 2021

Scholten Japanese Art
145 West 58th Street, suite 6D
New York, New York 10019
ph: (212) 585-0474
fx: (212) 585-0475