While ukiyo-e were printed in a variety of sizes, each format adhered to a standardized sizing system shaped by both technical and social factors. This determination begins with two of the primary materials of woodblock printing: the woodblock and the paper. Cherry wood was favored throughout the Edo period for its hard, strong nature. While difficult to carve, blocks made from cherry wood could be printed over and over again. By using heartwood of the cherry tree, artists gained sharp lines and block longevity, but limited their block sizes to the diameter of the cherry tree.
Paper proved to be a second factor in ukiyo-e sizing. Made from mulberry fiber, the hosho provided the ideal strength for printing and the ideal absorbency for ink. Hosho was generally produced in sheets measuring about 53cm x 29cm. This standard size is known as O-bosho. The standard print sizes were determined so as to not waste any paper. Thus, the oban size (38cm x 25cm) is roughly half the size of the original paper. The chuban (25cm x 19cm) size is about a fourth of the original hosho sheet. As each paper maker varied in their paper making technique, paper molds, and recipes, prints may vary slightly from the stated standard dimensions.
Kiyochika, Sasaki Takatsuna and Kajiwara Kagesue Crossing Uji River, c.1890. Ronin Gallery.
Finally, the size of ukiyo-e tells the viewer a bit about the social climate of its production. From sumptuary edicts issued by the Tokugawa Shogunate to chuban landscapes aimed at travelers, the size of a print can lend clues to government restrictions and intended audiences. However, throughout the Edo period, artists found flexibility and expanded creative potential through triptychs and diptychs. By connecting standard woodblock print sizes, mainly chuban and oban, along their long edge, artists could create palpable drama. Triptychs were the most popular polyptych format, but artists would surpass five sheets to create a single, luxurious image.
STANDARD PRINT SIZES
Measuring roughly 15" by 10" (38cm x 25cm), this is the most common print size for ukiyo-e.
Utamaro, The Priest Sojo Henjo from the series Children as the Six Immortal Poets, c.1804. Ronin Gallery.
Roughly half the size of an oban print, the chuban size is a common size for smaller prints. It measures about 10" by 7.5" (25cm x 19cm).
Yoshitsuya, Sakagaki Genzo Masakata from the series The 47 Loyal Retainers, c.1850. Ronin Gallery.
Measuring about 13" by 9" (34cm x 23cm), the aiban size is in between the popular chuban and oban formats. This format is somewhat rare.
Hiroshige, Tsuchiyama from the series The 53 Stations of the Tokaido, c.1842. Ronin Gallery.
This rare narrow print size measures 13" by 5" (33cm x 14.5 cm). It is most commonly found in yakusha-e (actor prints) from the 18th century and kacho-e (bird and flower prints) from the 19th century.
Shunko, Kabuki Actor Segawa Kikunojo III, c. 1780. Ronin Gallery.
Also known as "pillar prints," these long, narrow prints were originally displayed on pillars in the home. They are printed in the hashira-eban paper size, usually 29" by 5" (68-73cm x 12-16cm).
Koryusai, Courtesan Nioteru from the House of Ogi, c. 1770. Ronin Gallery.
As Kakemono refers to a hanging scroll, this print format mimics that of a scroll with its long and narrow format. This format requires two separate pieces of paper joined together in a vertical diptych. Each piece of paper in is the oban size, resulting in a total measurement around 30" x 9" (76cm x 23cm).
Yoshitoshi, Rorihakucho Chojun Wrestling Kokusenpu Riki in the Water, c. 1887. Ronin Gallery.
Refers to prints with vertical orientation.
Hiroshige, Fireworks at Ryogoku from the series 100 Famous Views of Edo, 1858. Ronin Gallery.
Refers to prints with horizontal orientation.
Hiroshige, Fujisawa from the series The 53 Stations of the Tokaido, c.1833, Ronin Gallery.