How to Make a Woodblock Print

A Japanese woodblock print is said to be the work of the artist, but in truth it is the joint effort of the ‘ukiyo-e quartet’—the artist, engraver, printer and publisher. The process begins with the artist, designing an image that is then pasted onto a prepared cherry woodblock.  Due to its hard, strong nature cherry wood was favored throughout the Edo period. While difficult to carve, these blocks could be printed many times. 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. The engraver follows the artist’s lines with a sharp knife, skillfully hollowing out the intervening spaces. Once carved, the key block is a work of art in of itself.

Example of a key block. Source: Ronin Gallery.
Example of a key block. Source: Ronin Gallery.

Once carved, the key block is then inked with sumi (black ink) and a sheet of dampened, handmade mulberry paper is laid upon it.  Known as hosho, this paper provided the ideal strength for printing and the ideal absorbency for ink. The printer rubs the paper with a baren (flat circular pad) until the impression is uniformly transferred. This key block impression establishes the design’s outlines and the kagi kento and hikitsuke kento (guide marks) used to align each subsequent color. In the 1760s, Japanese woodblock prints burst into unprecedented color. With the innovation of nishiki-e, or full-color prints, artists moved away from hand painted pigments in limited hues to a vivid spectrum of printed colors.  For a color print, the artist indicates the color scheme and a separate block is carved for each hue. The printer rubs the ink onto the block and layers each color atop the key block impression. Finally, the publisher distributes the finished work to eager audiences. As the art of woodblock printing developed over the centuries, the artist became further involved in the process, completing each step him or herself by the 20th century.

In the abstract, this process can be difficult to conceptualize, so let's turn to a work by Harunobu (1725-1770), father of nishiki-e , to consider the role of the printing process a block at time. Below, you can see the final image: A beauty leans over a small stream rinsing a long piece of fabric in the current.  Can you tell how many blocks  went into this print?

Final Print, all blocks printed. Source: Process of Printing Wood Engraving .
Final print, all blocks printed. Source: Process of Printing Wood Engraving .

For ukiyo-e such as this work by Harunobu, the printing process begins with the key block, the outlines of the design. This impression includes the artists signature (seen in the bottom right). Though the background of this print is also black, it is not printed at this time.

Impression 1 - establish the design's outlines with the key block.
Impression 1 - establish the design's outlines with the key block.

With the design's outline established, the printer applies the first color - a soft red - to the beauty's hair oranament, under kimono, and the tasuki that holds backs her wide sleeves.

Impression 2 - a soft red
Impression 2 - adding a soft red.

Yet, if we look back to the final design, these areas feature not flat, uniform color, but varying tone.  Where the fabric falls into shadow, where the beauty's elbow presses against the tasuki, and on the surface of the hair ornament, the color deepens. To achieve this effect, a second shade of red must be printed on top of the first.

Impression 3 - varying tone
Impression 3 - varying tone with layered color.

With the red portions of the design complete, the printer can turn to patterned blue fabric of the beauty's kimono. At a glance, the kimono may appear to feature two shades of blue, one light and one dark. If we look closely, we can see that this effect results from the varying widths of the stripes carved into this block.

Impression 4 - adding the second color
Impression 4 - adding blue to the kimono.

Next, the finely patterned obi around the beauty's waist is printed in a deep lilac.  As with the red, this first layer of color is not enough to achieve the effect seen in the final print.

Impression 5 - printing purple
Impression 5 - printing lilac to the obi.

A second, slightly different shade of lilac is layered to achieve the subtle shading located at the small of her back and on the top fold and bottom loop of her obi. As seen with in the second impression of the red color above (Impression 3), this layered impression does not have sharp edges. Instead, the color seems taper off gradually. This gradation results from bokashi, or shading. This technique is used for both red and lilac in this print.

Impression 6 - shading the obi
Impression 6 - shading the obi.

The 7th impression prints a light brown onto the stream that winds across the bottom left corner of the design. Notice that not all areas of the brown are outlined by the key block.

Impression 8 - adding brown to the stream
Impression 7 - adding brown to the stream.

If you look to the flow of the water in the bottom left corner, the loop of fabric appears to be submerged beneath the current. To create this effect with color, a gradated impression of light brown is printed atop parts of the fabric and water.

Impression 8 - adding gradation to the brown
Impression 8 - adding gradation to the brown..

In the final color impression, the composition receives a rich black background. Yet, the printing process is not quite complete.

Impression 9 - printing the background
Impression 9 - printing the background.

While the printing process fills a composition with a color, it can also enrich a work with texture. In this work, we can see two of these textural, ink-free techniques at work.  In impression 10, the deep lines around the edges of the fabric reveal the use of "blind printing." In this technique, a block is carved with sharp lines and printed without ink . These lines can imbue a pattern, or, as in this case, emphasize an outline.

impression 10 - blind printing the fabric's outlines
impression 10 - blind printing the fabric's outlines

In Impression 11, the effect of the blind printing is combined with embossing. In this second ink-free printing technique, the serpentine shape of the fabric is pressed into the image from the back of the paper. This technique lends the fabric a tangible texture and heightened tactility.

Impression 11 - embossing the fabric
Impression 11 - embossing the fabric, the complete print.

Unfortunately, it can be difficult to perceive these subtle surface textures through photographs and computer screens. These techniques are best appreciated in person.  Want to test your eye? Stop by the exhibition Sea to Mountain: Landscapes of Japan to explore some stunning examples of full-color printing.The exhibition will be on view through June 30th.