Japanese Prints took centre stage from the 19th century onwards

Japanese Woodblock Prints Guide

Woodblock printing (‘mokuhanga’) is a traditional art form in Japan involving the printing of text, images, and patterns. Many intricate and famous prints have been created as a result of Japanese woodblock printing techniques, and these prints go far back in Japan’s history. This guide highlights how and when this process began.

Woodblock Printing History

The woodblock printing process can be traced all the way back to the 8th century, where the process was used to print religious texts. Buddhists from China brought these texts to Japan, introducing the printing method to the country.

In 764, Japanese monarch, Empress Kōken, commissioned one million wooden pagodas to contain a woodblock scroll containing a Buddhist text. These were then distributed around Japan, marking one of the earliest instances of woodblock prints documented in Japan. The Woodblock printing process remained common in Buddhist temples in the form of sutras, mandalas, and other Buddhist texts. However, at this time, Japanese woodblock printing was too expensive for mass-production and so didn’t become more common until later on.

The early cases of Japanese woodblock printing involved one single colour, the colour of the Sumi ink used to carry out the printing; any further colour was added by hand. It wasn’t for another 900 years before coloured prints made an appearance.

Japanese Woodblock Printing Techniques

Japanese woodblock printing

A collaboration of efforts was and is involved in the woodblock printing process – usually a collaboration between an artist, publisher, carver, and printer.

Generally, publishers would have an idea for an art piece or series and would approach artists about their idea. The artist would then plan the piece with a sketch. When perfected, the artist would then approach a block-copyist who would make a detailed final copy on mimo paper. Once completed, this would then be given to a block carver.

The role of the block carver was to paste the image on a piece of wood, which was usually Cherrywood. The paper was then removed and in its place, a thin layer of the design was still visible. The carver then carefully and delicately cut and chipped the wood around the outlines. The process is extremely delicate and requires extreme skill and a lot of practice. Carving finished, the carver would then remove the paper residue and brush sumi ink over the raised areas of the block. All prints had to be approved by the government, but once approved, the print is then ready for distribution.

This process has remained the same for traditional woodblock prints. The subject of the print designs has varied over the years with different trends, ranging from actors, sumo wrestlers, to famous historical events.

Japanese Woodblock Printing Today

Japanese woodblock prints (‘Edo moku-hanga’) were at their most popular during the late-Edo (early Kinryuzan Temple woodblock print1800’s) and Meiji (1868-1912) periods, but their popularity declined as modern mechanical printing methods were introduced. Despite this, the design of woodblock prints has remained prominent throughout Japanese art, and there are still artists and carvers that produce the prints. As well as this, copies of original woodblock prints are often created and sold.

If you would like to have and appreciate your own woodblock print, we have a beautiful range of woodblock prints to choose from. Made with traditional techniques and skilled hands, these prints are perfect as a gift or treat to yourself!

Keep up to date with our blog for lots of information about the culture and traditions of Japan.

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