What is a Woodblock Print?

What is a Japanese woodblock print ?

The woodblock printing technique begins with the artist who creates the image and designs the colors for the print. The image is then taken to the block carvers who create the wood blocks from which the final print is printed. Each woodblock print is the product of anywhere from one to over a hundred individual wood blocks, all individually carved. Each color and texture of the original design has to be carved onto a separate piece of wood and printed in order. For example, a simple woodblock print with three colors, green, black, and red, would require three carved wood blocks. Needless to say, each woodblock print is the culmination of the artist, publisher, and skilled carvers working together.

Each color of a woodblock print must be carved as a separate block and printed one at a time. A single print may have as little as one color or more than a hundred.

What is Ukiyo-e?

The word ukiyo-e has Buddhist origins, meaning “floating world” expressing the transitory nature of life. In the distinctly materialistic age of the Edo period (1614-1868), the word took on new connotations. Instead of a spiritual phrase, it became a slogan for people to “seize the day” and enjoy the present.

The word ukiyo-e also refers to the woodblock prints which were developed at this time. The most frequent subjects are of beautiful courtesans and famous actors of the kabuki theater. As time went on, artists like Hokusai and Hiroshige explored more diverse subject matter. Landscapes, very often famous landmarks like Mount Fuji and the views from the main roadways around Japan became popular.

Ukiyo-e prints also played a part in influencing western artists, most notably, the Impressionists. As many of these artists were interested in “exotic” artifacts and became collectors of Japanese exports, what they found most interesting was the wrapping that these objects arrived in. Many prints were used as wrappings for porcelain and other wares destined for Europe. Monet, Degas, and Van Gogh were all intrigued and deeply influenced by the compositions and bold line quality.