Ancient Roots • Woodblock prints were first used in Japan around 700 AD. The technique was brought to Japan by Chinese Buddhist monks. The original works, like the one pictured above, were religious text. Buddha is depicted with a halo in this work.
Technique • Woodblocks are made by carving a scene into a block of wood, then coating the block with ink and pressing it--inside down--on paper. • For the first 1000 years, wood block prints were printed in only one color--black, though occasionally were hand-tinted after pressed. • When pressed, the image is reversed on the paper.
Color Printing • As hand-tinting became more popular, printers moved to hiring expert carvers to make color blocks so more prints could be made of each image. • Each color to be printed required a separate block. Finer prints might have as many as 15 separate colors--and thus 15 different blocks were carved to make a single print. • The advantage was that each block could be used over and over again, allowing multiple prints to be made. • The blocks required great precision, as each color section had to match exactly.
The Great Wave at Kanagawa • This is one of the most famous Japanese woodblocks. The hill in the back is Mt. Fuji. Try to count the number of colors used.
Edo Period1615-1868 • The Japanese Edo period was the height of block-making. • The new block method made prints widely available. As a result, the subjects of the prints became much broader to appeal to a general taste, not just to the rich. Celebrities, travel sites, military heroes, beauties, and genre scenes played roles in the popular art form. • This is a print of two popular actors shown in character.
A Beauty • This print shows a beautiful woman. She’s wearing a kimono, a traditional Japanese dress. The variety and richness of prints in her kimono show her status, as does the servant that follows behind her. The servant has his hair cut in a queue, or a topknot. • Only certain woods were allowed to be used for carving, and then only if the grain was right. Imagine the intricate cuts needed to carve the black print fabric and the shading on her gowns.
Yoko Protecting his Father • Count how many blocks would be needed here! • Notice the boy in the red jacket protecting his elderly father from the tiger prowling on the top left. • Does this print make you think of a comic book? Does the tiger seem real or larger than life?
Edo Period • Edo, the ancient name of the city of Tokyo, is also the name given to the 250 year time period where samurai ruled Japan. They shut Japan off from foreign contact, looking inward for their needs. • The art of Edo woodblocks is called ukiyo-e, which means pictures of the floating world, a reference to Japan. • This print is of a samurai, shown in armor, but without his helmet.
Views of Edo • When Japan opened up to the West in 1865, the woodblock prints had a great impact on western artists. • Van Gogh, Morisot, and other painters of the age included the prints in their works and were influenced by the gorgeous color and lines in the works. • How many colors can you count in this work? Does the bridge look like bridges you have used?