History of Japanese Woodblock Printing
By: Alyssa Balderrama
Along with the origins of paper making, woodblock printing began in China by Buddhist priests in early 8th century. Such technique were primarily used for religious reasons till the 17th century. The use of woodblock printing in China is mainly used to mass produce paintings; to make the print as painterly as possible. Whereas in Japan the technique is adopted, likely due to Chinese refugees, and adapted to a much more creative aspect. These prints were called ukiyo-e, pictures of the floating world, referring to the influence of Buddhism and their aspect of the ephemeral worlds and way of life.
The first woodblock printing in Japan were monochrome prints used with sumi, Japanese ink, for book illustrations with abstract patterns and lines. Not long after, print makers would color the monochrome design by hand with red lead and sappanwood which gave a dark red/yellow tone. They would also use a technique called urushi-e, lacquer print, by mixing the black Japanese ink with an animal glue binder to produce a richer black to highlight particular areas of the print; eventually other colors were added in the prints. Due to the increasing supply and demand of these genuine handmade prints it was usually the wealthiest classes who were able to afford commissioned works. To keep up with the business, a successful team usually consists of an artist, a carver, a printer, and a publisher. Publishers typically ran the project while the artist draws the commission, provided by the publisher, then the drawing is sent to the carver. The carver uses cherry wood, or yamazakura, not only due to its abundance but also it doesn’t splinter when carved. The carved black is passed over to the printer to print numerous monochrome copies then sent back to the artist for hand painting in the colors. The colored copies are then sent to the carver to be pasted into blocks then cut. Those blocks would be sent to a workshop usually consisting many printers to print the finished work; about 200 prints a day per printer. Though over time the distinguished lines deteriorate and become stained with various pigment, the blocks are either kept to be printed in the future or sold off to other workshops that might have use for it. Otherwise they’ve lost value not only due to the extensive usage since the time it was carved but also to the decreasing use of woodblock printing over the centuries.
In the 20th century the tradition of woodblock printing was saved with the Creative Print movement, or Sōsaku Hanga, by artists influenced by the methods of printing in Europe. While the traditional materials were still used, the tasks of printing were much more simplified and less time-consuming. Another generation of artists experimented with combining woodblock printing, etching, and screen-printing to further extend the tradition of printmaking. Despite the persisting intentions to keep the printing traditions alive in Japan, the prints holds little value today whilst in the Western cultures the printing is seen as works of art.
Works Cited: Salter, Rebecca. Japanese Woodblock Printing. Honolulu, University of Hawaii Press, 2002.
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