The Exquisite World of Ukiyo-e
Ukiyo-e, the traditional Japanese woodblock printing, originated as a means to reproduce Buddhist texts. However, it soon transformed into a thriving artistic activity during the latter half of the 17th century.
The popularity of ukiyo-e surged with the publication of “Ise Monogatari” (The Tales of Ise) in 1608, portraying the vivacious lifestyles of the noble class. Initially, these prints were crafted in black and white. As demand grew, vibrant colors, such as reddish-orange (tan) and green (roku), were incorporated, giving rise to the renowned tan-e prints.
The Production Process - From Sketch to Print
Creating a ukiyo-e print involves a meticulous process requiring the collaborative efforts of an artist, engraver, and printer. Firstly, the artist designs the artwork on durable paper, using a brush and black ink. This drawing is then transferred to a wooden block, where an engraver skillfully carves the intricate image. Finally, the printer applies ink to the carved block and employs a baren – a handheld tool – to press the paper against the block, transferring the ink.
(Source Galerie Bei Der Oper)
Toriyama Sekien, an artist born in Japan in 1712, left a significant impact on the world of art and literature. Despite being trained in the traditional Kano style of painting, Sekien chose to explore his own artistic path. He introduced the innovative technique known as fuki-bokashi, which added color gradations to woodblock prints, revolutionizing the medium at that time. Moreover, Sekien generously shared his knowledge by mentoring apprentices, some of whom, such as Utagawa Toyoharu and Kitagawa Utamaro, achieved great renown and further expanded the artistic movement known as “Japonisme” in Europe. The wide reach of Sekien’s influence is truly remarkable.
Technical Nuances and Techniques
The ukiyo-e tradition encompasses a wide range of techniques and styles that enable artists to achieve diverse effects. Initially, monochrome black prints, known as sumizuri-e, dominated the scene. However, as the demand for more elaborate prints grew, various methods emerged. Monochrome prints usually printed in pink (beni-e) and hand-coloring in red or sometimes green ink (benizuri-e) became popular. Tan-e technique incorporated orange highlights known as tan. Prints featuring a single color in addition to black ink were called aizuri-e or murasaki-e prints.
To enhance the visual impact, artists masterfully incorporated additional materials into their prints. Gold, mica, and other substances were utilized to add depth and texture to the images. Nishiki-e, a notable style, employed multiple blocks and colors, resulting in intricate and detailed compositions. Alignment between each block was ensured using registration marks known as kentō.
Sumizuri-e print by Nishikawa Sukenobu
Prints by Ishikawa Toyonobu and Torii Kiyonobu
Aizuri-e print by Keisai Eisen
Nishimura Shigenobu, ‘Shōki and Girl’.
Woodblock print with hand-coloring and lacquer (urushi).
Artists and Innovations
Hishikawa Moronobu (1618 or 1625–1694) was among the early pioneers who introduced color and worked on loose sheets (ichimai-e). Suzuki Harunobu (1725–1770) revolutionized ukiyo-e by popularizing the nishiki-e style. Harunobu’s work featured diagonals to create depth and employed a measured approach to coloring.
Innovative techniques further elevated the art of ukiyo-e. Itabokashi created a distinct color degradation effect by wearing down carved areas. Sabitsuke reinforced brush lines, while Koshime added a net-like pattern. Among the printing effects, Karazuri achieved three-dimensionality by printing in a hollowed section, while Bokashi involved the careful application of pigment using a damp cloth for graduated colors. Ichimonjibokashi, a variation of Bokashi, produced straight-line gradient effects seen in works by Katsushika Hokusai and Utagawa Hiroshige, particularly in depictions of the sky and sea.
Example of bokashi in Hiroshige’s “The Beach at Takashi in Izumi Province”, 1853.
An Enduring Art Form
Ukiyo-e practice exemplifies the essence of collaboration and teamwork between artists, engravers, and printers. The elegance and precision of this traditional Japanese craftsmanship continue to captivate audiences of all ages. With its diverse themes, styles, and production techniques, ukiyo-e stands as a testament to the artistry and evolution of this cherished art form.
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