The art of woodblock printing has been practiced in Japan since the eighth century, when it was used to print religious texts. The first woodblocks were printed in only one color using black sumi ink. The earliest color woodblock prints didn't appear until the seventeenth century, and used a very limited palette of colors, initially just a single color plus black.
The most well known form of Japanese art, the ukiyo-e
woodblock, became popular in the mid-seventeenth century. Literally "pictures of the Floating World," ukiyo-e refers to images of the transient world of actors and courtesans during the Edo era, depicting a carefree life of pleasure and indulgence, and the enjoyment of beauty and nature. These beautifully detailed woodblocks feature a full range of colors. These color prints flourished for the next three hundred years. Popular subjects included geishas and courtesans, actors, samurai, and landscapes and nature scenes. These prints earned great artistic acclaim in the West in the mid-nineteenth century after Japan was opened to trade. Some of the most important artists of this period include Utamaro, Hokusai, Toyokuni, and Hiroshige.
The traditional woodblock process involves several steps and artisans. A publisher normally commissioned a print or a series or prints. First, the artist created the design in color. A master carver would then carve a separate wooden block for each color required. Woodblock is a relief printing process, so areas that do not print are carved away, leaving the only the areas to be printed. A master printer carefully inked the design and printed each block in succession to achieve the final multi-colored result. Careful registration, or alignment, of each different color block to the paper is crucial. Additional effects could also be added, such as shimmering mica backgrounds, or blind embossing to create texture without adding any ink.
Woodblock printing in fell into a decline in Japan in the late-nineteenth century with the modernization of the Meiji era. In a successful effort to revive this traditional art, the publisher Watanabe Shozaburo began commissioning new woodblocks, founding the shin hanga
, or "new print" movement in the early twentieth-century. Landscapes and birds and flower prints (kacho-e
) were favorite subjects during this period. Kawase Hasui and Hiroshi Yoshida are some of the most important shin hanga artists.
The sosaku hanga
, or "creative print" movement also began about the same time in the first part of the twentieth century. Unlike the traditional collaborative printing process utilizing a separate artist, carver, and printer, the sosaku hanga movement emphasized artist involvement in designing, carving, and printing the blocks himself, as the sole creator of his work. The movement gained popularity following World War II, earning international acclaim and expanding subject matter to include abstraction. Today most contemporary Japanese print artists design, carve, and print their woodblocks themselves, continuing the vibrant creative tradition established with ukiyo-e.
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