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The Development of Printmaking Techniques

Inexpensive, mass-produced prints were one of the primary modes of public communication in Edo-period Japan (1615–1868), and were commonly used as advertisements for Edo’s entertainment and pleasure districts.
The desire to keep up with ever-changing fashions and celebrities spurred the rapid development of Japanese printmaking, from simple black and white illustrations to dazzling, multicolor feats.

Hunting for fireflies
Hunting for fireflies, 1767–1768, by Suzuki Harunobu (1725?–1770). Woodblock print; ink and colors on paper. Courtesy of Asian Art Museum, San Francisco, Gift of the Grabhorn Ukiyo-e Collection, 2005.100.29.
Edo-period prints were produced by a team of specialists working under the direction of a publisher. Each print began with an artist’s original design, brushed in ink, or ink and colors, on paper. That design was affixed to a block of wood, and a carver would carefully remove everything except outlines and patterns, which were left in relief. The printer would then apply ink and place a sheet of paper on the carved surface, rubbing the back of the sheet with a round tool called a baren to transfer an imprint of the design.

The earliest prints appeared in books as monochrome ink illustrations, but by the late 1600s publishers were selling single-sheet prints of floating world themes. Hand-colored Japanese prints—called “vermillion pictures” (beni-e)—appeared in the early 1700s, borrowing their coloring from safflower petals and light green grass sap. 

Starting around 1744, carvers added registration guide marks to the blocks, allowing printers to align their paper on multiple blocks, each of which could add a different color to the design. Using this multiple block method, full-color printing was possible by the mid-1760s. These new multicolor prints are called “brocade pictures” (nishiki-e), as they resemble colorful silk brocades.