Detail from CBL J 2476, Reading a letter, by Suzuki Harunobu, 1768-1770

Popular Japanese prints: Revealing Edo’s Artists Secrets

28 May, 2020

The popular woodblock prints of the Japanese Edo period (1603–1868), more often known as Ukiyo-e or “Images of the Floating World,” were commercially manufactured and available to a large audience.  Ukiyo-e prints were common between the 17th  and the 19th  Centuries. Typical subjects include images of Edo’s pleasure quarters,  Kabuki  actors, as well as both city and countryside landscapes. 

Woodblock printing is a technique which involves the use of multiple carved wooden blocks, one for each colour, which are applied in order to produce a multi-colour print. The block carver cuts into the wood while preserving the raised motif, which will be printed when ink is applied to it.  Hard cherry wood was commonly used as it could be prepared and planed to achieve a smooth surface. 

The age of the woodblock and the preparation it underwent would have a direct impact on the finish achieved in the final prints. For  example,  Mokume-Tsubushi  technique reveals the wood grain of the block by using a very dilute colourant. This was extremely difficult to achieve using worn out blocks so a print exhibiting this technique is a clear indication  of  an early impression. 

CBL J 2714, Lake Suwa in Shinano province, from 36 views of Mount Fuji (Fuji sanjūrokkei), by Utagawa Hiroshige, 1858

CBL J 2714, Lake Suwa in Shinano province, from 36 views of Mount Fuji (Fuji sanjūrokkei), by Utagawa Hiroshige, 1858. The use of Mokume-Tsubushi  technique is clearly visible in the pale water.

Colours, however subtle or bright, are what makes these prints so interesting. The pleasing softness of the natural dyes used on early prints are replaced by the deeper and bolder tones of the prints post 1820’s, which resonate with our modern sense of aesthetics.  

Like many museum objects, Ukiyo-e prints have been subject to scientific research to identify dyes and pigments, their preparation and application, in the hope of better understanding the artist’s creative process and the print’s production. 

In the literature, focus has been given to red, yellow and blue organic colourants such as safflower, madder, turmeric, gamboge, indigo and dayflower blue to name but a few. These colours were used alongside inorganic pigments which were over-printed or mixed together to create the secondary colours purple, orange and green 

It is notoriously difficult to identify organic colorants with non-destructive scientific methods, but new spectroscopic techniques are constantly emerging and we can be hopeful that they will give us a better sense of the development of the palette used in Edo Japan. 

CBL J 2670, Actor Ichikawa Komazō III, by Katsukawa Shun'ei, 1791-1793.

CBL J 2670, Actor Ichikawa Komazō III, by Katsukawa Shun’ei, 1791-1793.

Scientists and conservators still have many questions to answer, such as whether different pigments and dyes were used in mixtures, or applied individually, and why, but over time the secrets of Edo’s artists will be revealed. 

Here you will find some of the most recent literature on the subject which has been enlightening for me and has revealed many possibilities for future focused research: 

This research shows that the introduction of synthetic dyes was gradual and selective. It reveals a series of turning points from 1860 onwards. 

This article discusses the analysis of four Japanese prints, in order to characterise the multiple yellow and red colourants which might commonly be found in a single print. 

The large collection of Japanese woodblock prints in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, has allowed their Scientific Research Department to carry out a broad survey of the colourants used in their Japanese prints. 

These authors present a new approach to studying Japanese woodblock prints, which can be used to determine the sequence of impressions that were made. 

Analysis of five Japanese prints from the Museum of Zaragoza in Spain reveals blue and red pigments used both in mixtures and alone.   

This research looks at one specific pigment, an artificial yellow colour, its chemical variations, introduction and use. 

This work from the The Library of Congress Prints and Photographs Division outlines a method for creating reference samples to replicate Edo period woodblock colourants, before presenting complementary methods for their characterisation.  

More fascinating work from the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, with an analysis of the palette of five volumes from the 1770’s. 

You can explore over 400 of the Chester Beatty’s Edo prints via Chester Beatty’s Digital Collections.

Julia Poirier, Book and Paper Conservator.

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