Basic techniques of making a print
The production of ukiyo-e woodcut prints was a complex process involving teams of people, each contributing different skills to the final result. It depended on a publisher who played a vital role in overseeing the entire project. The publisher was responsible for coordinating the production team, first by commissioning an artist to make a design, and then by liaising with the different craftsmen who undertook the block-cutting and printing; finally it was he who handled the distribution and sale of the finished prints. His judgement in selecting appropriate material for publication and his ability in coordinating the different studios was usually reflected in the commercial success of the print. The publisher was generally recognised along with the artist in having his name printed on the print, but until the middle of the nineteenth century the block carvers and printers usually went unrecorded.
An ukiyo-e print usually started with a rough sketch (gakô) executed on a thin, but frequently rough, kôzo (mulberry fibre) paper using a deer hair brush and black sumi ink; Yoshitoshi used red ink while still working out the design and then went over the main lines in black. The gakô was refined to produce a very precise 'final' drawing called the hanshita-e - the design from which the outline block (omohan) was cut. This too was executed in sumi but on a more refined, very thin kôzo paper. It was handed over to the block cutter, sometimes with specific instructions, and pasted onto close-grained block (often the white mountain cherry (shiro-yamazakura or Prunus mutabilis). The most skilled block-cutter in the studio then proceeded to cut around the outline through the paper into the wood, the hanshita-e being destroyed in the process. Surviving hanshita-e were either made for prints that were never executed or copied before the print was produced.
The finished outline block was passed on to the print studio and a series of proofs were printed in black (sumi) and handed back to the artist to be marked with his intended scheme of colours and effects. The block-cutter then pasted these proofs face down onto individual blocks and cut the number required for all the specified colours and special effects, usually one block for each colour but sometimes different colours were applied to separate areas of the same block. Reproduced on the corners of each colour block were raised registration marks (kentô) that had been copied from the outline block: these allowed precise alignment of the various blocks during printing. To print, the face of the block was moistened with water and the pigment with a small brush made of slit bamboo leaves. Small horse-hair brushes with short bristles were used to work the pigment into the raised areas of the block, with rice-starch paste being mixed into the pigment on the block itself in some cases. The printer then laid the paper onto the block and applied pressure by rubbing over the surface with a coiled bamboo pad called a baren, using rhythmical circular or semicircular movements (these can sometimes be detected in the finished print). No mechanical press was ever used.
Until the twentieth century no attempt was made to classify Japanese prints into editions. The prints themselves carry no formal marking system to indicate whether a print was an early or late impression and the blocks were never officially cancelled. Although documentary evidence on the subject is scarce, it is generally believed that batches of up to two hundred prints would have been printed at any one time and then the blocks would have been allowed to 'rest' and dry out. Depending on the popularity of a print, a number of printings might have followed, with several thousand impressions being possible before there was significant wear to the blocks. Blocks with delicate lines would have worn first, and this often shows in the cartouche with the title or artist's signature. Later printings might show a deterioration in quality for a variety of reasons: colours were changed, worn blocks were replaced or omitted, and less care was often taken with the printing process itself. Furthermore, with the obvious financial gains available, woodblock copies were made to imitate popular prints; but although very skilfully executed they often lack the vibrancy of line, subtle gradations of tone and depth of recession found in the originals.
The technique of carving and printing a woodcut is explained with animated illustrations elsewhere on the Fitzwilliam Museum website (see Links).