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How to Find Clues Within a Woodblock Print

How Were Woodblock Prints Made?

At least four people were needed to work together to produce a  Ukiyo-e  woodblock print. They included a publisher, an artist or designer, a block-cutter and  a printer. 
A woman and a man each hold a stick which they are each  into a hole
Woodcut Print by Utagawa, Yoshiume, c.1830s
  • The publisher would commission the artist to draw an original design. The  artist would provide the publisher with a preparatory sketch called a  shita-e.
  • The shita-e sketch was traced by the  hikko or block copyist, on to very thin paper, which was pasted face down onto the woodblock  of cherry wood. 
  • The printer would then cut through the paper, leaving only the raised lines of the design, to create the key block, which printed the black outline to be followed when cutting the colour blocks.
  • Next, the cutter would chisel the design into the woodblock. The block would then be inked and a sheet of dampened paper (called a 'key print') is rubbed until the impression is transferred on to it.
  • The artist would then choose the colours he wanted to use within the print and a separate block would be carved for every colour.  A separate block was cut for each colour - often up to 20 - although sometimes two colours could share a block if there was sufficient distance between them. How many colour blocks do you think were made for the print pictured here?
  • Finally, the blocks would be sent to the printer, who, using mulberry paper, rubbed the dyes onto the blocks and transferred each impression. 
Prints were probably made in sets of 200 at a time, with further batches being made on demand. A popular image could run to thousands of copies.   These prints were relatively affordable pieces of artwork, within the reach of middle class households throughout Japan and the world.