woodblock prints to be created, there had to be the artist,
the block maker/carver, the printer, and of course, the
paper maker. A
Japanese artist would create the artwork using ink to draw a
line symbolizing color.
From there, the student within the school would take
the design, copy it onto thin, translucent paper, after
which the publisher would secure thick and seasoned blocks
of cherry wood to the sides being used.
As the copy of the artwork was placed onto the
blocks, the lines would be cut out by the block maker.
Next, the block maker would eliminate the wood so he
was only cutting around the lines.
This way, a key-block effect was created in which the
lines were high. The
step following included rubbing ink onto the raised lines
and then proofing paper applied on top.
This paper would be rubbed by the block maker to
produce a copy of the image.
Also known, as “pulls”, the paper with the image
could then be used to create other blocks using colored ink
if so desired. From that point, the blocks would be carefully carved.
When these parts of the process were complete, the
printer took the key-block, again rubbing ink on it, left
alone so the outline would dry.
Colors would then be mixed by the printer with all of
the blocks being covered in paint and then color printed.
As you can imagine, the process of wiping the color
on to produce a gorgeous design was painstaking and key to
the printer’s success.
Keep in mind that to maintain colors and keep
everything aligned, precision was required when passing
between blocks. Finally,
the registration marks were applied by the block maker.
Interestingly, most colors used for woodblock prints
were derived from vegetable extracts until the latter part
of the 19th century.
While the colors were beautiful, consisting of blue,
violet, and pink, if the dye were exposed to sunlight, they
would fade to gray or ivory.
To enhance the beauty of the blocks with a shinier
surface, some printers would add small particles of metal
dust or mica. Additionally,
the number of print runs during the 18th century
had to be limited to 200.
Otherwise, the key-block lines would start to show
significant wear and tear.
In fact, over time the colors were so saturated that
producing good results was near impossible.
With time came new options such as the one-sheet
design now, being stretched out to two or even three sheets
in the late 18th century.
For this to be successful, the edges had to join yet
at the same time, the artist and printmakers needed to keep
each sheet as an individual piece of art.
Again, it was common for prints to be done in series,
some as many as 100 or more pages.
Most often, people would store the multi-page prints
in boxes or sometimes, mount them in albums.
Often times, sheets would be joined horizontally and
rolled up similar to a scroll.
In most cases, these sheets would show a gorgeous
landscape or city scene.
While some woodblock prints were merely the actual
artwork, some publishers also allowed consumers to request
additional work such as writing done in the form of poetry,
a birth announcement, New Year’s greeting, and so on.
Typically, these paintings were elaborate and the