浮世絵 Ukiyo-e

神奈川沖浪裏神奈川沖浪裏

Beautiful, isn’t it ?

This art work by 葛飾北斎 (Katsushika Hokusai), called 神奈川沖浪裏 (Kanagawa-oki nami ura; Eng: The Great Wave off Kanagawa), is one of, if not the most famous paintings of Ukiyo-e style.

But what exactly is Ukiyo-e? Where did it come from?
And what makes those paintings so special ?

Ukiyo-e (浮世絵; litt: Picture of the Floating World) is a Japanese art genre dating back to the 17th century. Artists of this genre would represent the era’s customs and manners through famous kabuki actors, female beauties, famous personalities, landscapes, manners and customs… all that through woodblock prints and paintings.

Hodogaya-juku

浮世絵の歴史 History of Ukiyo-e

Context

Let’s go back to the start of Edo period (江戸時代; 1603 – 1868 AD). With the beginning of the Tokugawa Shogunate (徳川幕府) and the coming of peace and stability to a Japan which had just come out of an era of constant conflicts, the people’s mind started to clear as they had more time to enjoy life.

Hinamatsuri

Now, the word Ukiyo (浮世; litt. floating world), which refers to the urban lifestyle adopted by the Japanese people during that time period, especially relating to the search for pleasure and enjoyment, was spelled differently before the Edo period. The pronunciation was the same, only the characters and the meaning were different: the word 憂世 (still Ukiyo), referred to a harsh and painful world. However, entering a pleasure-seeking era, the characters 浮世 came to be used, as they referred to a fleeting and ephemeral world. The idea was: “Life is short, let’s enjoy it.” And the word came to a positive meaning, reflecting the beginning of a new era.

And so Ukiyo-e prints were used to represent this time period through kabuki actors, beautiful women, stunning scenery…

Hara-juku

Asakusa

So this was to explain the context in which Ukiyo-e came to be, but now back to the paintings themselves!

The Coming of Ukiyo-e

An artist by the name of Hishikawa Moronobu (菱川師宣), used to make illustrations for books. However, these illustrations gradually came to be more popular than the books themselves, so he started making woodblock prints of his art, thus popularizing this genre of painting which is specific to Ukiyo-e (more details about woodblock prints further in this post).

Painting by Moronobu

At the time though, they could only print with one one color, usually black ink, and if they wanted to add color, they had to use a brush and paint (ugh, so old school right?). But that all changed in 1765 when a man called Suzuki Harunobu (鈴木春信) managed to produce full-color prints through the use of multiple mokuhan (木版, carved planks), more or less one for each colored elements. This innovation allowed people to create entirely new art pieces with full color plates! And we call those fully colored prints Nishiki-e (錦絵).

Mitate Kikujidō
見立菊慈童 Mitate Kikujidō by Suzuki Harunobu

These kinds of paintings became very popular during the Edo period and were used a lot in the everyday life. You would often see them used similarly to the way we today use flyers or advertisement posters, which made them very common in people’s lives. However, exceptional artists such as Utamaro (歌麿) or Hokusai (北斎) gave to Ukiyo-e a new purpose through fine arts.

寛政三美人
寛政三美人 Three Beauties of the Present Day by Kitagawa Utamaro

浮世絵の制作 The making of Ukiyo-e

A Ukiyo-e painting is the result of the work of 3 people: an 絵師 (eshi), a 彫師 (horishi) and a 摺師 (surishi).

  • There are 3 main steps:
    1. Drawing the image (task of the eshi)
    2. Carving a wooden board taking the form of the picture (work of the horishi)
    3. Soaking the board with ink to print the image on a piece of paper (task of the surishi)

Let’s get into the details of all that.

3 works

 The Work of the Eshi 絵師の仕事

An Eshi (絵師; litt. painting master) is given the task of drawing precise sketches of the soon to be painting.

First, the Eshi draws a sketch of the outlines and features of the final painting using black ink and washi (和紙; Japanese paper). This will serve to create the omohan (主版), the main print of the painting.

omohan sketch

Once the first sketch has been through the other 2 steps of the process, the Eshi can draw color sketches, on which he paints colored parts of the art piece. It roughly takes a sketch per color, although depending on the arrangement of the painting, it’s possible to add up more colors on a single sketch, rendering the process faster.

irohan sketch

The work of the Horishi 彫師の仕事

A Horishi (彫師; litt. carving master) has to carve wooden boards in the shape of the sketches. To do that, the Horishi sticks the sketch face down on his wooden board using glue and then slowly rips the paper so that the drawings become visible from the other side. Kind of like tracing paper. He then carves out the wood around the sketch’s line leaving only the shape of the painting. And that’s how you get a mokuhan (木版).

carving

The first board the Horishi carves out is the omohan, to get the outlines and main features of the painting.

主版
Omohan

Then he basically carves a board per colored sketch, which will serve to add all the different colors to the painting. These color boards are called irohan (色版).

more carving

To carve the boards, Horishi use a kogatana (小刀; litt. small katana) to cut around a millimeter deep around the outlines of the paintings.

kogatana
小刀 kogatana

And they use different types of nomi (鑿; kind of chisels) to carve the wood out of the board.

Nomi
鑿 nomi

The work of the Surishi 摺師の仕事

The Surishi (摺師; litt. printing master) has the final and crucial task of assembling the whole painting. To do that, he soaks the mokuhan created by the Horishi with ink and prints the painting by rubbing the back of a paper placed on the board.

ink placement
Placing ink on the board

The Surishi is also the person creating all the colors and inks. And adding gradation and unevenness is something that requires special skills and techniques. Additionally, the inks used by the Surishi,  called ganryō (顔料), are mainly made out of minerals and plants and are.

making ink

So first, the main outlines of the painting are printed using the omohan. Then are added colors using the irohan, which will be soaked with different colors.

rubbing the paper

To spread the ink on the board, the Surishi uses a brush called hake (刷毛), and to rub the back of the paper they use a baren (馬連).

Baren
馬連 Baren

The following pictures show pretty well the steps necessary for all the colors to be integrated to a painting:

color process

same color process

And now, here are 2 videos that show very well the steps to making Ukiyo-e:

So that’s basically the whole process there is to making a Ukiyo-e woodblock-print painting.

Some famous Ukiyo-e paintings 有名な浮世絵:

・三世大谷鬼次の奴江戸兵衛

Ōtani Oniji III in the Role of the Servant Edobei

This painting is called Ōtani Oniji III in the Role of the Servant Edobei (read in Japanese : Sansei Ōtani Oniji no Yakko Edobē). It was created by Tōshūsai Sharaku (東洲斎写楽) in 1794 and served as his debut.

・相馬の古内裏

Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre

Takiyasha the Witch and the Skeleton Spectre or Mitsukuni Defying the Skeleton Spectre Invoked by Princess Takiyasha (read in Japanese: Sōma no Furudairi) was made during the 19th century by Utagawa Kuniyoshi (歌川国芳). This print depicts a mythical scene.

・見返り美人図
見返り美人図

Called in English Beauty Looking Back (read in Japanese: Mikaeri Bijin Zu) was created by Hishikawa Moronobu, however it is not exactly a woodblock print. It’s actually a painting. However it is a precursor to Ukiyo-e and is probably Moronobu’s most famous painting.

・日本橋 朝之景

日本橋 朝之景

Translated in English to Morning View of Nihonbashi (read in Japanese: Nihonbashi Asa no Kei), this piece was made during the 19th century by Utagawa Hiroshige (歌川広重) and is part of a series called 東海道五十三次 (Tōkaidō Gojūsan Tsugi) which depict 53 places along Tōkaidō.

・神奈川沖浪裏

神奈川沖浪裏

This is probably the most famous of all. The Great Wave off Kanagawa in English (read Kanagawa-oki Nami Ura in Japanese) was created by Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎) and published sometime between 1829 and 1833. This painting is part a 36 prints series called Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji (富嶽三十六景, Fugaku Sanjūrokkei) and is famous world-wide as it is very representative of Japanese art.

Synthesis

So there you have it. Ukiyo-e is one of many Japanese crafts that still remain the same as they were hundreds of years ago and that keep perfecting through time. Thank god they invented printers though.

Had you already seen Ukiyo-e paintings before? If so, did you know the whole process there was behind?

What do you think about this Japanese craft?

Sources:

5 Replies to “浮世絵 Ukiyo-e”

  1. Hi Mathieu,
    Thank you for posting this interesting topic. I appreciate your effort to summarise a vast area of Japanese art into a brief article. Despite that, I quite enjoy your post.
    I think the readers would be more informed if you could explain how through the form of woodblock print (instead of “painting” as indicated in the post), the merchant class and Edo artists could express their emerging social and cultural voice. In addition, you might explore in depth the philosophical connotation of “floating world” and how it is used for this genre of art.
    I will discuss more after this.

    1. Hi!

      Thanks for your comment!

      Yes, the term painting is not totally accurate when describing the process of creating woodblock prints, I just thought it was easier to express, thanks for pointing it out. However when reading about the genre of Ukiyo-e and its history, it seems that paintings played a very important role in the evolution of the genre, which is why I decided to include them in the description.

      Also, If you have information regarding the emerging social and cultural voice expressed by the merchant class and Edo artists or the philosophical connotations of the “floating world”, please don’t hesitate to share! This topic seems very interesting and I’d love to get more insight.

      Thanks again, cheers!

  2. Hi Mathieu,
    Thank you for your new post (“Why Does Japan Drive on the Left Side of the road?” It is very enjoyable to read.
    With regard to further information about the “floating world” phenomenon, you might find some useful information in Hung Ky Nguyen’s most recent paper titled “Anything Goes with Wit and Ambiguity: Playfulness in Japanese Visual Culture” published by Design Issues – an imprint of the MIT, Volume 36, number 2 (Spring 2020), 72–86.
    (https://www.mitpressjournals.org/toc/desi/36/2)
    Please let me know the result.

    1. Hi!

      Thank you very much for the kind words, means a lot.

      Thank you for the reference, I’ll be sure to look into that, it seems very interesting.

      Cheers.

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