How prints are made
Although Chinese methods of color printing were known, they were too expensive to apply to ukiyo-e. Japanese print-making was largely a commercial enterprise which aimed to produce cheap household decoration for ordinary people. At first prints were black and white illustrations in books but when cheap vegetable dyes appeared, color became possible.
Print production was a collaborative effort. The publisher conceived and commissioned the work, financed its production, managed its sales and distribution and generally coordinated the efforts of all involved. An artist designed the print. A separate calligrapher was used if words accompanied the illustration. Then there would be block-maker, a printer and a paper-maker.
The artist supplied his design as an ink line drawing with a wash to symbolize the colors. A student would make a copy on thin, transparent paper. The publisher would secure thick, seasoned cherry blocks of which both sides were used. The copy would be laid on the block and the block-maker would cut around the lines. Then he would clear the wood in between, leaving the lines in high relief making a 'key-block.' Ink was rubbed on the raised lines and proofing paper placed over the block. Then the block-maker rubbed the paper to create a 'pull' or copy of the image. These 'pulls' were used to make other blocks for colors. Each of these blocks would be carved.
Then the printer took the key-block and rubbed it with ink again. Damped hand-made paper was placed on it and repeatedly rubbed. The inked outlines were allowed to dry. The printer then mixed the colors. Each block was covered in paint and each color printed in turn. The printer's skill was key as he had to wipe on the color to produce exactly the effect required. As the print passed between blocks it was essential that the colors remained aligned. Key to this were the registration marks which were added by the block-maker.
Until the late 19th century, most colors were made from vegetable extracts. Exposed to the light, the sky-blues, violets and pinks have faded to buffs and grays. Mica or metal dusts were sometimes applied to create shiny surfaces. Print runs in the 18th century were limited to 200 because after that the key-block lines began to wear down. Later the color blocks would become so saturated with paint that they ceased to produce even results.
In the late 18th century, a single design would be carried over 2 or 3 pages. These were meant to be joined at the edges, but each sheet remains a work of art in its own right. Prints were often issued in large series, kept in boxes or mounted in albums. By the end of the 18th century a series ran anywhere from 36 to 100+. Sometimes 5 or more sheets were joined together horizontally and rolled up like a scroll painting. These usually depicted a great panoramic scene. In addition to selling direct to the public, print-makers often made special commissioned surimono which included decorated poetry, New Year's greetings, birth or marriage announcements. These were small and filled with fine detail and lavish printing.
Abstracted from The Art of Japanese Prints,Nigel Cawthorne, Hamlyn Publishing,1991 SiteMap