CHAPTER 2: HOW COLOUR-PRINTS WERE PRODUCED
The Technique Employed – The Ukiyoye School and its Founders – The Osaka School – Modern Colour-Prints – Decline and Fall of the Ukiyoye School.
OLD Japanese colour-prints are printed on a sheet of mulberry-bark paper, and are the product of three different craftsmen: the artist who drew the original design, the block-maker or engraver who transferred the design to the wood, and the printer. A block (generally cherry-wood) was cut for each colour, in addition to the outline or key-block.
These blocks were cut lengthwise, in the direction of the grain, like planks are sawn, and not across it as in Europe. One plank, therefore, would cut up into several blocks.
The drawing made by the artist, with whose name alone the print is generally associated, was done in Chinese or, as we erroneously call it, Indian ink, with a brush on very thin paper.
This was passed to the engraver, who pasted it, face downwards, on the wood-block and, cutting through the paper, transferred the outline to the block, afterwards removing the superfluous wood between the lines with chisels and gouges, similar to those used by European wood-engravers, and so producing an accurate negative in high relief.
The artist's design was therefore destroyed, a fact which should be borne in mind when offered as an original a drawing of which prints are known to exist, thus proving it to be a reproduction.
There is, of course, the converse of this, as there are in existence to-day original drawings which were never used
for the production of prints therefrom, as, for example, certain designs drawn by Hokusai for the
In the catalogue of the British Museum Collection of Colour-Prints, under Kiyonaga, are mentioned both a print and
the original sketch for it, thus showing that the print itself was reproduced from a second drawing. Both the print
and the sketch are illustrated at page 116 of the catalogue, the latter showing slight variations of detail over
the final drawing as reproduced in the print. A preparatory design such as this must be extremely rare, and it is
stated in a foot-note in the catalogue that
this example only escaped destruction through being used in the
binding of an album. A very fine, full size, copy (15½ x 10⅛) of this same print is here illustrated at
Plate 33, page 192, with fuller margins and richer colouring than in the British Museum copy, as a comparison of the
two illustrations will indicate.
To economize wood both sides of the block were engraved, the back being used either for another stage of the same print or for a different print altogether.
The writer here wishes to correct a statement made in the first edition of this volume concerning the printing, which he has since learnt to be erroneous, though it appears to be a view not uncommonly held.
The statement was to the effect that prints which are very early impressions from the blocks often show the marks of the cutting tools and the grain of the wood. While the marks of the tools might show at first on a newly-cut block, the appearance of the wood grain depends upon that particular block carrying a well-marked grain, and also upon the amount of pressure used in taking an impression. The tool marks being superficial would wear off in use, but the grain of the wood being continuous throughout the thickness of the block would show on the last pull as well as on the first, provided sufficient force was used in taking it.
The appearance of the wood grain on a print, therefore (often noticeable in prints by Hiroshige, and in others where a large surface is tinted in one colour), does not necessarily prove it to be an early impression.
From the outline or key-block (Japanese, daiban) a series of proofs were taken, on one of each of which was painted by the artist the part or parts of the print to appear in each separate colour; from each proof so painted was cut an equivalent block, though if two colours were widely separated they might be put on one block. It is not, therefore, always the case that a print has been taken from as many blocks as it has colours. The printer could weaken his colour by rubbing off the pigment from one part of the block, or strengthen it in another, or he could gradually blend one colour into another on the same block.
When all the required blocks were cut they were then passed on to the printer, who painted the colours on the block
with brushes, thus making possible that delightful gradation of colour which is one of the charms of these colour-prints.
A sheet of damped paper was then laid on each block in turn, and the impression rubbed off by hand with a rubber or pad
called a baren. Correct register was obtained by means of a right-angle cut at the lower right-hand corner
of the original key-block, and a straight edge at the left (or
draw-close line). These marks were repeated
on each subsequent colour-block, and in taking impressions, the sheet was so imposed that its edges corresponded
with these marks. So skilful were the old printers that faults in register are very rarely found, and when it is at
all defective it is generally due to unequal shrinking of the blocks. It will be noticed in these cases that the alignment
is true on one edge of the print but gets out of register towards the other, even though it may have been pulled with
the same amount of care as another perfect throughout.
A single complete print was not printed off at a time, but all the required number of impressions were taken off each block in succession. The blocks were re-charged with colour after each impression, as is the case with modern printing.
It will be noticed sometimes (particularly in the later prints of Hiroshige, which were produced in such large quantities) that the colours appear smudged, though not actually in bad register. This was no doubt due to the impression having been taken off worn blocks which, by reason of the wood becoming saturated with pigment through constant re-charging, absorbed less and less of it, leaving a superfluity which the paper, already damped, soaked up like a blotter, causing it to smudge on taking the impression.
The whole process, therefore, was hand-work in the fullest sense of the word, and was vastly superior, both artistically and technically, to any modern facsimile reproduction.
Various kinds of paper were used, as the printers often experimented in order to procure the best results, and the fine qualities of the colours are largely due to the tough and absorbent nature of the paper. The earlier prints, such as those of the middle and later eighteenth century, are generally on a thicker and softer paper than those of the time of Hokusai and Hiroshige, which are harder and thinner in texture.
Strictly speaking, these prints are not prints as understood in the modern sense, since no printing-press was used, and the colours are not from inks, but from paints mixed with rice-paste as a medium. The process was really a method of producing a painted drawing in large numbers from a hand-coloured block.
There is a certain amount of prejudice against Japanese colour-prints, on the ground that they are as mechanical as chromos. But since, as stated above, the whole process of production is hand-work in the fullest sense of the word, the Japanese print is a perfectly legitimate form of art, and it can in no way be compared with modern mechanical reproductions. True, the work of the engraver was purely mechanical in that his sole province was to reproduce, line for line and dot for dot, the design given him by the artist. But at the same time, it meant a manual dexterity which lifted his work far above the level of that produced by any machine, while no mechanical process could take the place of the printer's hands in the application of the colours and give such charming results.
These prints were produced almost entirely by the artists of one school, the Ukiyoye, or
of painting. This school had its beginnings in a movement which arose in Yedo, in the seventeenth century, for a
pictorial art which, freed from the age-long traditions and conventions of the classic Tosa and Kano schools of
painting, should satisfy the artistic longings of the masses, to whom these schools were closed and for whom
paintings were too expensive.
The Tosa school, founded early in the thirteenth century, formed the courtly school patronized by the Mikado and his Court ; they depicted mainly Court scenes and battle subjects. The Kano school, on the other hand, founded in the second half of the fifteenth century, and upholding the Chinese style of painting, was the special care of the Shoguns, the real rulers of the country, the Mikado being the spiritual head, but devoid of any power, and little better than a prisoner in his capital.
Both these schools, therefore, were in the nature of rivals, but both gradually fell into a state of decay. Both followed certain fixed conventions; the realistic portrayal of contemporary life, such as the Ukiyoye school depicted, they considered vulgar.
The artist who first broke away from these traditions to evolve a style of his own was Iwasa MATABEI (1577-1650),
an aristocrat by birth, who studied first in the Tosa school, but later went over to the Kano school.
To him was first applied the epithet Ukiyo (
passing world), a term gradually extended to all the
artists who followed his lead.
Matabei and his immediate followers worked only as painters, and it is not unlikely that their abandonment of the ancient classic forms for popular subjects would not in itself have been sufficient to popularize their work, had it not been for its subsequent alliance with the hitherto little-developed art of wood-engraving, which was used in a somewhat primitive style for the illustration of books.
This Matabei must not be confused with another artist (died about 1725) of the same name (also called Matahei),
that is sounded alike but written in different characters, who lived at Otsu, on the Tokaido, near Kyoto, and who
produced rough sketches, known as
Otsu pictures, of legendary scenes and demons, an effort on his part to
supply the popular demand for cheap pictures.
Through this conjunction of artist and wood-engraver in the time of Hishikawa MORONOBU (c. 1638-1714), in the second half of the seventeenth century, was found the means of producing designs in sufficiently large numbers, and at a low enough cost, to enable even the poorly paid artisan to satisfy his artistic cravings. The origin of the Japanese colour-print, as we know it to-day, is another instance of the truism that necessity is the mother of invention. The period of Moronobu's lifetime is uncertain.
It must be granted that the colour-prints of this school constitute the fullest and most characteristic expression
ever given to the temper of the Japanese people. . . . The colour-print constitutes almost the only purely Japanese art,
and the only graphic record of popular Japanese life. Therefore it may be regarded as the most definitely national of
all the forms of expression used by the Japanese - an art which they alone in the history of the world have brought
to perfection. (A. D. Ficke, in Chats on Japanese Prints. London, 1915.)
It is thanks, also, to this discovery of a means of rapid and cheap reproduction that so many prints have survived to delight the art-lovers of to-day. When we remember the frail nature of these prints, the numerous fires which constantly broke out in Japanese towns and villages, the uses to which they were often put, as decorations on paper partitions, screens, fans, kites, or otherwise treated as mere ephemera, their production must have been enormous for so many to have survived for our delectation. It is indeed surprising that any examples at all of the work of the early masters should have survived so long, from the days when the output was comparatively small. It probably reached a maximum during the closing years of the eighteenth and the first half of the nineteenth centuries.
With rare exceptions the artists of the Ukiyoye school were drawn from the artisan class, for whose delight they designed these prints, and were consequently ignored by the upper aristocratic class, the subjects they presented being beneath the dignity of a noble or samurai. As a consequence, the Japanese taste for prints was hardly existent when Europe and America first discovered them, until it was too late, and they woke up to find them carried off by the foreign dealer and collector.
At the present time, however, the Japanese are making great efforts to restore these artistic treasures to the land of their origin, and no country can produce keener collectors.
It was not until the time of HARUNOBU (c. 1725-1770), about the year 1760, that the multi-coloured print, in which several colours were impressed from blocks as distinct from one or two tints applied by hand to the print itself, came into being, thanks to improvements discovered by a certain printer and engraver in the art of colour-printing, chiefly in connection with the accurate register of the same sheet on several blocks. Previously the outline print had been sparingly coloured by hand or, as a development from this initial stage, at first one-colour and then two-colour blocks were introduced.
Harunobu, therefore, may be regarded as the originator of the polychrome print as we know it to-day, the forerunner of a long line of artists of varying ability, many, indeed, of those belonging to the period of the decline, towards the middle of last century, producing work of little or no artistic merit. The best period lay between the years 1760 and 1825; after this, with the exception of the work of Hokusai and Hiroshige, it rapidly declined to extinction upon the death of the latter in 1858. An offshoot of the Ukiyoye school was formed by the Osaka school, founded about 1820 by the pupils of Hokusai and Kunisada. It produced actor-portraits, theatrical subjects, and landscapes, and also, more particularly, surimono.
Osaka prints may be recognized by a certain hardness of outline and cold brilliance of colouring, very different to the crude garishness of the productions of Yedo after 1860, combined with very careful printing. A print by an artist of this school, Utagawa Sadamasu (w. 1830-1845), a pupil of Kunisada, is illustrated at Plate 6, page 56, and shows clearly these characteristics. The outline is very hard and sharp, giving the effect of a picture in a vacuum, while even in a monochrome reproduction the cold brilliance of the colours is evident.
Another characteristic of the Osaka school is the employment of metallic lustres, and a liberal use of embossing, processes generally confined to the printing of surimono, but which artists of this school often adopted on ordinary full-size prints.
Their activity lasted from about 1820-1850; after this the school fell into disrepute, eventually equalling, even if it did not surpass, the late crudities of Yedo.
The art of the colour-print artist seems to us all the more wonderful when we remember that, at the time these prints were being produced in Japan, Europe had only the coarsest of picture books and the roughest of wood-cuts to show as an equivalent, while they were sold in the streets of Yedo for a few pence, though there is no doubt the finest cost more than the inferior ones. Could their artists have foreseen the prices which their work commands to-day they might well have dropped dead from astonishment.
Even at the present day no Western pictorial art can approach the artistic excellence, in composition, line, and colour, of these prints produced a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago; and it is to be regretted, from an artistic point of view, that the art has been so completely lost.
A new school of artists has, however, sprung up in recent years, but their work bears too much the obviousness of having been produced to satisfy the demand of the foreigner for Japanese pictures.
The best that can be said for this school is that it shows an improvement, at least in colour, over the very bad work of the opening years of the Meiji period (1868-1880), when the designs were the veriest travesties of the old work of Ukiyoye, though following, in a remote way, its traditions. It has, also, improved upon the crude and glaring colours which marked the fall of Ukiyoye, but they do not compare with those of a hundred to a hundred and fifty years ago. The influence of European art is shown in the greater variety of subjects illustrated, and in the disappearance of the old conventions which have yielded to realism. The engraver shows the same skill in reproducing the artist's design, but there is not the same boldness of outline, nor are the blocks so deeply cut.
Landscape, as such, as Hokusai and Hiroshige depicted it, has disappeared, but at the same time it enters largely into other compositions. Perhaps the best colour-print artist of the modern school is Ogata Gekko.
Yoshitoshi, pupil of Kuniyoshi, was the last artist of the old school, and his life (1839-1892) embraced the period which saw the extinction of Ukiyoye and the establishment of the new. In his prime (c. 1875) he was easily the foremost artist, and enjoyed wide popularity.
His most celebrated work is his series entitled Tsuki Hiak'ushi (
The Hundred Moons), which occupied
him over five years to complete.
In the revival of colour-printing by the methods employed by the Ukiyoye school, the chief difficulty, even after the requisite skill in cutting the block has been acquired after years of patient labour, seems to be in the actual printing. Such European and American artists as have produced prints more japanico have generally been obliged to employ a Japanese printer to take the pulls.
It is interesting to note that a revival of the art of wood-engraving and printing more japanico is on foot in England at the School of Art, University College, Reading, where it is now being taught by Mr. Allen Seaby. The blocks are coloured by hand with water-colours, and the impression taken by hand-rubbing. The craft is still too much in its infancy to forecast its future, but if it revives in this country the (practically) lost art of wood-engraving, which has been killed by photography, it will serve a good purpose. If an exhibition of the craft of the School could be shown in the Department of Wood-Engraving and Illustration, at the Victoria and Albert Museum, South Kensington, it would be much appreciated by students and others interested in the process and would also help to revive the art.
No art has had such a meteoric career as that of the Japanese colour-printer. Taking 1745 as the earliest date of the true colour-print, in which the colour was impressed from blocks as distinct from colour applied by hand to the print itself, it reached its zenith during the period of Kiyonaga and his contemporaries down to the death of Utamaro in 1806.
It remained more or less at its high level of excellence till about 1825, after which date the decline set in surely and steadily, ever hastening with greater rapidity to its downfall as each year passed. For a brief period the advent of Hiroshige arrested the decline, but his genius only threw into sharper relief the inferior work of his contemporaries, who almost without exception began to copy him, in compliance with the insistent public demand for prints à la Hiroshigé. It became practically, if not actually, extinct upon the death of Hiroshige in 1858, thus flourishing for a period of but a little more than a century.
The practical extinction of the art of colour-printing in Japan was due to various contributory causes: the decline in artistic taste of the common people, who were satisfied with coarse actor-portraits and shrieking colours; the higher cost of living towards the middle of last century - low as it was according to European standards - so that the artisans could not produce them at the price people were accustomed to give for them; a demand for things European, coupled with a neglect of their own arts; these finally brought about the extinction of the Ukiyoye school. Also, the revolution of 1868, when the whole country was in a turmoil, gave the death-blow to the old Tokugawa feudalism, and under its ruins buried all art and humanity, inaugurating an era of gross materialism and one most inartistic. It is hardly surprising, therefore, that the artists, under such conditions, failed to obtain sufficient support, and were, in consequence, obliged to seek a livelihood elsewhere.
Ancient culture and modern civilization are mutually exclusive notions; Japan has chosen the latter path. . . .
That choice, however, compelled her to renounce her past completely, more completely even than Europe, which has been
spared such an abrupt transition. (Von Seidlitz, in History of Japanese Colour-Prints.)
While, no doubt, the technical skill has survived, it has been nullified by the use of imported European aniline colours, while the soft, fibrous, and silky nature of the paper has also gone. The beautiful and glowing colours in old Japanese colour-prints are largely due to the nature of the paper, and particularly to its highly absorbent character.
Such, in brief, was the career - short but glorious - of the school of artists which has given us the most beautiful pictorial art ever created, an art, too, evolved and perfected by a purely artisan class.
One may look in vain through an art gallery or an academy exhibition to find a single picture possessing even one of the first principles of true art. Any old Japanese colour-print, which originally sold for but a few pence, perhaps, in the streets of Yedo, will possess them all; perfect in composition, line, form, and colour. (See foot-note on next page.)
There are no coloured engravings in the world that may be compared with those of Japan in the long period
from the coming of Torii Kiyonaga to the passing of Toyokuni; the eye is beguiled by a brush-stroke of ineffable
calligraphic beauty and by a tender harmony of colour that cheers but never wearies the senses. In most of the
popular broadsides of this time an almost feminine gentleness pervades the choice of motive and its
treatment. . . . As schemes of dramatic decoration they are scarcely to be surpassed, and have rarely been equalled;
and the time is not far distant when the sheets which brought to artist and engraver the pittance of a mechanic,
and were sold for a vile price in the streets of Yedo, Osaka, and Kyoto, will rank in the estimation of the collector
with the master-pieces of the engraver's art. (W. Anderson, in Japanese Wood-Engravings. London, 1895.)
It is, perhaps, hardly necessary for us to add that the time has indeed come, and that each day adds another student to the ranks of those who can appreciate what true pictorial art is, thus confirming the judgment of one to whom collectors in this country are much indebted as a pioneer in the comprehensive study of the art of Ukiyoye as an element in our culture.