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Exploring the timeless art of Japanese woodblock printing

Japanese woodblock printing

Known as mokuhanga (木版画), Japanese woodblock printing is a traditional art form from Japan that is known for its expert craftsmanship and incredible beauty for centuries. This printing technique has not just made its mark in Japan but has influenced artists worldwide. In this blog, we will explore the fascinating world of Japanese woodblock printing!

History and Origins of Japanese woodblock printing

Woodblock printing began in China during the Tang dynasty, eventually migrating to Japan, where it was used to reproduce foreign literature. In the year 764, Empress Kōken commissioned one million small wooden pagodas, each containing a small woodblock scroll printed in Buddhist text. These were distributed as a way to thank for the suppression of the Emi Rebellion in 764. These are some of the earliest examples of Japanese woodblock prints that are known or documented. 

Japanese woodblock printing can be traced as far back as the 8th century but it flourished especially during the Edo period (1603-1863). During this period, a genre of woodblock prints and paintings depicted scenes from Japan’s everyday life, theatre and urban entertainment. The process of woodblock printing involves many skilled artisans: the artist (usually a painter), the carver and the printer. The artist makes the design which is then carved into multiple blocks of wood. Each block represents a different colour or element in the final image. 

Image source: Youtube

Techniques, Process and Evolution

Japanese woodblock printing uses natural materials and a specific method that makes it different from western woodblock printing. The Japanese process begins with the artist sketching the design on thin paper which is then transferred to a wooden block (usually cherry) and carved with chisels to create relief patterns for each other. After this, the printer applies ink to the carved block and presses it onto the paper, thereby creating a unique impression. A separate block and printing pass is needed for each colour, leading to beautiful, layered compositions. 

Key Characteristics of Japanese woodblock paintings 

One of the key defining features of Japanese woodblock prints is the use of vivid colours and bold outlines. Using this technique, combined with attention to detail gives the prints a distinctive and captivating look. Japanese woodblock prints also use washi paper, which is a handmade paper made from traditional fibres such as mulberry, which gives it a unique texture and absorbency to the prints. 

Influence and Legacy of Japanese woodblock paintings

Japanese woodblock printing has greatly influenced Western art movements, especially during the late 19th century when European artists such as Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet discovered ukiyo-e prints. The bold compositions, flattened perspectives and use of colour found in these prints greatly influenced the development of Impressionism and Post-Impressionism. Today, Japanese woodblock printing continues to thrive as a practice thanks to contemporary artists around the world. Its appeal lies in just how perfectly Japanese woodblock printing marries artistic expression with technical precision, making it a timeless depiction of Japanese art. 

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Japanese woodblock printing is the perfect embodiment of the creativity of Japanese artists throughout history. The legacy it leaves behind continues to inspire generations of artists as well as enthusiasts globally. Whether it’s the iconic prints of Hokusai’s “The Great Wave off Kanagawa” or the delicate beauty of Hiroshige’s landscapes, Japanese woodblock printing remains a cherished art form that goes beyond time and borders.

To learn more about art forms, download the Rooftop app from Google Play or App Store to stay updated on our upcoming art events and workshops. Stay tuned to rooftop blogs and follow us on @rooftop_app.

Written by Saad Rashid

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