Woodblock prints are impressions on paper made from carved and inked woodblocks. Non-image areas are carved away from the wood, the remaining raised shapes and lines will create the print image.

In the above vignette, the white of the seagulls is the color of the paper. The blue, gray, and black colors are printed from three separately carved woodblocks.

A ‘fleeting’ but spectacular history

Ukiyo-e is the genre of art most often associated with Japanese woodblock prints. This genre – which flourished throughout the 17th through 19th centuries in Japan – also encompasses painting. But it is the woodblock prints of this era that have been the most enduring over time. Especially memorable are the works by famous artists such as Hokusai and Hiroshige.

The Great Wave, Katsushika Hokusai, woodblock print (ukiyo-e) 1830-1832

Ukiyo-e (pronounced yoo-kee-oh-eh) means ‘Pictures of a Floating World’. The term refers to the fleeting, transient nature of all things. In a Buddhist context, ‘Floating World’ alludes to the state of being in which we are ‘living in the moment’.

Unlike anything seen in the West before, ukiyo-e particularly influenced 19th century Impressionist artists, such as Vincent van Gogh, Toulouse-Lautrec, and Mary Cassatt. Even now, in the 21st century, ukiyo-e continues to inspire writers, poets, and other creatives alike. Including me!

Ducks, Hashiguchu Goyo, woodblock print (shin hanga) 1920

I had an epiphany the first time I saw Hashiguchi Goyo’s print Ducks at Los Angeles County Museum of Art in 1996. I thought it was one of the most beautiful objects I had ever seen. Woodblock prints don’t look like paintings, or photographs, or drawings. This process has its own aesthetic. The ‘look’ comes from the design and execution of the image. Also from the materials that are used – wood, translucent water-based pigments, and handmade paper.

What’s the difference?

Over the years, many people have asked me about the differences between Japanese style and Western style woodblock printmaking. The shortest answer is: the materials. The kind of pigments used and how they are applied to the blocks are markedly distinctive in the Japanese versus Western processes.

Japanese methods utilize water-based pigments applied to the blocks with a variety of specially designed brushes. The pigments I use most often are watercolor paint from a tube. The brush I like best is in the shape of a small ‘shoe-shine’ style brush called maru bake.

Close up of Maru bake (brushes for spreading the ink into thin layer on the block) , baren (burnishing tool, bottom right) and nori (rice paste in yellow tube, bottom left). Water color paints may be used as pigments. Sumi ink for black.

Watery pigments can be used in thin transparent layers. Overlapping colors can create additional colors, similar to painting. And depending on the style of paper, how much binder is used (called nori ), and the kind of burnishing tool (called baren – fine, medium or coarse), a wide range of visual effects can be achieved. Humidity, luck, and experience all matter too.    

Unlike Japanese techniques, Western methods utilize viscose, tacky inks (historically oil based) applied to blocks with rubber-like rollers, called brayers. The image from the carved block may be transferred to the paper by pressures as varied as rubbing the back of the paper with a wooden spoon to using a mechanical press. (A Japanese baren may also be used with Western materials, but Western rubbing tools won’t work for traditional Japanese methods.)

The Four Horseman of the Apocalypse, Death, Famine, Pestilence & War Albrecht Dürer, woodcut 1498

In Europe, this medium was developed to an extraordinary degree during the Renaissance (notably, German artist Albrecht Dürer). Mostly referred to as ‘woodcut’, attention in the West is typically focused on the drawing-like cut lines in the wood – versus the flat, shadow less shapes of layered colors in the Japanese approach. 

The name of the game

What’s important is how art makes you feel. Yet, words and historical context can give the viewer a richer experience. So here are a few brief explanations of the different eras of Japanese woodblock prints, how the art has evolved from the 17th century to present day, and how this rich history has influenced my own creative process and way of thinking.

Ukiyo-e – Known as the golden age of Japanese woodblock prints, the design, carving and printing were tasks performed by separate highly skilled artists/craftsmen. Precisely translated as: ‘floating world pictures’, ukiyo-e imagery includes women, actors, historical scenes, landscapes, flora and fauna, and erotica. By the turn of the 20th century, ukiyo-e started to become hugely popular outside of Japan, especially among the French Impressionists, even as its popularity inside Japan began to wane.

Professional carver Hiroshi Fujisawa demonstrating traditional techniques, Kyoto 2011 (Becoming Made documentary film, Mary Brodbeck Productions, 2014)
Woodblock reproduction of Hokusia’s Great Wave, from demonstration by professional printer Kenji Takanaka, Kyoto 2011 (Becoming Made documentary film, Mary Brodbeck Productions, 2014)

Shin HangaShin hanga, or ‘new print’, is the next generation of ukiyo-e, created in part by growing demand from the West. Beginning in the early 20th century, shin hanga was created by a team of highly skilled artists and artisans, like ukiyo-e was. In conjunction with the development of photography and further access to Western art and influence at that time, shin hanga became less abstract, more precise, and in my opinion, more self-conscious, even as its sophisticated beauty is captivating. (Ducks, the print I saw in LA, is known as shin hanga.)

Sosaku Hanga – With the rise of the arts and crafts movement in mid 20th century, artists in Japan began to carve and print their own designs. Sosaku hanga means ‘creative print’. Sokaku hanga artists include Shikō Munakata and Kiyoshi Saitō. I am a huge fan of both of these artists, particularly Saitō’s snowy scenes!

From Winter in Aizu, Kiyoshi Saitō, woodblock print (sosaku hanga) 1967

Moku Hanga – Meaning ‘wood print’, moku hanga is the contemporary Japanese word used to describe the water-based method of Japanese woodblock printmaking made today. Generally speaking, moku hanga artists (people like myself) design, carve and print their own works. There are still some professional carvers and printers thriving in Japan whose mission (not in every case, but generally speaking) is to keep historic methods alive through the recreation of early prints, and through public outreach.

In the past few decades, Japanese woodblock printmaking, or moku hanga as it is now known, has reached all corners of the world via the dedication of talented teachers, programs initiated by the Japanese government (as in my experience with a BUNKA-CHO Fellowship) and others such as MI-LAB, and of course YouTube. Admittedly still a miniscule segment of the total art market, Moku hanga has jumped off Japan’s archipelago and is growing, as contemporary artists are now expressing their unique visions using these historic techniques internationally.

Is the world still floating?

I call my work ‘woodblock prints’ simply because it is in English. I call it moku hanga while in Japan, or when I’m around others familiar with the term.

Still, of all the names for this process through history, the word ukiyo-e – Pictures of a Floating World – stirs my imagination the most. First, it makes me think of water, our lifeblood, and the subject of much of my work. Second, it helps me to conjure the big picture and reminds me of how small we are on this watery planet, floating and spinning through space.

Garden, Mary Brodbeck, woodblock print (moku hanga) 2020. Inspired by the term ukiyo-e – ‘Pictures of a Floating World’.

I made the above print during the spring of 2020, the year of the COVID-19 pandemic. Before getting out of bed in the morning during that time, I kept my head under the blankets a little longer than usual, worrying that the world might be coming to an end. I would peer out when my husband brought me coffee and ask, ‘is the world still floating?’

‘The world is still floating!’ he replied. I’d smile, grateful for his ability to ‘live in the moment’, and become joyful for the start of another day.

* Original Woodblock Prints * Guest Lecturer and Instructor * Documentary Film * Greeting Cards *
© 2018 Mary Brodbeck Productions LLC