Katsushika Hokusai: View from under Mannenbashi Bridge at Fukagawa. Finnish National Gallery / Ateneum Art museum. Photo: Finnish National Gallery / Jenni Nurminen

How are ukiyo-e woodblock prints made?

The artist would draw or paint an image in ink. The publisher, the purchaser of the image, would send the image to the woodblock cutter. The drawing was adhered to a wooden block on which the image was reproduced through carving. The publisher decided on the number of colours to be used, and the artist chose them. If the image contained writing, a calligrapher was needed.

There were often very many colours in the prints made using woodblocks! A separate wooden block had to be cut for each colour, and a print was taken on paper for every colour separately. The colour moistened the paper every time a print was made on it. The paper had to tolerate the prints without distortion to allow precise printing of the image. The most important ingredient of the paper was the fibre of the bushy kozo plant. The more kozo fibres the paper contained, the higher its quality.

Placement of the blocks was imperative to ensure a complete image. The different wooden blocks were like a jigsaw puzzle. One block might contain the sky, another a part of a kimono in a certain colour, and the next might contain the next colour of the kimono. The different work stages required their own professionals: carvers, woodblock cutters and printers. The publisher, who commissioned the original image from the artist, provided the initiative for the project.

The wild cherry wood used for printing was expensive. Both sides of the blocks were often used. To save the printing blocks, two or three image areas requiring different colours could be cut on the same side. The same block could thus be used to print several colours separately.

During the height of woodblock prints’ popularity, images would experience print runs in the thousands. Towards the end, however, the wooden blocks would wear out, leaving a blurrier imprint. Old, popular images can still be printed if new printing blocks are made to replace the worn out ones.