With a bold composition and vivid colours,Edo woodblock prints depict the liveliness of Edo

Ukiyo-e, the Representation of Japonism that Swept the Western Hemisphere

 In the late 19th century, when the era of the samurai had drawn to a close, Westerners took a great interest in the unknown cultures and customs of that small island country in the Far East. In particular, Japanese art—including ceramics, porcelain, and drawing—had an immense impact on Western societies, creating a social phenomenon called "Japonism", which means those who favour Japanese taste, including passionate collectors of Japanese works of art.
 Among the various forms of Japanese art, people had a particularly keen eye for ukiyo-e, and its bold composition and vivid colours greatly impacted the Western art scene. Many Impressionist artists—such as Édouard Manet, Claude Monet, Vincent van Gogh, and Paul Gauguin—were attracted to ukiyo-e and produced works that copied the ukiyo-e style or drew ukiyo-e designs itself in them.

Edo's Commercial Designs that Enriched Commoners' Culture

 "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji" and "The Fifty-three Stations of the Tokaido Road," and many other pieces known amongst the public as "ukiyo-e", should in fact, strictly speaking, be called "ukiyo-e woodblock prints". A ukiyo-e is a one-off, hand-drawn piece, whereas ukiyo-e woodblock prints are mass-produced pictures hand-printed by artisans using woodblocks. Among the different types of prints, those such as the two mentioned by title earlier, and which were made in Edo (current Tokyo), are classified as "Edo woodblock prints".
 Edo woodblock prints can be described as a symbol of Edo commoners' culture, a culture in which there was demand from people for ukiyo-e woodblock prints for use on various occasions. Prints portraying kabuki actors and such played the role of stars' pictures and were the advertising media of the time, while prints of scenery were used for sightseeing pamphlets and other outlets. Edo was a city with an advanced recycling system. Old ukiyo-e woodblock printed on washi (Japanese paper) were collected by recycling businesses to be recycled as paper or put into wood-burning stoves as fuel. These old prints were also used as protective wrapping for transporting ceramics and porcelain, such as Imari ware, abroad. These pieces of paper surprised Westerners, making them think, "what is the beautiful drawing on this crumpled piece of paper?"

Production Process of Ukiyo-e Woodblock Prints

 Ukiyo-e woodblock prints are made with a division of labour including a painter, a carver, a printer, and a publisher who coordinates the process. The publisher, called a hanmoto, works as the producer in charge of planning the piece, selecting artisans, and managing and selling the product. The publisher first orders the painter to draw a piece. The painter draws an outline using only ink for a print sketch. Based on this, the carver creates a primary woodblock for carving the picture composition and about 10 to 20 proof impressions (outlines) are made. Next, the painter decides the placement of colours, saying things such as "this part is indigo, and that part is vermilion," while looking at the proof impressions. Following the painter’s colour selections, the carver then creates woodblocks for each colour. After receiving one primary and multiple colour woodblocks, the printer dissolves pigments in water and applies colour to the woodblocks. Then, the printer carefully positions washi paper to accurately match the marks on each woodblock and carefully prints each pull using a disclike hand tool called a baren for each piece of paper so that the colours appear as the painter specified.

Competing Techniques of Artisans

 Yukiko Takahashi was born into a family of printers and publishers and works as a hanmoto publisher producing Edo woodblock prints. She describes the labour division for creating Edo woodblock prints as follows.
 "Famous figures, such as Toshusai Sharaku, Katsushika Hokusai, and Utagawa Hiroshige, were painters, but they were equal to carvers and printers with no hierarchy. Painters must consider the work processes of carvers and printers to produce a picture composition, using his artisan senses."

Reading the Liveliness of People in Edo

 According to one contemporary printer, "The processes and ingredients are about the same as the ones used in the Edo period (1603-1867), which enables us to produce pieces similar to prints back then". When making reproductions of famous pieces, they pay close attention to re-create the atmosphere of the time rather than merely re-creating colours and shapes. Yukiko Takahashi explains: "We don't ‘see’ ukiyo-e woodblock prints, but we instead ‘read' them. Ukiyo-e woodblock prints can be described as a documentary of the Edo era enshrined onto a piece of paper through one can feel people's lives, facial expressions, and emotions and surrounding sceneries of the time.
 "With printing techniques, grains of woodblocks or dents sometimes appear on washi paper. These traces of artisans' techniques can only be enjoyed by those who own the prints, as they are not visible to viewers behind the glass cases."
 A woodblock print means that the same picture has been mass-produced, but each print includes the breaths of the various artisans who used their hands to create this piece of art.