The Birth of Colour Printing

History and Background

When someone mentions the term 'Japanese Woodblock Print' your mind will undoubtedly call upon famous images such as Hokusai's Great Wave off Kanagawa or Hiroshige's Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō, all masterpieces, all that is now known as Ukiyo-e (Pictures of the Floating World). This, however, is but only a small snapshot of a long and rich history of print production that can trace it's routes all the way back to the early Edo period (1600) and builds momentum, carrying on up until it's crowning glory of Hokusai's masterpiece, published somewhere between 1829 and 1833.

This series aims to shed some light on a period of Japanese Woodblock Prints not so well known to the general populous and will focus on prints produced between the years of 1740 up until the late 1780's, right before the Ukiyo-e boom of the 1800's.

Until around 1740, almost all prints were hand coloured - meaning, a Key block was carved in the same way that any Ukiyo-e print would have been. The key difference being that instead of colours printed from carved blocks, all colour would have been added by hand with a soft brush (hude). This early method of print production was called Benizuri-e (紅刷絵, "crimson printed pictures"), an early Ukiyo-e genre. These prints were usually printed in Pink (Beni) and green with an additional colour, most commonly yellow either printed or added by hand.

The production of Benizuri-e reached it's peak in the early 1740's and was then followed by the Nishiki-e (錦絵, "brocade picture") genre that came to prominence during the 1760's. Suzuki Harunobu was the most popular of the Nishiki-e artists, producing many greats works between 1765 and his death in 1770. While Benizuri-e used only one to two woodblocks for adding colour and relied on the hand painting technique to add additional colours, Nishiki-e was created by carving a separate woodblock for every colour and using them one by one to create the finished print.

For more information regarding my plans for this series, please continue to the next section.