Woodblock Prints

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Shin Hanga & Sosaku Hanga
The shin hanga (literally “new prints”) art movement of the early 20th century C.E. in Japan, revitalized traditional ukiyo-e art which had its roots in the 17th through early 19th centuries C.E., maintaining the traditional ukiyo-e collaborative system (hanmoto system) in which the artist, carver, printer and publisher engaged in a division of labor, as opposed to the sōsaku hanga (“creative prints”) movement which advocated the principles of jiga (“self-drawn”), jijoku (“self-carved”) and jizuri (“self-printed”), in which the artist, with the desire of expressing the self, is the sole creator of art. – from Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia

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Excerpts from Glossary of Terms Useful for Discussing Woodblock Prints by J. Noel Chiappa

Format and Orientation

Harimaze: Prints of two or more (usually three to five) images on one sheet; originally intended to be cut out and displayed separately.

Hashira-e: A tall, narrow print used on pillars, on a special size paper, hashira-eban.

Kakemono: A hanging scroll, with a long and narrow format; hence kakemono-e, a tall, narrow format, often composed of two ōban-sized prints, one above the other in a vertical diptych.

Uchiwa-e: Prints intended to be used to decorate non-folding fans (uchiwa); usually in the shape of a rectangle with the longer axis horizontal, with rounded corners, and a cutout at the bottom.

Tateban: Also tate-e and tat-eye (the latter transliteration now obsolescent); vertical (i.e. portrait) orientation.

Yokoban: Also yoko-e and yok-oye (the latter transliteration now obsolescent); horizontal (i.e. landscape) orientation.


Ōban: By far and away the most common print size; about 15″ x 10″ (38cm x 25cm).

Ō-ōban: Literally “large ōban”; a rare size somewhat larger than standard ōban, about 23″ x 12″ (58cm x 32cm).

Chūban: A somewhat common small print size; half an ōban, by division along its short axis; about 10″ x 7″ (25cm x 19cm).

Aiban: A somewhat rare print size, roughly halfway between chūban and ōban; about 13″ x 9″ (34cm x 23cm).

Koban: A fairly rare small print size; half an aiban, by division along its short axis; about 9″ x 7″ (23cm x 17cm).

Vertical Koban: A fairly rare small print size; half an koban, by division along its long axis; about 9″ x 3″ (23cm x 9cm).

Hosoban: A fairly rare narrow print size; about 13″ x 6″ (33cm x 15cm). It was more common in older actor prints of the eighteenth century, although still used for kacho-ga in the nineteenth.

O-hosoban, O-tanzaku: Literally, “large hosoban”, a fairly rare narrow print size; about 15″ x 7″ (38cm x 17cm). This size was often used for kacho-ga prints by Hiroshige.

Nagaban: A rare large print size first used around 1800; about 22″ x 10″ (56cm x 25cm).

Yokonagaban: A very long format (i.e. horizontal nagaban, hence the name), used for some surimono in the early 1800’s; sometimes about 15″ x 22″ (38cm x 53cm), more often 8″ x 22″ (21cm x 56cm).

Shikishiban: A mostly square format, usually of heavy paper, often used for surimono; about 10″ x 9″ (26cm x 23cm).

Hashira-eban: The size for hashira-e; it varies depending on the time period, but normally it was about 29″ x 5″ (68-73cm x 12-16cm). In later times, this was produced by gluing together two hosoban sheets, one vertically above the other.

Habahiro hashira-e: The size for extra-wide hashira-e; varies, but normally it was about 29″ x 10″ (68-73cm x 26cm).

Chū-tanzaku: A very rare long print size; half an ōban, by division along its long axis; about 15″ x 5″ (38cm x 13cm).

Ō-tanzaku: A very rare long print size; two-thirds of an ōban, by division along its long axis; about 15″ x 7″ (38cm x 18cm).

Ko-tanzaku: A very rare long print size; one third of an aiban, by division along its long axis; about 13″ x 3″ (34cm x 8cm).

Yotsugiri: A fairly rare small print size; half a chūban, by division along its short axis; about 7″ x 5″ (19cm x 13cm). Prints of this size were often obtained by printing 4 prints from a single ōban-sized block.

Mitzugiri: A very rare small print size; one third of an ōban, by division along its short axis; about 10″ x 5″ (25cm x 13cm).

Ko-yotsugiri: A very rare small print size; half a koban; about 7″ x 5″ (17cm x 12cm).

Terms Used to Describe Condition
Woodblock prints have their condition rated on a scale which usually includes ‘poor’, ‘fair’ (sometimes ‘moderate’), ‘moderately good’, ‘good’, ‘very good’, and ‘fine’. This gradation is applied to several different aspects of the print:

Colour: How clear and bright the colours of the print are today; in part this refers to fading of the dyes, but it may also refer to yellowing or browning of the whole print, etc. Many prints are printed in vegetable dyes which are subject to potentially severe fading if exposed to sunlight; others (particularly in later prints) use chemicals which sometimes degrade on exposure to air.

Impression: How good an impression the print was when new; i.e. (principally) how worn were the blocks, but also how much care was used in registering the different colours, how careful the printer was with printing, and effects like bokashi, etc.

General Condition: This includes both impression and colour, but also takes into account such things as: whether the print is trimmed (removing not only the margins, but in many cases censor, publisher, date and other seals); whether the print has been repaired; whether the print is soiled; whether the print has any stains; whether the print is worn from handling; whether the print has creases from being folded; and whether the print has any wormholes or other damage.

Toned: This term is used to refer to paper that has turned brownish. Toning can be caused in a number of ways; most commonly, it is caused by a faint acid residue acting on the paper of the print, over a period of time. The acid may be present for one of two reasons; either the print itself is printed on non-acid-free paper (generally this is only seen in prints from the early Meiji period), or the print was mounted in a frame using materials which were not acid-free. (If the toning is caused by acid, the acid will also tend to make the paper friable.) Toning may also be caused by exposure to sunlight, or by cigarette smoke.

Printing Technical Terms

Baren: The circular flat pad (usually made of a bamboo sheath wrapped around a flat coil of straw and/or bamboo fiber), used to press the print down on the block during the printing.

Dai-ban or Keyblock: The first block carved in the process of creating a woodblock print; it prints the thin black outlines, and prints pulled from this block are used in the creation of the blocks for printing the colours.

Gofun: A white power substance composed of ground and burnt seashells; it is often applied by hand to prints when a powdery look is needed. It is also used by painters, mixed with other materials, in a variety of ways: as a gesso-like undercoating, as the colourant in white paint, and also to build up painting surfaces.

Han-ga: Literally “printing-block image”; the Japanese term for a woodblock print.

Hanshita-e: Literally, “base block picture”, a copy of the artist’s original drawing, made on very thin, translucent paper, and then glued down to the keyblock to provide a guide to the carver. They were prepared by specialists called hanshita-e-shi, literally “hanshita-e master”.

Iro-ban or Colour-block: The blocks carved later in the process of creating a woodblock print; they are used to prints the areas of solid colour. They are created using special prints pulled from the keyblock after it is carved.

Kento: The registration marks (one right angle, into which the corner of the paper fits, and one straight one, along one of the adjoining edges) used to ensure registration of the different colours in nishiki-e print.

Printing Effects

Kiri, Gin, Akegane: Metal pigments used to imitate metals: kiri, brass, used to imitate gold; gin, tin, used to imitate silver; akegane, copper. These were placed on the blocks with small brushes (hake-hake), and then printed on areas where paste had previously been printed (nori-zuri, literally “starch-printing”).

Bokashi: A shading or gradation in the depth of the colour, produced by a number of different techniques, such as: wiping the blocks after the application of the ink;
using brushes with varying colour intensity and moisture level; rubbing the block with a damp cloth before applying the ink.

Fuki-bokashi: Literally, “blowing-shading”; an alternative name was fuki-e, literally “blown picture”. A method of stippling colour onto early hand-coloured prints by blowing pigment through a small tube, while masking the areas to be left uncoloured.

Kara-zuri: Literally, “empty printing”; an embossed printing effect, a technique called gauffrage in the West. It was produced by hard pressure with a hard polisher (often a boar’s tusk) on an un-inked block, with the print dampened, leaving whatever pattern is carved in the block embossed into the paper. Especially deep patterns, called kikekomi, were impressed with a gutta percha hammer.

Nunome-zuri: Literally, “fabric printing”; another embossed printing effect. Produced by hard pressure on a piece of muslin or silk fabric wrapped around an un-inked block, with the print dampened, leaving the pattern of the fabric embossed into the paper.

Shomen-zuri: Literally, “front-printing”; a polishing technique similar to gauffrage, which was used to produce a shiny surface on black areas of some prints, often in intricate patterns; to produce this, a carved block was placed behind the print and the printed surface rubbed with a hard polisher (in addition to a boar’s tooth, the usual implement, mention is made of use of the use of porcelain, and also spoons, during the Meiji period).

Tsuya-zuri: Literally, “lustre-printing”; an inclusive term for a number of techniques which could produce a surface sheen, among them shomenzuri. One that is seen on occasion is the use of glue to produce a sheen, often on animals’ eyes, and areas of blood. At one point, the craze for Western things, the sheen covered the entire surface, in an apparent attempt to emulate Western oil paintings; in some cases, wax was applied over the entire surface to aid this effect.

Mokume-zuri: Literally, “wood-eye printing”; the use of the natural grain in a woodblock to produce effects such as the appearance of waves on water, or of raked lines on sand-beds.

Itame-mokuhan: Literally, “imitation woodgrain”; the use of a densely grained woodblock which has been soaked in water to emphasize the pattern of the grain. It was used in some prints to print areas of woodwork portrayed in the print.

Kira-zuri: Literally, “mica printing”; the use of fine mica flakes scattered on the print while the ink is wet, which produces a subdued sparking effect. The mica was made to adhere by using a glue consisting of either egg-white, or rice-paste. For large areas, the glue was applied with a special block, and the mica brushed on with a soft brush, using a stencil.

Kiri-fuki: Also known as fuki-botan; a method of stippling colour onto prints, two techniques were used. In one, pigment could be sprayed off a stiff brush, either by shaking, or drawing a thumb across the end of the brush. Pigment could also be sprayed, either directly from the mouth, or by blowing through a right-angled small tube with a hole at the vertex, thereby using a Venturi effect to draw up pigment.

Source: Glossary of Terms Useful for Discussing Woodblock Prints by J. Noel Chiappa. Access the full article.

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