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Exhibit Catalog to the Morris County Historical Society's "Out of the Closet" Exhibition

Japanese Woodblock Prints: The Process

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Ukiyo-e woodblock prints are often called "brocade prints" (or nishiki-e) and are polychrome (multicolored) images made by way of a woodblock. The process was long and involved numerous people before the print could reach the hands of the public

The Plan


  1. The print publisher (hanmoto) planned a new polychrome woodblock as a commercial product.
  2. He commissioned an artist or draftsman to create a preparatory drawing for a main image, made up largely of lines in black ink.
  3. If a preparatory drawing met the publisher’s approval, he then sought permission from a sanctioned government official or censor to publish the design, receiving a stamp of approval most commonly in the form of “kiwame” (“approved”) or “aratame” (“examined”). After the appropriate approval, production of the print would commence.


The Production


  1. The artist’s or designer’s preparatory drawing was passed to a block carver, who applied the drawing to a woodblock, carved the block carefully to match the drawing’s lines, and then printed a test proof in black ink from that block. This test proof is known as the kyogo-zuri, or key print.
  2. The block carver gave several copies of the key print to the artist, who then indicated the color areas on the image. The artist used orange-red ink to designate one color for each individual key-print sheet, such as the red sheet, the yellow sheet, or the grey sheet. He used the same orange-red ink to fill in the areas of the print that were to have that particular color.
  3. He then returned the set of annotated key-print sheets to the carver.
  4. Once the carver received this set of sheets, he carved a separate block of wood to print each individual color.
  5. When the blocks were complete, the carver transferred the main block and all of the color blocks to the printer. The printer pulled an image from a succession of the blocks to create an efficient rendition of the painter’s design. This process produced the finished colorful polychrome print.


Getting the Prints to the Public


  1. The finished polychrome prints would normally be sent to the publisher in batches of 200 sheets, the approximate number of prints that a printer could produce in a single day.
  2. The publisher would then put the prints on display in the front of his shop, known as an ezoshiya, which was similar to today’s bookshops.
  3. He also might have authorized other ezoshiya shops to sell the prints.