Printing Methods and Effects in Ukiyo-e

Following our guide on ‘How Woodblock Prints are Made’, in this article we present a few printing methods and effects often employed in the production of ukiyo-e. Carvers and printers needed excellent skills and attention to detail, indispensable for bringing to life the world of the artist who envisioned the design in the first place.


Mica


Mica is a shiny silicate mineral. Powdered Mica was scattered on the surface of prints, which employ rice paste with pigments. Mica became common from the late Edo and many Shin-hanga artists also use this technique. Mica backgrounds are often found in beauty portraits, such as those by Utamaro and Goyo, adding a shimmering or mirror-like effect to the print.

Goyo Hashiguchi, Woman Applying Make-up, Mica Background, printing techniques
Goyo Hashiguchi, Woman Applying Make-up

Blind Printing/Embossing (karazuri)


The technique of blind printing implies a raised design into the paper. It is most often seen in kimono details, animal fur, snow and clouds, but also on other elements of the woodblock print design that are meant to stand out. This gives texture and adds depth to the image and its designs and outlines.


Bokashi


Bokashi, the technique of colour gradation, is usually applied in the wide background (uncarved space) of prints such as the sea, sky and ground. This achieves a variation in the colour, from dark to light. As the technique had to be repeated for every sheet of paper, consistency and a highly skilled artisan were key. Even so, there are often slight variations, and the degree of bokashi is sometimes what determines an early edition for a later one.

hiroshige I utagawa, mount fuji, landscape, edo period, bokashi, printing technique
Hiroshige I Utagawa, Tago Bay and Miho no Matsubara, 1855

Burnishing Effect


The burnishing effect allows black pigment to be polished. At first, non-shiny black pigment is applied onto the printing surface and once the colour is dried, a second layer is applied and polished with a bone or ivory in order to give shine on the same surface.


Circular Baren Traces (‘baren sujizuri’)

Another special effect that can be achieved by the printer is the appearance of having added ‘texture’ or variation to the print’s surface via the technique called ‘baren sujizuri’, or ‘circular baren traces’ printing. This technique is said to have first been used in Ito Shinsui’s 1916 print, ‘Before the Mirror’ (or ‘Red Geisha’) where publisher Watanabe urged his printer to experiment with the addition of ‘texture’ by holding the baren tool on its edge rather than flat as was always previously done. The result was a pleasing random circular pattern that gives the print’s background added interest.

Since the printing of Ito’s ‘Red Geisha’, these circular baren tracings have been used very effectively to produce the appearance of texture to rock walls, paved surfaces, and other background areas.

Visible Woodgrain

A final printing technique to be discussed in this brief article is the thoughtful and deliberate incorporation of visible woodgrain into the print’s design. In Japanese, this technique is called ‘kimetsubushi’, or ‘uniform grain printing’. Such highly visible wood grain is also one of the hallmarks of early edition prints, since later editions which are subsequently printed using the same blocks will often exhibit much less or no visible wood grain as the pores of the woodblock’s printing surface later become plugged and layered with pigments.

Here, it seems, praise must once again go to the carver, for perhaps he (or in combination with the printer) is responsible for this artistic use of the woodblock’s natural and beautiful woodgrain. Such visible use and incorporation of the wood’s natural woodgrain is certainly not just an accident. It seems very clear that even back to the days of Hiroshige’s fine landscapes, careful thought was given to the selection of the single one or two woodblocks that would produce much of the large un-carved surface background to either the print’s sky or water areas. The resulting effect is most delightful, and reminds us lest we should for a moment forget that these prints are indeed printed from wooden blocks.

Although less common to many of the prints of the early Meiji period (1870-1880’s), the deliberately artistic emphasis of visible woodgrain again became commonplace during the war prints of the mid-1890’s, and then again to many of the finer shin-hanga prints of the 1910’s/20’s/and 30’s. Many fine examples can be seen from among the ‘kacho-e’ (bird and flower) prints by Koson Ohara.