Ukiyo-e Prints Reflect the Popular Culture of Edo

The minds of people, though complex and different from their fellow humans in many ways, often find beauty in the same places, attempting to reproduce it into a more portable form. Sometimes, it will happen that their methods of bringing about these imitations occur through similar thought processes. Such was the case in seventeenth-century Europe and Japan, both innovative with their different techniques for printing.

In the archipelago of Japan, resources were constricted to little more than trees and ink. This limitation gave way to creation as artists such as Kitagawa Utamaro and Katsushika Hokusai adapted to minimal supplies.

To create the distinctive Ukiyo-e style, artists would draw their image on a piece of paper in ink, and through a series of layering and pressing, the image would be transferred onto the woodblock. The artists would take one of several specialized carving knives and carve around the image as if to create a large stamp. He would do this several times for the elements of the painting that were intended to be in a different color and the result would be several woodblock stamps for different sections of the artwork.

The artist then layers the lightest color onto its appropriate stamp and pressed it onto the paper to apply that layer. This is repeated as the value deepens and the last color should be the darkest. This method, though tedious and meticulous, was effective in giving off the unique style of Japanese artists.

Meanwhile, in Europe, as art began to gain prominence with the middle and upper classes, the merging and miming between a myriad of cultures led to the birth of new and distinctive styles.

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For those who found themselves gifted with comprehension of form and light but could not grasp or afford colors for their pieces, engraving allowed them to give their pictures life outside of the sketchbook. Famous engraves of this time like Albrecht Durer and Titian spent days perfecting their masterpieces in this arduous procedure. The engraving process is an opposite though similar technique to the Japanese woodblock printing. Where the woodblocks of Ukiyo-e acted as, essentially, giant stamps, the ink in an engraving lay within its metal surface by intaglio. The artist engraving would take a drawing and lay it over a plate of brass or copper and use a point to lightly carve the lines into the metal. He would then deepen the indentations and use hatching and cross-hatching to give depth to the piece. When this was done, the artists would apply a heavy amount of ink over the entirety of the plate with a dogger (a kind of brush used to press the ink into the engraved lines) and then wipe the ink off with paper and cheesecloth. The last part of the cleaning process was to wipe the excess ink with the palm of one’s hand. After this, a damp piece of paper was placed onto the printing machine which consisted of a metal table and a large rolling pin to which the material being printed was wrapped around. The plate would slowly move with the table under the rolling pin where the paper was to be printed. The paper and plate would go through and emerge on the other side of the pin to be placed under a heavy blanket. After a short period, the blanket would be removed, and the artist would slowly separate the paper from the metal plate, revealing the design on the paper. This process took much hard work and patience but resulted in highly detailed and realistic works of art that demonstrated the growth and beauty of Renaissance art.

These sister techniques brought innovation to the nations of the world. Not only do they present marvelous interpretations, but they represent the fruits of hard work and patience. Though the two styles differed greatly in their complexity and attention to color and detail, they both showcase the skill and effort put into capturing the beauty of the world on paper.

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Ukiyo-e Prints Reflect the Popular Culture of Edo. (2022, Apr 26). Retrieved from

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