Japanese woodblock print production

The responsibility for producing a woodblock print was shared between four people, sometimes referred to as the Ukiyo-e 'quartet' of publisher, artist/designer, block-cutter and printer.

The publisher directed the work, commissioning an artist to make a neat design on thin paper. This was then given to the block-cutter, who pasted the design face-down on a cherry-wood block and carved the complete design in relief (that is, leaving the outlines standing) and back to front from the original. Any text was also carved in this way. It was critical for the block-cutter to leave an L-shaped corner and short border line (together called the kentō) as a guide for the printer to register the printing accurately.

The printer took black and white proof impressions, which the designer then marked up with indications of colour and special patterns and other effects. The block-cutter then produced a separate block for each colour (typically between eight and twelve blocks), carefully making the same registration marks on each block. The printer then printed these one on top of each other, finishing with the black outline (the 'keyblock'). He worked by hand using a small round pad covered with bamboo leaves, called a baren. Special effects could be produced by wiping blocks to produce gradations of tone and colour. The publisher sold the prints at his stores and through itinerant vendors.

Few records remain about the numbers of prints produced. After several thousand printings, the blocks would begin to deteriorate, but a publisher called Fujiokaya records that he sold 8,000 sets of a three-print sheet at 72 mon per set in 1848. Artists made huge numbers of designs: Kunisada may have produced as many as 50,000, including book illustrations, over more than fifty years.

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