During the later decades of Japan’s feudal period, a mass output of ukiyo-e was made possible by setting up workshops as houses or schools of learning.
A successful disciple might earn the right to replace his master’s ideographic characters with his own. If chosen as the selected successor, he would take his master’s full first name, with the generation link marked by a number.
The creation of woodblock prints requires skill, but also organization involving the artist, carver, printer, and publisher. The artist delivers the sketch, the carver makes the woodblocks, the printer does the labor of printing the paper sheets, and the publisher delivers the art product to wholesalers and retailers. From 1791 to the end of the feudal period in 1868, a censor had to add an approval stamp to the artist’s finished blueprint.
From sketches, which may evolve through tracings and copying, the artist produces a picture in black ink. The picture – hanshita-e – is pasted onto a slab of fine-grained wood, usually cherry tree. The carver, who can see the black lines through the thin paper, chips away wood on the outer side. This results in a key block, which in turn results in a black-and-white template print of the artist’s image. The original hanshita-e may be destroyed in this process. The carver produces an individual block for each color and for shades of the same color. Only hand-printing can assure good quality.
Okamoto Ryûsei differs from the old ukiyo-e artists in that he involves himself in most parts of the production, except the final printing. Nevertheless, he uses the same meticulous technique as the old artists used to produce the print. In this sense he is a traditionalist.
The printing of different colors in one of Okamotos woodblock prints.
The woodblocks are on display in the exhibition. All photos: Ann Christine Eek © Museum of Cultural History.