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Authentic Ukiyo-e Printmaking Experience Under Artisan Guidance at Takahashi Studio

Updated: May 21


Authentic Ukiyo-e Printmaking Experience Under Artisan Guidance at Takahashi Studio


At our company, we have had the privilege of participating in an authentic Ukiyo-e printmaking experience under the guidance of real artisans at Takahashi Studio, and I am excited to share our report.


Takahashi Studio is Japan's oldest Ukiyo-e studio, with a history spanning over 160 years. The experience of creating Ukiyo-e prints under the guidance of an authentic artisan at this historic studio proved to be an unforgettable and marvelous experience.



Authentic Ukiyo-e Printmaking Experience Under Artisan Guidance at Takahashi Studio


Firstly, at Takahashi Studio, we started by watching a video about Ukiyo-e printmaking while listening to the explanations from the artisans. The commentary was impressive. It thoroughly explained the division of roles in Ukiyo-e production, which includes the Hanmoto (publishers), the Eshi (painters), the Horishi (carvers), and the Surishi (printers).


The publisher handles the entire process, from planning the Ukiyo-e prints, securing production funds, negotiating with painters, managing the production process, and even sales and managing the woodblock.



Authentic Ukiyo-e Printmaking Experience Under Artisan Guidance at Takahashi Studio


Following the publisher's instructions, the painter creates a preliminary sketch only in ink outlines. This ink sketch is then handed over to the carver, who carves a woodblock known as the "key block" (also called the "sumi block") that outlines these ink sketches.


This block is then used to make a single-colored ink print called "Kyogo," a proofing process. The artist then adds colors to this proofing stage, completing the "color block" stage of the drafts.


The carver then carves both the "key block" (ink block) and the "color blocks." The skill of the carver is showcased in how the colors are represented with the predetermined number of blocks. A single Ukiyo-e print could require as few as five blocks or as many as twenty for more elaborate works.


Lastly, the carver engraves "Kento" marks on the corners of the woodblock to ensure the paper aligns correctly and does not shift during printing. In modern terms, the phrases "kento wo tsukeru" (to estimate) and "kento chigai" (misjudgment) originate from this Ukiyo-e process.


Next, the printer applies a mixture called "Dousa" (a mixture of gelatin and alum) to the highest grade "Echizen hosho" paper to prevent ink bleeding, a process known as "Dousa-biki."


Authentic Ukiyo-e Printmaking Experience Under Artisan Guidance at Takahashi Studio


Then, the surface of the woodblock is lightly moistened with a brush, and the printer quickly spreads pigments mixed with gelatin (made from cowhide or fish bladders) across it. The paper is then placed on the woodblock according to the kento marks, and a baren is used to press the back, transferring the ink to the paper.


At Takahashi Studio, participants apply the pigments and gelatin to the "color blocks" and use the baren to transfer the color onto the paper. The pattern is decided by the participants. Because it is difficult to instruct if the patterns differ, all participants need to use the same pattern. This time, we chose Katsushika Hokusai's "The Great Wave off Kanagawa," which will also be featured on the new ¥1,000 note starting July 3, 2024.


Even with the same woodblocks, the finished quality varies greatly among participants, who all diligently worked the baren. The completed "The Great Wave off Kanagawa" was cut with scissors into fans and book covers, which participants could take home as souvenirs.


Authentic Ukiyo-e Printmaking Experience Under Artisan Guidance at Takahashi Studio

Additionally, participants could also take home Ukiyo-e prints that the artisans had printed, choosing from about 200 varieties, including the "Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji" and the "Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō," which offer a delightful selection process even though it is time-consuming.


Authentic Ukiyo-e Printmaking Experience Under Artisan Guidance at Takahashi Studio


Authentic Ukiyo-e Printmaking Experience Under Artisan Guidance at Takahashi Studio

We hope to share this wonderful Ukiyo-e printmaking experience with many people, and encourage them to try it themselves. This Ukiyo-e printmaking experience will undoubtedly be a lifelong memory and should be a highlight of any trip to Japan, especially for foreign tourists.


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