Ukiyo-E Is A Type Of Woodblock Paintings In Japan

Ukiyo-E Is A Type Of Woodblock Paintings In Japan

Ukiyo-e is a type of woodblock paintings in Japan. It refers to paintings and woodblocks produced in Japan between the 17th century and 20th century.  The paintings and woodblocks feature motifs of landscapes, tales from Japanese history and the theaters. Ukiyo-e is the most vital artistic genre of woodblock printing in the country.  The art became popular in Tokyo during the second part of the 17th century. It started with a single color work developed by Hishikawa Moronobu  in 1670s.  The artists used Indian ink at first, but they started using other materials during the 18th century.  This is after Suzuki Harunobucreated the polychrome printing method to produce nishiki-e.  The Ukiyo-e can be grouped into two eras. That is the Edo era and Meiji era. The Edo era consists of Ukiyo-e from 1620s to 1867. The Meiji period started in 1867 and ended in 1912.  The Edo period created a conducive environment for developing art in a commercial manner. The Meiji period was characterized by the influence from the West as Japan started accepting other cultures.  Ukiyo-e resulted from urbanization that happened in late sixteenth century. The urbanization led to the growth of a class of merchants and artisans. The artists started writing stories and painting pictures which were compiled into books.

The Ukiyo-e was used to illustrate in the books.  They were also used as posters for kabuki theatre. Most stories produced by the artists were based on   life in urban areas and culture. Hishikiwa Monoronubu became famous in 1670s as he started used polychrome painting.  By mid 18th century, artists started using various techniques to produce full color prints and Ukiyo-e produced and used in calendars and other places today. The Ukiyo-e was adversely affected by imports from western countries. The imports affected the popularity of Ukiyo-e and they became worthless. Ukiyo-e ended during the Meiji period, and it is no longer used.  Artists in Japan started producing new prints and incorporated western elements. Some of the woodblock paintings include “Hanshozuku Bijin Soroi,” developed by Okumura Masanobu and The Actor Ichimura Uzaemon XIII developed by Utawaga Yoshiiku. The portraits are based on courtesan women and also actors in Japan.

Woodblock prints in Ukiyo-e background, technology, subject matter

Artists developed the woodblock prints in the 18th century to share texts including Buddhist scriptures. Tawaraya Sotatsu used the wood stamps during the 17th century to print designs on paper and silk. Woodblock paintings remained a convenient technique of producing written texts up to the 18th century. New technology enabled artists to produce single sheet prints in 1765 using different colors.  Printmakers who had used monochrome started using the polychrome printing to produce paintings.  The first polychrome prints to be produced consisted of calendars.  The printmakers produced the calendars on commission for rich patrons in Edo.  The rich exchanged the calendars at the start of the year (Kodansha international 1997).  The woodblock prints of Edo era showed the seductive courtesans and jabuki actors of the urban pleasure districts.  Most of the printmakers produced prints that revolved on the courtesans and the jabuki actors.

However, the subject of the prints changed significantly. The print makers started focusing on other things.  For instance, they focused on romantic vistas.  The printmakers expanded the subject matter of the prints during the final year of the 19th century.  They produced the pictures in a large number and featured famous scenes that appealed to rich people during this era (Kodansha international 1997). The product of the prints required several experts to work together. A total of four experts worked together to complete every print.  The experts consisted of a designer, engraver, printer and publisher. Some of the famous printers included Suzuki Harunobu and Ando Hiroshige.  The experts performed different roles.  The publisher conceived the print and authorized a commercial. Also, the publisher sold books. In addition, the publisher selected the theme and determined the quality of the print.  The designers worked together with engravers and printers.

The engravers skills and collaboration proved useful in producing the print and designers relied on them. They also relied on printers to complete the print as the printers executed the ideas provided by the publisher into a complete form.  The artist designed the print image on a piece of paper first before producing it.  The artist transferred the image to a thin and partly transparent paper after designing it. Then he followed the lines on the paper placed on the wooden block or cherry wood to produce the image. He used carver chisel and cuts to develop the original in negative. He ensured the lines and places to be colored were raised in relief. Then the painters apply ink to the woodblock surface (Yamada & Merritt 2010).  The artists produced polychrome prints using different carved blocks for every color.  This resulted to many pieces of carved block. They placed two cuts on the edge of every block to act as alignment guides so as to print with accuracy.  Artists preferred to use papers developed from mulberry tree bark as it would withstand rubbing on several woodblocks. Also, the paper was able to absorb the ink and pigment.  This enabled the artists to produce a large number of prints until the carving on the block became worn out (Yamada & Merritt 2010).

Yamato-e Painting

Yamato-e is a painting genre that flourished in Japan during the Heian period.  The Japan imperial court stopped trade during the 19th century after many centuries of cultural exchange to focus on national matters.  The term yamato-e was developed during the Heian period and means Japanese painting. This was mainly to differentiate paints that focused on Japanese subject matter from paintings that featured themes from China called kara-e. The Japanese subject consisted of tales obtained from Japanese literature and history. Others included activities and motifs linked with Japan four seasons.  The paintings showed Japanese locales.   The term evolved further and was used to refer to the content and setting of the paints. It also referred to paintings that use formal conventions. Yamato-e paintings use different styles. They use bright, thick pigment and large band of cloud that prevent and divide (Yanagihara & Bender 2006).

Yamato-e grew alongside other Japanese art movements during the Heian period like the Waka poetry. The 31 syllable poems were created together with yamato-e or inspired by yamato-e.  The papers on which the poems were written showed the yamato-e aesthetic. Most of the yamato-e paintings took various formats such as illustrated hand scrolls.  The yamatoe- paintings developed further during the Kamakura period.  The subject matter of the yamato-e paintings changed. The paintings revolved around the leaders of the Buddhist sect.  The content of the yamato-e paintings expanded as painter’s embraced portraiture.  The ink painting style became common in Japan and competed with the yamato-e. However, the artists from Tosa School ensured yamatoe was still alive (Yanagihara & Bender 2006).

The illustrated life of shinran is an example of a yamato-e painting.  The Buddhist painting uses yamato-e methods. Every scroll of the painting is divided into different levels that resemble a hand scroll that has been split up and rearranged. It also has cloud bands that divide every layer.  The scrolls relate experiences of Monk Shinran. Shinran laid the true Purland school of Buddhism framework.  Another example is the bamboo of the four seasons associated with Tosa Mitsunobu.  The 4 seasons were one of the popular themes in yamatoe.  The screens concentrate on the transformation of a bamboo as it goes through the 4 seasons.  At the right side is the spring season depicted using violet, followed by a new bamboo produced in summer. In autumn, the stalks of the bamboo are tangled with reddish ivy and a covered with snow in winter. Lastly, the tale of Genji written by Murasaki Shikibu depicts the yamato-e style. It shows the romantic liaisons of prince Genji a fictional character. It has golden clouds bands that sprawl along the top and bottom borders concentrating on the narrative (Firestone 2002).

Yamato-e painting and woodblock painting Ukiyo-e influence on Japanese art

The yamato-e paintings and woodblock painting in Ukiyo-e have influenced Japanese art in different ways.  The yamato-e painting influenced other Japanese painting styles that developed during the Edo era. For instance, it influenced the Rinpa style and ukiyo-ewoodblock prints. Most of the Rinpa artists used similar themes with Yamato-e artists. The artists got the themes from poetry and classical literature. They also included different stylistic elements and motifs linked with Yamato-e. The artists include Tawaraya Sotatsu and Hon’ami Koetsu.  The Ukiyo-e was similar to yamato-e and concentrated on Japanese people, customs and places. Most of the artists used yamato-e and Ukiyo-e to produce paintings and prints.  The development of polychrome painting techniques improved art in Japan as many artists started using several woodblocks to produce prints. Therefore, the development of yamato-e and ukiyo-e changed the production of paintings and prints as artists used the yamato-e to produce different paintings (Firestone 2008).


The yamato-e and Ukiyo-e are significant in japans art as they led to production of different kinds of paintings and prints. The yamato-e and Ukiyo-e developed considerably, and the content of the paintings and prints also changed.  Artists started focusing on different things such as people, places and customers.  The yamato-e and ukiyo-e also influenced the Japanese art as artist’s embraced yamato-e and Ukiyo-e elements to improve their paintings and prints.  Some of the ukiyo-e and yamato-e paintings were destroyed, but there are still very many paintings in museums and other places that have embraced the techniques (Yamada & Merritt 1995).


Firestone, M. Japan Encyclopedia.2002. Harvard university press, p 1-100

Firestone, M. Tokyo. 2008. Lonely planet, p 1-284

Kodansha international. Ukiyo-e: An Introduction to Japanese Woodblock Prints.1997. Kodansha international, p1-96

Yamada, N., & Merritt, H. Guide to Modern Japanese Woodblock Prints. 1995. University of Hawaii press, p1-70

Yamada, N., &Merritt, H. Woodblock Kuchi-e Prints: Reflections of Meiji Culture. 2000. University of Hawaii press, p1-284

Yanagihara, W., & Bender, A. Tokyo. 2006. Lonely planet,p1-298

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