Research: Hiroshige's One Hundred Famous Views of Edo: Printing Techniques

Woodblocks from the Brooklyn Museum collection

The artist created the design for each print by making a finished ink drawing on thin paper. This drawing, known as the hanshita-e, was then given to the carver, who pasted the image face down on a block of wood, usually a kind of cherry wood (yama-zakura), and rubbed off the back surface of the paper so that the design appeared clearly. The design was then carved out, leaving the lines and resulting in the key block. Several proofs of this key block would be printed, one for each color, and on each the artist would indicate which areas should be provided with which color. From these, separate color blocks were then carved. The carver played an important role in the process, and from time to time in this series he left his mark.

The printer would then take up the work, printing each color in turn over the basic key-block pattern. Slightly damp paper would be placed on the block and then rubbed in a circular motion with a tool known as a baren. This was a circular pad about six inches in diameter, made up of coiled bamboo-skin twine, backed by a stiff disc of laminated paper and covered with a piece of bamboo sheath. It is said that a normal single printing consisted of about 200 prints, although in the case of this series, there is no way of knowing exactly how many were done with the care deserving of the label "deluxe edition."

Beyond this basic process, deluxe editions of the One Hundred Famous Views of Edo are distinguished by a variety of specialized printing techniques. Foremost among these is the extensive and refined use of the technique of gradation, or bokashi, by which color would be carefully wiped off the block before printing. Another particularly common technique is the use of mica (kira) to give a subtle glittering effect when turned in the light. Virtually every print in this series has some use of mica (an effect impossible to recapture in photographic reproduction). The exact technique of application is unclear, but it seems likely that powdered mica was lightly dusted onto the colored areas while they were still wet.

Also common in the series are a variety of techniques of pressing an uncolored pattern into the surface of the paper to give texture or volume; properly, such techniques should be known as "debossing," but it is conventional to refer to them as embossing. Most common in the series is "fabric printing" (nunomezuri), in which a piece of silk cloth was placed over a block covering the desired area and then printed with a baren using very heavy pressure. This is found on many textile elements in the prints, including strips of cloth or sails and banners. It is also used on several of the title cartouches.

Another form of embossing is "blind printing" (karazuri), in which the desired pattern is carved into a special uninked block and then pressed into the paper. Another technique, known as kimedashi (also kimekomi), is a way of pressing out the paper to give a sense of volume. It is normally done by reusing the key block (or by cutting an identical block of the desired area) after it has been printed in black, this time without ink and by pushing the paper into the carved-out areas of the block, usually with the elbow. Finally, the three tiny claws of the eagle in number 107 are done in "glue printing" (nikawazuri), in which ink mixed with glue is printed to give a glossy effect.