The evolution of ukiyo-e and woodblock prints

A young lady looking at the moon from a window (Ariwara no Narihira) from Six Fashionable Poets (Furyu rok'kasen). By Suzuki Harunobu (1724–1770). Ink and colors on paper. Courtesy of the Asian Art Museum, Gift of the Grabhorn Ukiyo-e Collection, 2005.100.32.
Ukiyo-e (literally “pictures of the floating world”) is the name given to paintings and prints primarily depicting the transitory world of the licensed pleasure quarters (Yoshiwara), the theater and pleasure quarters of Edo, present-day Tokyo, Japan. It is a composite term of uki(floating), yo (world), and e (pictures). Originally, ukiyo was a Buddhist term to express the impermanence of human life. During the Edo Period (1615–1868), however, ukiyo came to refer to the sensual and hedonistic pleasures of people, who embraced them all the more for their ever-changing nature.
During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, ukiyo-e began as hand-painted scrolls and screens of everyday life. Paintings often depicted popular recreations and entertainment, such as street dancing, cherry blossom viewing, and festivals, and beautiful women engaged in leisurely pursuits. Previously, most painters had been commissioned to do religious paintings, illustrations on courtly hand scrolls, or seasonal scenes. In contrast, this new ukiyo-e painting greatly appealed to the chonin—a social class of merchants and craftsmen (literally “residents of the block” or townspeople). In order to meet the increasing demand, ukiyo-e began to be mass-produced using carved wooden blocks at the end of the seventeenth century, due to its greater affordability.
Woodblock printing came to Japan during the eighth century and became the primary method of printing from the eleventh to the nineteenth centuries. As in China, the technology was first used to duplicate Buddhist texts and then later, books of Chinese origin. It was not until the 1500s that books originally in Japanese began to be printed. Black and white illustrations were a part of these early texts, to which color was sometimes added by hand, but eventually colored prints developed around 1765 as printing techniques improved. The first colored prints in Japan were original works of art, which soon led to the publishing of the popular, single-sheet ukiyo-e.
The single-sheet prints were mass produced for consumption by the commoner and sold by street vendors and shopkeepers for pennies. As their lives became more comfortable, and they could afford to enjoy more activities, ukiyo-e became the most sought-after art form among the commoners. In attempts to control the conspicuous consumption of the merchant class, the government periodically issued edicts restricting the sizes, themes, and materials of ukiyo-e, and eventually censored the prints after 1799, to ensure subject matters were not immoral or politically subversive.
In this market-driven art form, styles often changed. The earliest prints were black and white, hand coloring being gradually adopted later. As coloring by hand was too time consuming to produce prints in enough quantity to satisfy the public’s growing demand, techniques were developed to block print simple two- or three-color images. By 1765, artists like Harunobu were designing polychrome prints called nishiki-e or “brocade pictures.” The addition of more colors resulted in prints that were more realistic and expressive. Pigments for these prints were water based, vegetable dyes, which produced a soft and subtle range of colors. Artists and printers collaborated to produce ever more subtle effects such as the color nuances of a reflection in water and mirrors, or seeing objects through gauze textiles. A metallic powder called mica was sometimes added to colors to give a shimmering surface. By the time of Hokusai and Hiroshige, ukiyo-e prints were produced with up to twenty different colors, virtually each requiring its own carved block. Artists were constantly trying to outdo one another in their prints, not only with beautiful colors, but also clever compositions.