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Tuesday, March 12, 2019

Travels with Hiroshige from a Technical Perspective

Utagawa Hiroshige, Awa Province: the Naruto Whirlpools, from Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces
Utagawa Hiroshige,
Awa Province: the Naruto Whirlpools, 1855,
woodblock print, ink and color on paper
The Japanese artist Utagawa Hiroshige (1797-1858) is renowned for the technical virtuosity he employed to create his woodblock series Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces (1853-56). Each print shows how the artist took advantage of new inks and advanced printing techniques to design the stunning images presented in the WAM exhibition Travels with Hiroshige.

Japanese woodblock print production is not a solitary effort, and Hiroshige’s fame rests on a complex collaboration of publisher, artist, block carvers, and printers. The skill of each was important to the final artwork.  After applying the artist’s drawing to a block of cherry wood, the carver created a key block by skillfully removing all the wood around the lines. The key block would then be inked and used to print black and white proofs. The artist used the proofs to indicate the colors and effects for each area. Most prints required the carving of ten or more additional blocks, one for each color.  Registration marks helped the printer keep the lines and colors in proper alignment.  Each block was re-inked between impressions and colors were printed one at a time.

The Famous Views of the Sixty-odd Provinces series is particularly celebrated for its wide use of color gradations, called bokashi, which can be seen on every print.  After the background colors were printed, a gradation of color for certain areas was achieved by an extra step that reused the original color block: after washing the block, the printer applied the graded tint of pigment in selected areas.  This was done by hand with a moist brush that had been partially dipped in the pigment.  
Other techniques that were effectively used in the series include overprinting (one color over another), embossing, and the use of woodgrain to add texture.  In the latter, blocks with prominent grain patterns were selected and specially prepared to give the appearance of movement in monochrome areas such as the sea.

Visitors to Travels with Hiroshige will be stunned by the colors, especially the blues. The blue pigment used in this series revolutionized Japanese woodblock printing. Prussian or Berlin blue was accidently synthesized in a German laboratory in the early 1700s. The vivid blue pigment is stable, lightfast, and amenable to being mixed with other pigments. Before the arrival of Prussian blue in Japan in the 1820s, artists and print publishers used blue pigments derived from natural sources, such as indigo and dayflower petals. These vegetable dyes produced muted blues that fade dramatically when exposed to light. Imported Prussian blue made possible a wide range of intense and long-lasting blue hues. They were translucent and especially effective in expressing depth in water and atmospheric distance. The availability of the new blue pigment was a major factor in the development of landscape as an important subject in Japanese prints.

The print at top right shows printing gradations in the sky. Woodgrain adds movement to the water, and overprinting can be seen on the rocks and the whirlpools. A scene composed of mainly sky and water was made possible by the use of Prussian blue pigment.

--Susannah Baker, co-curator, Travels with Hiroshige

March 12, 2019

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