Due to a moderate amount of questions I received from last week’s blog, I’ve decided to write up a post for this week’s blog on Ukiyo-e – “paintings of the floating world.” I’ve always been partial to the style – it’s instantly recognizable and completely unique to Japanese culture. It’s a very odd style which leaves me, personally, either completely enthralled or a bit put off. The examples I’ve chosen for this articles are of the former brand of aesthetic appeal, but feel free to look through the Shunga Gallery of Ukiyo-e. (A small word to the wise – they are essentially pornographic paintings. NSFW-ish.) Overall, I think ukiyo-e prints are fantastic and even have a few reprints hanging in my office. They’re interesting conversational pieces, complex yet simplistic in nature, and distinct among all other genres of artwork.

“Sugatami Shichinin Kesho; (Seven Women Applying Make-up in the Mirror)” by Kitagawa Utamaro. c. 1795

Japanese woodblock printing is a style of art which dates back to the eighth century, though the pieces produced weren’t technically recognized or appreciated as art until the  late seventeenth-century.[1] This style of picture-making was a fairly long and required not one, but three artists to create – a designer, a carver, and a printer. The process goes a little something like this:

The Ukiyo-e piece begins in the designer’s (the lead artist) hands, who paints an outline for the piece in question using sumisen (ink). Once the outline is finished, it goes to the carver – the horishi – who carves the design on a block of wood, usually made from a cherry tree. The block is used to lay the outline on a new piece of paper, and is referred to as the sumiita – the ink plate. After this, a few more blocks are carved for the different colours in the piece, which are labeled iroita (colour plates). So, in the painting shown below, there would be at least six different blocks used to create it – one for the lines, one for the red, one for the yellow, one for the grey, and so on and so forth. Finally, the printer (the surishi) gets the blocks and begins to apply colours with the artist dictating what colour go where and in which order. Sometimes gradations in colouring were applied to the final piece to give it more depth, but it was truly up to the artist’s jurisdiction on how simple or complex a piece would be. [2]

Flowers of Edo: Young Woman’s Narrative Chanting to the Samisen” by Kitagawa Utamaro. Woodblock print; 35.8 x 25.2 cm; ca. 1800

The above pieces, masterfully drawn by Kitagawa Utamaro (1750 – 1806), are just two examples of his distinct style of what he perceived as feminine beauty. Utamaro’s style encompassed paintings which focused on close-ups of women, virtually making the background disappear in order to draw more attention to the subjects. His creations were categorized in series, each with specific areas of focus: “Ten Physiognomic Types of Women” revolved around upper-body portraiture of women in 10 paintings; “Kasen koi no bu” (Selected Poems on Love) was his next, 5-painting series; “The North Country in Five Colors” – a series of paintings revolving around geisha – and “Portraits of Contemporary Women at the Height of their Beauty” – a 10-print series – were soon to follow. Each piece was a construction made to commemorate feminine beauty and the aesthetic pleasure of harmonized (and often muted – an odd characteristic which set the artist’s style apart from his contemporaries) colours.[3]


[1] Katherine L. Blood, James Douglas Farquhar, Sandy Kita and Lawrence E. Marceau. The Floating World of Ukiyo-e: Shadows, Dreams, and Substance. New York: Harry N. Abrams, in Association with the Library of Congress, 2001.

[2] “How to Make Ukiyo-e.” Web Japan. Ministry of Foreign Affairs, Japan, n.d. Web.

[3] The Virtual Museum of Japanese Arts. “Kitagawa Utamaro (1753-1806).” About Kitagawa Utamaro. Kodansha International Ltd., n.d. Web.

[4] Cumming, Laura. “Kitagawa Utamaro.” The Guardian | The Observer. Guardian News and Media Limited, 18 Sept. 2010. Web.