Osaka Prints – How They Were Made

Kunikazu, Actors with Dice Hats

There exists a document which is a first hand account of the entire process of the theatre artist’s work from stage rehearsal to the final production of the woodblock print. Written by Kawasake Kyosen, the son of the famous ukiyo-e artist Utagawa Yoshitaki, it was published in Japanese in 1938. The only complete copy that I know of in translation is in the Philadelphia Museum’s catalogue of the Theatrical World of Osaka Prints from 1973, edited by Roger Keyes. It’s an invaluable resource in a now out of print publication. Below is an account of the complete process which uses significant chunks of Kyosen’s original text. The account itself is charming and deeply personal, Kyosen talking about his father with real affection.

The piece begins with a description of the planning process for the New Year’s season of plays:

When the New Year performances had been decided on at the theatres, we would pick the scenes from the hit plays that looked like they would be popular and would make interesting scenes (a chilling murder from a ghost play for example), and these would be published. … the publishers would set out to theatres on opening day with the artists and the floor of the theatre would be spread with rugs. Tables were set up with brushes and paper, and all was made ready for the happenings on stage. The artist sat in the middle with the publisher and his clerks. Besides them, some first class female entertainers managed food and drink and things were quite lively.

Yoshtaki, Ghost at the Crossroads

Kyosen goes on to describe the urgency with which the artists were expected to work and conveys something of the fevered anticipation among the many kabuki fans awaiting the arrival of the first of the new season’s prints:

Prints for summer and New Year’s performances would be issued in quarter block format (chuban) as diptychs, triptychs, even five and seven sheet sets. No matter how well theatre prints were designed, if the faces of the figures were not the exact likeness of the actors they would not sell at all and the publishers took a terrific loss. The publishers were at pains to obtain the services of the very best portrait artists and sent them presents to encourage them to finish his commission even the least bit sooner than others. My father Yoshitaki and others were usually beseiged for their actor portraits by several publishers.

Yoshitaki, Yorimitsu no Minamoto Fighting Hakamadare and his Magic Snake

He next goes into detail how the production process was managed

Hirosada, Actor Riding a Deer

Going to the theatre and sketching scenes and actors live was nothing more than a formality. We had drawn the same scenes so many times that there was no need to see them over again, but the publishers had to show their enthusiasm and put on their own little show. …publishers wanted to put their prints on sale a day, a half day, even an hour earlier than their competitors, and they kept after the artists to to finish the ‘block copies’ (hanshita) quickly. An artist with two or three orders from different publishers would keep them all satisfied by passing out panels of triptychs one at a time to each of them in rotation, enabling them to get started on the engraving as soon as possible.

The block copies were nothing more than an outline drawing on thin Mino paper with no colour at all. The designs and the detail were not subject to the publisher’s approval, but left completely to the artist’s discretion and the artist sent them directly to the engraver without the publisher even seeing them. The engraver pasted the block copy face down on a piece of cherry wood. The head arms and legs were done by the skilled specialist – the ‘head engraver’ and the rest was done by the regular craftsmen. When the key block was finished he sent it to the printer who printed up sometimes twenty impressions on thin Mino paper which he then sent to the artist with a request for colour indications (irozashi).

Once finished, the set was was returned to the engraver who pasted them on on both sides of cherry blocks, engraved and re-labelled them and returned them to the printer. The printer sent proofs to the artist with a request for comments on colour balance.

The work had to be finished within two or three days at the most and slips were occasionally made in the hastily carved colour areas. The artist might suggest that the sky should be darker blue or the brown blacker, the red shaded at the bottom etc. When these changes were carried out, editioning would begin.

Kiyosada, Actor as Moronao

From the above it is possible to see how the artist was given the most importance in what was also a hugely collaborative effort. Sole responsibility for the look, design, colour and composition, as well as likeness and detail, lay with the artist. Relationships between the artist, printer, and carver must have been very close and each must have been able to trust the judgement of the other in the progress of the work whilst under such a tight deadline. The publisher, who is often characterised as being interfering or grasping, comes over as highly accommodating and not overly keen to change the direction of the artist’s vision. Kyosen then goes on to discuss the final editioning process:

The first printing was called ‘block-letting’ (ita oroshi) and consisted of a stack of two hundred impressions. Additional impressions were printed on demand also in groups of two hundred. It was customary to give two or three impressions of the original edition to the artist. Since everything from the sketch to the finished print was left up to the artist, the publisher had no idea of what to expect as a result. But he was used to this. When a fine print came out he was delighted and set it out for sale in the front of his shop where customers were already waiting. The first edition would sell in no time at all and edition would follow edition, to his great gain. This is what happened when the portraits were well received. But the opposite could happen too, and sometimes not a single impression would sell, to the publisher’s loss, and an entire edition would never see the light of day. Most portraits lacked the actor’s name and people recognised them from their faces and crests, so it was essential to work the crest pattern somewhere into their costume. Fans of the various actors would compete with one another to buy prints, and would mount them in albums to preserve them.

The above is a general account of how theatre prints were made. They were not like today’s prints at all, which imitate the effects of painting, but rested close to the artist’s heart and showed the qualities of the true woodblock print.

Hirosada, Kataoka Ichikawa

This marvellous description is a unique insight into the production of Osaka actor prints. It shows how incredibly popular were both the actors but also the artists and their prints. This idea of people queueing, minute by minute, for the latest print is very exciting and especially so when bearing in mind the touching nature of Kyosen’s final valedictory comment that these great prints: “rested close to the artist’s heart and showed the qualities of the true woodblock print”.

The piece was originally published in Kinsei Insatsu Bunkashi Ko, 1938, pp. 46-48.

Masterpieces of Osaka Printmaking is at the Toshidama Gallery from 21st November 2014 – 2nd January 2015.

About toshidama

Toshidama Gallery sells original nineteenth century Japanese woodblock prints. We source our prints from around the world and only stock original, authenticated works of museum quality.
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1 Response to Osaka Prints – How They Were Made

  1. Unknown says:

    This is very nice blog thank you for giving this info… Offset Printing

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