Photo:Stuart Rankin on Flickr

Ukiyo-e: Pictures of the Floating World

Ukiyo-e is from three Japanese words, “uku”(浮く), “yo”(世), and “e”(絵). “Uku” means float, “yo” means world, and “e” means picture. So, Ukiyo-e literally means “pictures of the floating world”. This is a genre of wood block print, which was popular from the 17th through 19th centuries. At first, it is not a print, but just a simple painting with black ink. As time past by, they learn how to add the color to make this Ukiyo-e become more colorful and refined.


Photo : Stuart Rankin on Flickr

The first artworks were the Moronobu’s paintings and monochromatic prints of beautiful women. As time past by, they found how to make the color prints. In the 1740, Masanobu (Ukiyo-e artist) used many wood blocks to print areas of color. From 1760, some artists found that to make a full color production, it needs about 10 or more blocks. Ukiyo-e became more famous than before, until the best production of Hokusai, “Great Wave off Kanagawa” and the artwork of Hiroshige, “Fifty three Stations of the Tokaido” were made in the 19th century. After the death of these two masters, Ukiyo-e production faded.

Photo : Cesar Ojeda on Flickr

The Process

Photo : Stuart Rankin on Flickr

I just wondered how they make it? It should be difficult, isn’t it? So, there are three stages to make this wood block prints:

1. Paint a design with ink
2. Carve the design onto wooden blocks
3. Apply some colored ink to the blocks and press sheets of paper on them to print it.

Surprisingly, there were specialists for each stage. I think that the most difficult step is the second stage! How can they carve the design onto wooden blocks? Isn’t it really insane? Luckily, if they have finished the blocks, it became so easy to make the same productions of it.

Themes and Genres

Photo : Yoshikazu TAKADA on Flickr

The most used themes for this Ukiyo-e were beautiful women (bijin ga), kabuki actors (yakusha e), sumo wrestlers, and landscapes. The beautiful historical scenes and folktales were also the commonly used themes for this art. It is known that scenes from nature were considered as an important part of Asian culture.

Hokusai – The Great Wave Off Kanagawa (1831)

Photo : Stuart Rankin on Flickr

This is the most famous artwork of Ukiyo-e. I can say that all Japanese people know about this print! It is also known that in Hokusai’s artworks, the colors were bold, flat, and abstract. Unfortunately, Hokusai died at 1849.

At Last

Photo : Bruno Cordioli on Flickr

I really love art and painting. For this type of art, I really can’t say anything! No comment! This kind of art is amazing and cool. Make the design, carve onto wooden blocks and make a print of it. The simplicity of the design and its color are so good! I have visited an exhibition of Ukiyo-e once in Japan, and have seen the Hokusai’s artworks. It was really beautiful! I really love the simplicity of it and its color! I recommend you to visit the museum of Ukiyo-e in Japan to see the beauty of this art!

There are many museums in Japan featuring Ukiyo-e, but the most famous might be the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum in Matsumoto, Nagano Prefecture. Check here for more information.

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