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Adachi's Pick -Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e-
"The Second Month, Plum Tree at the Water's Edge"
Part.2 -About the production-

February 22, 2021

Adachi's Pick -Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e-
"The Second Month, Plum Tree at the Water's Edge"
Part.2 -About the production-

Adachi just launched the new series of the articles, "Adachi's Pick -Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e-'' where we pick one ukiyo-e artist and his work to talk about such an artist, his prints, how the print was produced, and so on.

The first artist of this new series is Suzuki Harunobu who is stated as "father of Nishiki-e (which means multicolor woodcut print beautiful as the colorful brocade)" and one of his masterpieces, "The Second Month, Plum Tree at the Water's Edge" which depicts a beautiful night scene with a young couple attempting to snap the branch of the white plum tree. We talked about how Harunobu's dreamy and lovely worlds were created from the work point of view in Part 1. And now, in this article of Part 2. -About the production-, we would like to talk how this print was produced in the studio with what kinds of materials and special techniques.

■ "Sumizuri-e" to "Nishiki-e" -Black and White to Full Color-

Suzuki Harunobu is stated as "Father of Nishiki-e" as he completed the multi color printing method. To create the multi color print, the printer needs to print as many as the number of colors used in the work. It looks easy to print many multiple colors over and over to create one print, however it is extremely difficult to print every color with the perfect alignment and it has been one of the most difficult techniques for printers to learn.

The early ukiyo-e was printed in just black as same as the book. Then a couple of colors started to be added by hand painting upon the demand. The attempts were made to add colors by blocks, but it worked only for two or three colors (commonly red and green were used).
Kaigetsudo Anchi
"Standing Courtesan in Kimono with Chrysanthemum Design"
Torii Kiyomasu Ⅰ
"The Actor Ichikawa Danjuro Ⅰas Takenuki Goro"
Ishikawa Toyonobu
"The Actor Nakamura Kiyosaburo as a Courtesan Reading a Letter"
Harunobu completed the registration marks in 1765 which is the greatest invention in the history of printing in Japan. Then the printing techniques developed quickly from black and white to full color. As we talked in the last article, the demand of Harunobu's clients who had no limit of the cost for their elaborate multi colored order made calendars helped this acceleration a lot. This is the beginning of the golden period of ukiyo-e.
>> The article about "Picture Calendar" is here.

■ The Greatest Invention in History of Printing "Kento -Registration Mark-"

In Japanese traditional woodcut printing, we use two registration marks carved on the woodblock where the printer places the paper at the exact same place and it makes consistent multicolor prints with the perfect alignment. The one on the front right corner is called "Kagi Kento (looks like right angle mark)" and the other one on the bottom about 1/3 of the width of the block from the left corner is called "Hikitsuke Kento".

<"Kagi Kento"(lower right)&
"Hikitsuke Kento"(lower left)>

At first, the printer places the paper on the Kagi Kento then brings the paper to the Hikitsuke Kento to set. This movement is made every time when the paper is set on the block.

The first hardest bar for the trainee of the printer is placing the paper on the exact same place of the block each time. It is extremely difficult and takes so long to obtain this skill.

The registration mark which Harunobu completed in 1765 is still used in our studio as it was. By the way, actually Japan was the only country in the world where the ordinary people casually enjoyed the multi colored prints around 1770! It is all thanks to Harunobu's greatest invention.

■ New paper "Hosho" perfect for Harunobu's elaborate prints

After Harunobu completed the registration marks, he produced many elaborate prints which not only multi color but also used special printing techniques. Therefore, the number of the printing time for each work increased quite a lot.

The paper used before the multi color printing was very thin and could not hold numbers of printing for the multi color prints. So, they started to use the thicker and stronger paper called "Hosho" which worked really well to produce Harunobu's elaborate multi color prints.

Now at Adachi, we use Hosho paper purely made from Kozo (paper mulberry) for ukiyo-e except the early ukiyo-e prints or special orders. The fibers of Kozo are very long and soft, and absorb the water colors well which produce not only Japanese woodcut prints' iconic rich and vivid colors but also enhance the special printing effects Harunobu liked to use.

■ Special "Sumi" ink and printer's skill to produce the pitch-black dark

Harunobu depicted many night scenes and featured print in this article "The Second Month, the Plum Tree at the water's edge" is also the night scene. He expressed the night with the pitch-black background. Actually, this matte black can only be produced with special "Sumi" black ink purified beforehand.


Normally solid Sumi is congealed with Nikawa glue (animal glue). At Adachi, we put this solid Sumi into the pot full of water and leave it for a while to soften Sumi and make glue been melted into the water. The top layer of water in the pot needs to be changed frequently, so that the Sumi left on the bottom of the pot purified as just Sumi. Then the pure Sumi is grinded in the special pot to be made into shiny Sumi with super fine particles.

The printer needs to let this special Sumi soak well into the paper fiber. To print a large part of just matte black evenly is extremely difficult and requires very advanced skill. The pitch-black dark which Harunobu liked to use only can be produced with specially made Sumi black ink and advanced printer's technique.

<Why Harunobu's "The Second Month" is smaller than Hokusai's "The Great Wave"?>

The size of ukiyo-e is different by timing of the production. At Harunobu's time, the size of "Chuban (medium size)" was commonly used. Since ukiyo-e was developed as a commercial printing, there were several fixed paper sizes. The sizes of paper were decided how the original paper can be divided with the combination of in half, in quarter, in eighth with horizontally or vertically. There were five different sizes of original papers which were determined by the size of the paper making tool.

The "Chuban" used by Harunobu and his time was quarter of "Obiro Hosho paper (approximately 53.1cm x 72.0cm)".

Commonly known as "Oban (large size)" which is a popular size for Hiroshige or Hokusai is half of "O Hosho paper (approximately 49.3cm x 68.2cm)". The popular series of Hokusai's "Thirty-six views of Mt. Fuji" and "Fifty-three stations on the Tokaido" were printed in "Oban".
※There is "Chuban '' in Hokusai's time also. However, since it is a quarter of "O Hosho paper", this "Chuban" is smaller than "Chuban" from Harunobu's time.
Suzuki Harunobu
"The Second Month,
Plum Tree at the Water's Edge"
  Katsushika Hokusai
"Bullfinch and Dropping Cherry"
We assume that the reason why the paper size of ukiyo-e had changed time to time was the publishing matter. After Harunobu completed the registration mark, the paper type was changed to the strong "Hosho" paper, but the paper size varied depending on the genre and time.

However, the common spirit through ukiyo-e history is "No waste and highest efficiency". This is because ukiyo-e was used as a tool of media and under the strict control of the cost and time performance. Ukiyo-e was developed as an ultimate minimalism art because of the strict cost restriction.

We hope you enjoyed our new series of articles "Adachi's Pick -Masterpiece of Ukiyo-e-'' starting with Suzuki Harunobu and his masterpiece, "The Second Month, Plum Tree at the Water's Edge" and discovered a lot of factors in the production process.

Ukiyo-e could not develop without the existence of Harunobu. His invention of the registration mark is equivalent to the industrial revolution. It effected the development of the culture in Edo and made ordinary people's lives so rich. The development of the printing techniques after Harunobu's time was unbelievably fast and it is amazing that this change was made by only one ukiyo-e artist, Suzuki Harunobu.

We reproduce a number of Harunobu's prints. Please come back to check them out at Adachi's website.

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