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Tools and Materials Illustrating the Japanese Method of Colour-Printing

Edward F. Strange




The process of colour-printing from wood-blocks, used in Japan from the early part of the 18th century, has much in common with that of the so-called chiaroscuro wood-cuts first produced in Italy and Germany during the 16th century, of which the work of Andrea Andreani (1540 - 1623) supplies good examples. It is possible that the Japanese method was derived from this source, either directly or by way of China. It is known that the Christian missionaries who worked in Japan at the end of the 16th and early part of the 17th centuries introduced paintings and other objects connected with their faith; and also that Chinese artists, who had acquired to some extent a knowledge of European art from the Jesuits in China, visited Japan about this time. Most things of the kind were, however, destroyed during the persecution. Japanese tradition ascribes the invention to Takekawa Minosuke (Manji Period, A.D. 1658 - 1660); and a volume of Costume Designs in the Museum, dated 1667 (04. C. 20), is printed in colours, only one, however, being used on each plate.

The Chinese are known, with certainty, to have employed this process before the end of the 17th century; but no Japanese colour-print has yet been recorded, which can be placed, authentically, earlier than the second quarter of the 18th century. Credit for the first production of them is generally given to Torii Kiyonobu (1664 - 1729); but the greatest development was due to Suzuki Harunobu (died A.D. 1770, aged 67 years). Japanese authorities say that the improvements popularized by this artist were invented by an engraver named Kinroku, in conjunction with a printer; and that Harunobu, employing them to reproduce his pictures, about the year 1765, thus laid the foundation of a school of artists who found their chief occupation in designing for this class of work. The invention of Kinroku and his associates, the printers Ogawa Hatcho and Yumoto Yukiye (who worked for Harunobu), consisted chiefly in improvements of the kento or registration system which had already been evolved by Uyemura Kichiyemon, about the year 1744 - the approximate date of the first use of several blocks. Katsugawa Shunsho (died A.D. 1792, aged 67 years) developed the process still further; and it reached its highest technical level before the close of the 18th century.

Soon after the year 1800 a gradual decline is seen; which manifested itself both in the increase of the number of blocks used, and in the loss of quality in the colours. However, many prints of remarkably high technical excellence were still produced up to about the year 1864; soon after which time, all refinement both of engraving and printing seems to have been lost. The last 30 years or so, have, however, witnessed a sort of revival, by no means without merit in its way; and the adaptation of the process to the requirements of book-illustration and the reproduction of works of art has reached a remarkably high standard in such publications as the Kokka and those of the Shimbi Shoin.

It is not unimportant to add that this process, sometimes modified in detail, has been revived in Europe and America; and is now practised by a considerable number of artists. The Department of Engraving, Illustration, and Design contains examples of this development, including a consecutive set of working proofs (E. 20 - 26 - 1904) of a print by Mr. J. D. Batten and Mr. Morley Fletcher, who were the first to use the method in England. The collection also includes a similar set of working proofs of the modern development of the process, as used for the reproduction of paintings by Old Masters by the Shimbi Shoin (E. 1862 - 2043 - 1910).


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