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Tools and Materials Illustrating the Japanese Method of Colour-Printing

Edward F. Strange



Plate III

TOYOKUNI I - Working proof of a colour-print showing registration marks


The Printing of the old colour-prints was done by a third person, neither the engraver nor the designer.

The finished block must first be thoroughly washed and dried. The colour is then applied with a brush to the upper surface of the block, which rests on a low stand (Suridai) to which are affixed four small cushions of wet cotton (Yawara) to prevent slipping (Fig. 6). This stand should have a downward slope of about 2 inches in 1 foot. The paper is wetted, about 6 hours before being used for printing, and hung up to drain. For the actual printing, it is laid on the upper surface of the block, register (Kento) being secured by means of an angular cut at one corner (Plate III) called the "key" (Kagi); and a line cut at another, called the "draw-close line" (Hikitsuki). No other means of adjustment is used, but the skill of the old printers was so great that faults of register can very seldom be observed. The impression is then rubbed off with the Baren, used with a circular or zig-zag movement (Fig. 5); and this operation is repeated in succession with each block, beginning with the key-block, until the prints are complete.

It is the modern, and was probably the old, practice to take the required number of proofs from each block in succession, and not to complete each print separately. The writer has observed that a modern Japanese printer takes an impression in from 15 to 25 seconds, without special effort.

The colours used were as follows:

CARMINE (Beni). Made from the Safflower, Carthainus tinctorius, from which rouge is also prepared. The kind called Saiku-Beni is generally mixed with an acid derived from the Plum-fruit (Mukiume).

BLUE (Ao). Both Airo (indigo) and Bero (European blue) are now used. The old indigo was sometimes extracted from dyed rags.

YELLOW (Ki). Generally Zumi, a yellow dye, and Kiwo, orpiment, are used, and Shiwo, gamboge, for the best prints.

PURPLE (Murasaki). Formerly this colour was made by mixing Aigami (blue) and Beni (red), but now an imported purple is used.

GREEN (Midori). A mixture of either Bero and Kiwo, or Zumi and Airo.

ORANGE YELLOW (To-o). Produced by mixing Zumi and Bengara (iron red) or Zumi and Yenji (rouge).

BLACK (Sumi). Yeizen Zumi (lamp-black) is used with the key-block. It should be steeped in water for five or six months, then thoroughly well mixed in a wooden dish with a wooden mixer. Tsuya-Zumi is the brilliant black used for such details as human hair, black lacquer objects, etc. It is obtained by the use of a Dosa medium (mixture of glue and alum); and printed from a separate block.

SILVER COLOUR (Gin-iro). Lead powder mixed with glue.

GOLD COLOUR (Kin-iro). Brass powder mixed with glue.

COPPER COLOUR (Akegane-iro). Pure copper powder mixed with glue.

WHITE (Shiro). Powdered white clay (gofun) mixed with glue. Clamshell powder (Namaguriko) is sometimes employed.

Bengara (IRON RED), Tan (RED LEAD) and MICA are also used.

NOTE - The above colours are those given in the Bungei Riusan (see Bibliography).


Great importance was attached to the grinding and mixing of the colours. The glue-water medium used for mixing with black was made in the proportion of about one-third of an ounce of glue to three-fourths of a pint of water; but these proportions varied with various qualities of the pigment or paper. In the case of other colours, glue was not always used, but rice-paste (made with rice-flour and boiling water); the actual mixing being sometimes done in the process of applying the colour to the block. A little alum was dissolved in the cold water with which the rice-paste was mixed. A specially brilliant effect was produced by laying a light wash of rice-paste over the block before spreading, the colours.

RELIEF PRINTING - For this purpose, a special block is made for that part in the print where the relief is required. The print is laid back downward on the block, in the opposite manner to that used when printing colour, and the impression is rubbed in with a tool of ivory - the canine teeth of the wild boar being the material most favoured.

20. WORKING PROOF from the key-block, with colour added by the artist; and the following note in his writing, "Please gradate the colour like this." The register marks are seen at the sides. By Utagawa Toyokuni I. A.D. 1769 - 1825.

Subject - Theatrical scene. The actors Nakayama Tomisaburo and Ichikawa Komazo in the parts of the Geisha Sankatsu and Hanshichi. Plate III.

F. 3870 - 1911

21. PRINTING COLOURS. Specimens of colours as mixed by printers for use, in glazed earthenware bowls, with small brushes.

E. 3892 - 3895 - 1910

22. BRUSHES made of horse-hair. The smaller brushes are used for applying the colour to the blocks.

E. 4324 - 4332 - 1909

23. RUBBERS (Baren) with which the print is taken, showing each side.

E. 4347, 4348 - 1909

Another example without the bamboo sheath.

E. 125 - 1915

These are made with bamboo sheath fibre, twisted into cord and coiled edgeways round a card centre; then fixed into position with paper string of two or three strands and paste. This is then enclosed within a large soft bamboo sheath, the ends of which are twisted and turned upwards to make the handle. The sheath must be very fine and be softened with a little oil before use.

24. DIAGRAM, showing internal construction of the pad of the Baren (Fig. 3).

25. DIAGRAM, showing position of the pad within the sheath of the Baren, before the ends of the latter are turned over, and twisted to make the handle (Fig. 4)

26. DIAGRAM, showing how the Baren is held in the hand, and the line it follows when used (Fig. 5).

27. DIAGRAM, showing printer's desk, with block in position, resting on pads of damp cotton (Fig. 6).

28. WOOD-BLOCKS (7) used in the production of a colourprint by Utamaro II. (worked c. 1800 - 1840 A.D.), with a set of progressive proofs made by a modern Japanese printer.

E. 4316-4322 - 1909

  • The KEY-BLOCK, for printing the black outlines only.
  • First printing from KEY-BLOCK.
  • Second printing, with GREY added to proof from key-block. The block is also cut for the twelfth printing, GREEN.
  • Fifth printing, PALE BLUE. The block is also cut for the fourth printing, BROWN.
  • Sixth printing, BLUE PATTERN. The block is also cut for a printing not used.
  • Seventh printing, BLUE. Eighth printing, YELLOW.
  • Ninth printing, GREY. Tenth printing, BROWN (second time used).
  • Eleventh printing, BROWN PATTERN. The block is also cut for the third printing, PALE PINK.
  • Thirteenth printing, CRIMSON.
  • Fourteenth printing, CRIMSON PATTERN.
  • Fifteenth printing, PURPLE.
  • Sixteenth printing, BURNISHED BLACK, giving the completed print.

29. WATER-BOTTLE (mizu-ire) of porcelain in form of the fruit of an egg-plant; used for dropping water on the stone on which colours are ground.

E. 141 - 1915

NOTE - The above are exhibited in the Galleries of the Museum. In the Students' Room is a set of proofs showing separate printings from each block. The key-block of the above series is original; the colour-blocks were made in the 2nd half of the 19th century.


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