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FAQ: What papers were used for ukiyo-e prints?


Paper Detail Traditional Japanese paper used in printing ukiyo-e was handmade from kôzo (Paper mulberry, species Broussone papyrifera), which was absorbent, flexible, and dimensionally stable even when moistened for printing. Finer editions of ukiyo-e prints (deluxe and surimono) were printed on thicker, more absorbent paper also made from kôzo that was called hôsho (later called 'mitsumata'; species Edgworthia papyrifera).

Traditional Japanese papers vary in texture due to differences in preparing the pulp and applying the sizing, called dôsa, which was a mixture of animal glue (called sanzembon, made from cooked bovine skins) and alum (called myôban, a solid double sulfate containing aluminum). Papers were typically sized to varying degrees on both sides to prevent excessive absorption of the pigments and sticking of the paper to the woodblocks during printing. On occasion some papers were minimally sized (or not sized at all) to allow for greater absorbency. More sizing meant stiffer, less absorbent paper (more characteristic of modern papers).

There was a relatively standard quality for the less expensive, less absorbent commercial papers (generically called kôzo) that can be contrasted with the fairly uniform, high quality, more expensive, more absorbent, and thicker special occasion papers (generically called hôsho) used for surimono (special edition, privately issued prints). It should be noted here that the opposing sides of handmade Japanese papers differ slightly in smoothness because the damp, newly manufactured papers are dried on smooth wooden boards and brushed down flat. The surface facing down, considered the "front" side, will dry to a smooth texture, while the brushed side will be slightly rougher.

In general, modern papers tend to feel harder and are more heavily sized than seventeenth- nineteenth century papers. Yet Japanese papers were handmade and could vary quite a bit in thickness and absorbency. Nevertheless, "long-fibered and "absorbent" are often encountered terms applied to papers made during the Edo period (1615-1868). Papers produced during the Meiji period (1868-1912) are sometimes barely distinguishable from the earlier papers. As some early Meiji reprints of Edo-period print designs were made on papers similar to late Edo-period papers, it can sometimes be difficult to tell the two papers apart, which means some Meiji print copies could be deceptive if judged for authenticity only on the basis of the type of paper. ©1999-2001 by John Fiorillo

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