FAQ: What papers were used for ukiyo-e prints?
There are three primary bast fibers (inner bark or skin surrounding the stem of certain trees and plants) that have been used in traditional Japanese papermaking.
||Characteristics and uses
(Paper mulberry, including Broussone papyrifera, Broussonetia kazinoki Sieb., and Broussonetia kaempferi Sieb.)
(Standard ukiyo-e and surimono paper made from kôzo)
|Made from mulberry; fibers are long, about 12mm; absorbent, flexible, strong, and dimensionally stable when moistened for printing; well-suited for ukiyo-e prints and books; rice-starch contained within the papers attracts insects and is prone to being discolored or becoming brittle when exposed to acids/resins (e.g., poor-quality framing materials); also prone to abrasion, esp. when wet
(including Edgeworthia papyrifera and Edgeworthia chrysantha)
|Smooth surface; fibers are about 3 mm long; more lustrous than kôzo, but less used for ukiyo-e than kôzo; sometimes mixed with kôzo or ganpi; also used to print currency during the Meiji period
(including Wikstroemia sikokiana and Diplomorphia sikokiana)
|Translucent, lustrous; fibers are about 4 mm long; used for fine papers, but not usually for ukiyo-e; more often used for gakô (preliminary sketches on thin papers for print designs); occasionally mixed with mitsumata
Producing traditional handmade washi (Japanese paper: 和紙) is a labor-intensive process. Trees or plants are collected and the bark is stripped and boiled in a lye solution to soften it. After rinsing in cold water or snow to remove the chemicals from the fiber, it is beaten with a wooden club, turning the stack every so often so that the fiber is evenly separated until it is suitable for pulp. The screen or mat used to form a sheet (su) is then dipped into the slurry and lifted by hand in a quick scooping motion. The su is then shaken evenly in all directions so that the fibers interlock in a random fashion. The papermaker can repeat scoopings until he has achieved the desired thickness of paper.
The image shown here is from volume 2 of Wakoku shoshoku ezukushi — Shoshoku ehon kagami (Collected pictures of various occupations in Japan — Picture-book mirror of various occupations: 和国諸職絵尽 諸織絵本鏡) by Nishikawa Moronobu (1685). It depicts a papermaker screening the paper pulp in a vat to form sheets (su) while a drier brushes down the freshly made paper on drying boards.
Traditional Japanese papers vary in texture due to differences in preparing the pulp and applying the sizing, called dôsa, which is 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).
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.
Modern papers tend to feel stiffer and are more heavily sized than seventeenth–nineteenth century papers. Papers produced during the Meiji period (1868-1912) are sometimes barely distinguishable from earlier papers, making some Meiji reprints of Edo-period designs (especially reprints from original Edo-period carved woodblocks) difficult to identify. However, Meiji papers used for ukiyo-e are often slightly smoother in texture than Edo paper (one also looks, of course, at the colorants as a way to recognize Meiji-period printings of Edo designs).
The Misnomer of "Rice Paper": Japanese woodblock-print papers are often referred to, incorrectly, as "rice papers." There is, in fact, a paper made from the pith of an Asiatic tree or evergreen shrub called Tetrapanax papyriferum, a so-called "rice paper tree" or plant (Jp., 蓪草), which is widely cultivated in China and Japan. The process involves cutting the pith spirally into a thin layer of ivory-like texture by means of a very sharp knife. The term "rice paper" appears to have originated in Europe in the late nineteenth century when Tetrapanax papyriferum pith paper was used extensively in Guangdong, China as a common support medium for gouache paintings sold to Western clients. Regardless, the papers used in Japanese woodblock printmaking were not made from rice.
©1999-2019 by John Fiorillo
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- Barrett, T. Japanese Papermaking, Traditions, Tools, and Techniques. New York: Weatherhill, (1983).
- Newland, A.R. (editor): The Hotei Encyclopedia of Japanese Woodblock Prints (Vol. 2). Amsterdam: Hotei Publishing, 2005, pp. 434, 444, 463, 468.