The Seattle Art Museum has a wonderful new exhibit titled “Fleeting Beauty” featuring a private collection of Japanese woodblock prints.

In a word, they are stunning.  

The Japanese term for these prints is “Ukiyo-e” – which literally means Pictures of the Floating World.

What is this floating world, and why do we call it ‘fleeting’?

The images depicted in these prints are scenes in and around the city of Edo (present-day Tokyo), during the late 17th to mid19th centuries.

They are from a time in Japan’s history that no longer exists.

In that sense, they are fleeting.

Just like weekends, or vacations that never seem to last quite long enough, these images of life in historic Japan, seem to have floated on by.

During Japan’s Edo period, the Shogun ruled the land, and Samurai warriors were in force. Their home base was Edo, a bustling, thriving metropolis.

In short, the Samurai warriors, far away from home and family, needed to be ‘entertained’ during their free time.

Hence the so-called “Pleasure Quarters” – a distinct area outside the main city, where courtesans, and Kabuki actors offered an enjoyable escape from everyday life.

It is here where the inspiration for the Ukiyo-e prints takes place.

I addressed the printmaking process in an earlier post, describing my own, amateur efforts at the craft.

However, the creation of a woodblock print is extremely complex, a process that involves four different artisans.

It begins with the Artist, who is responsible for the overall design, then moves on to the Carver, who carves the intricate details out of blocks of cherry wood, then on to the Printer, who magically applies the colors according to the Artist’s vision.

Keep in mind that a different block of wood needed to be carved for every single nuance of color visible in the final print.

In the print shown, by Hiroshige, we see varying shades of blues and greys, plus yellow, red, purple and black . What seems fairly simple, might actually involve up to ten different blocks of wood.

The white of the snow was the basic color of the paper – meaning one less block that needed to be carved!

It was the Printer who was responsible for perfectly aligning (or registering) the different blocks of color. In other words, if this individual was not dedicated to his craft, a woman’s red lips might not be properly positioned on her face, or her elaborate hairdo might appear slightly askew and not quite sitting on her head.

Clearly, that would not uphold the high standards that these craftsmen adhered to.

The final step of the process was the Publisher. The early prints were bound into books; it was only later that they were sold as individual sheets that served as advertisements, if you will, for attracting customers.

Much like the present day poster.

Some even served as the equivalent of gift wrap. (In their day, these Ukiyo-e prints were not considered fine art).

The woodblock prints in this exhibit focus on courtesans, kabuki actors, and landscapes. The latter came into favor towards the end of the 18th century, when the prints of the pleasure quarters were gradually being phased out.

On view are majestic scenes from Hokusai’s “36 Views of Mt. Fuji”, not to mention Hiroshige’s “53 Stations Along the Tokaido Road”

A road, by the way, that still exists for the intrepid traveler.

The Ukiyo-e prints capture a way of life gone by. They are at once magical, beautiful and yes, fleeting.


Last week, I attended a printmaking class.             

I call it Printmaking 101, because the actual hands –on process  of creating a print was very new to me. I admit, I’m a Novice.

Not that I’m new to the world of Prints – I’ve been a fan for many years, and I’m fairly well-versed in the various processes of woodblock prints, etchings and engravings. I’ve long admired such masterful artists as Rembrandt, and Durer and their contemporaries.

What I haven’t done, is actually made a print myself. However, I can tell you it was a lot of fun!

I came to class armed with nothing but my imagination. I hadn’t received the e-mail reminding me to bring a picture, or drawing, for inspiration, and to wear old clothes, but I had figured out the latter on my own, and ended up winging it on the former.

What I created was the equivalent of a woodblock print, but lucky for me and everyone else in the class, we were able to lean into the process by carving a piece of eraser-like rubber, called Easy Cut, rather than a hard-to-carve piece of wood.

While carving my design, I had to think in terms of ‘positive’ and ‘negative’. The positive areas were the parts of my eraser pad that remained raised and would receive the ink, compared to the sections I was carving away thereby termed ‘negative’. (The negative areas of the carving medium essentially end up below the surface, and are therefore untouched by the ink).

In design, when we refer to positive and negative space, it is a very different concept. The positive space that interior designers are accustomed to, refers to the furnishings in a room – positive space– versus the lack of furnishings in a room – the negative space, or what I like to call ‘breathing room’.

This is because every room needs a place for the eye to rest.

The same holds true for Art. Regardless of whether you are an artist, or designer, anyone who is skilled at their craft knows when to pull in the reins and stop. Stop carving, stop painting, stop designing. Know when you are done.

In the end, what an artist ‘leaves out’ of the final work can be just as important as what you DO see.

I had to keep this in mind while carving my little masterpiece. I use that term loosely, of course. Everyone at my work table was in agreement that our first efforts would probably NOT be masterpieces.

Every so often, someone (including myself) would mutter ‘ooops’ as they slipped with the carving knife. I had to re-think my design more than once.

Even more difficult was learning to think in reverse, because however the design looks as you are carving it, once you place a piece of paper over the inked block and flip the whole thing over, every detail shows up in reverse.

Tricky? Yes. Fun? Absolutely! I highly recommend this kind of brain activity, but even more satisfying is the chance to explore one’s creative side.

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