The Japanese Art of Ukiyo-e

by Krystina Quintana

The Japanese Art of Ukiyo-e

Crafted in thousands during the Edo period, Ukiyo-e art offers a view into daily Japanese life in the 1600s-1800s. Ukiyo e is primarily made using woodblocks, spurring woodblock art advancements at the time. Ukiyo-e art is highly praised for allowing viewers to step into Japan's history, from folktales to landscapes and sumo wrestlers. Below, you can learn more about this enchanting Japanese art style. 

What is Ukiyo-e?

Ukiyo-e, translating to "pictures of the floating world," depicted a specific style: part wit, part luxury, and part stylish. The words "floating world" were often used to describe this style. Ukiyo e artists crafted various paintings and prints on various subjects, including people and nature. 

These prints and paintings originally began in the city of Edo, now known as Tokyo. The ukiyo-e prints were created during a 250-year stretch in which the area was relatively peaceful under the Tokugawa shoguns. At this time, merchants did not have as much power as they did previously. To re-establish themselves via a cultural status, they turned to the arts and began creating ukiyo-e prints and ukiyo-e paintings. 

Creating Ukiyo-e 

Most ukiyo-e art is made with wooden blocks. Initially, calligraphy ink was used to create Japanese ukiyo e. Eventually, the method evolved to include art brushes. Therefore the ukiyo-e could include colors. The process continued to be updated through the years, adding more colors. Eventually, the capability of including colors via woodblocks instead of only via paintbrush was developed. 

Crafting ukiyo e includes a process of preparing the woodblocks. First, the painting is added to the woodblock. It’s then sculpted (like a stamp) with the image. The final step is adding the colors of the print onto the woodblocks and pressing them onto a sheet. 

Ukiyo-e artists would combine their talents for one image. Each step was meticulously done, with a specialist assigned to every process section. 

Famous Ukiyo-e Artists

Below, you’ll find some of the most famous ukiyo-e artists and what style they craft in their paintings and prints. 

Ukiyo-E poster in Ginza, Tokyo

Moronobu Hishikawa

This ukiyo e artist crafted his art during the 17th century. He is often known as the "founder of ukiyo-e," as his creation of more affordable woodblock prints helped spread ukiyo-e around the public. He was famous for creating ukiyo-e which depicted female beauties, sumo, kabuki actors, and travel images. Hishikawa is well-known for using a combined style of various Japanese art and his textile experience to craft his art.  

Hiroshige Utagawa

Another famous ukiyo-e artist is Hiroshige Utagawa. This artist is well-known for crafting pieces that center around the landscapes of Japan, such as one of his most well-known series, "Famous Places in Kyoto." 

Kuniyoshi Utagawa

Also creating ukiyo-e at the same time as Hiroshige, Kuniyoshi is one of the most famous ukiyo-e artwork. Kuniyoshi is well-known for his ukiyo e samurai and warriors, aka musha-e. In the 1800s, Kuniyoshi was paid to create the artwork for a Chinese book named "Suikoden." This novel reached popularity quickly, pushing Kuniyoshi into fame. He earned a nickname from this accomplishment, Kuniyoshi, the Painter of the Warrior. 

Hokusai Katsushika

This artist is considered one of the ukiyo-e heroes, as he was recognized worldwide for his art. He painted ukiyo-e lands, with his most famous works offering different perspectives of Mt. Fuji. When people think of ukiyo-e, they often picture Hokusai's work, specifically, "Kanagawa okinami ura." This title translates to the "Great Wave off Kanagawa," depicting a large wave in front of Mt. Fuji to produce a dramatic landscape.

Different Genres of Ukiyo-e

Throughout the development of ukiyo-e, various genres have been created. Below, you’ll find some of the genres of ukiyo e art. 

Bijin-ga

Bijin-ga, meaning "beautiful person picture," was one of the most popular types of ukiyo-e. It often depicted well-known courtesans. However, this genre eventually grew to include local suburbanites thought to be beautiful by artists like Utamaro. Viewing these types of ukiyo-e provides insight into the beauty standards at the time, as the subjects changed in appearance depending on the artist's and society's views of attractiveness.

Yakusha-e

Translating to “actor pictures,” yakusha-e depicted kabuki actors. This style was one of the most affordable ukiyo-e, as they were often sold and passed out after performances. Sometimes a ukiyo-e print would be passed out to help promote a specific actor. Initially, actor portraits were more generic, yet they became more individualized as ukiyo-e evolved.

Landscape

Creating landscape ukiyo-e is a more traditional version of the artwork. Landscape ukiyo-e often featured a poem or other similar type of writing. 

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