Art

Ukiyo-e: the Beauty Behind the Classic Japanese Woodblock Prints (For Free)

Find hundreds of thousands of prints on the most extensive online ukiyo-e database

Woodblock printing is one of the most famous Japanese art forms, an elaborate technique that was first used by temple monks to reproduce Buddhist texts efficiently. We associate it nowadays with ukiyo-e art, illustrations from the 17th to 19th centuries that capture scenes from everyday life: kabuki theater, geishas and courtesans, sumo wrestlers, folk tales, and landscapes.

Ukiyo-e: the Beauty Behind the Classic Japanese Woodblock Prints (For Free) 1
Sunset Glow at Seta. Kitao Masayoshi.

Floating Worlds

The term ukiyo-e (浮世絵) translates roughly as "pictures of the floating world" because the subjects are frequently depicted without a background. It is made with woodcuts similar to those used by western printers used for illustrating books: the artist creates a wood stamp with the negative of the image that is then rolled with ink and pressed on paper to create the positive.

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The Great Wave. Katsushika Hokusai.

Cherry wood was commonly used for the blocks but, unlike western woodcuts, this blocks of wood were cut across the grain instead of against it. For the paper, sheets made out of the mulberry bark were favored because they were strong enough to withstand the pressure during the printing process and absorbed the ink quickly.

Advances made in printing technologies during the eighteenth century made it possible to produce illustrations with more varied colors. That is when ukiyo-e became extremely popular, with scenes that appealed to the wealthy citizens of the period.

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Ukiyo Tsurezure. Torii Kiyonobu I.
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Sanpukutsui sa chu u. Nishimura Shigenaga

These days, ukiyo-e prints are considered extremely valuable, with some exceeding $1 million in price. The good news is that if you wish to see these illustrations and draw inspiration for your projects, you can do it for free.

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Hokubo no Bijin Suzubaya. Kitao Shigemasa

The database

The Ukiyo-e Database, created by John Resig in 2012 to aide researchers in the study of Japanese woodblock prints, currently contains over 223,000 prints from different historical periods.

You can search for different terms and contents or do a reverse search on an image you may have found elsewhere to know more about its author and the year it was made. The database is composed of collections and items from dozens of universities, libraries, and art dealers and has also partnered with private collectors to expand its catalog.

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Kinkakuji Temple. Yoshida Hiroshi.

Because each wooden block could be used thousands of times to make printed copies, this site also stores multiple copies of the same print, made viewable in a gallery for easy comparison. Dive in and find some of the most beautiful prints ever made to use as inspiration or directly in your projects.

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