Illustrations and Printing 

Close Up

Published by Reiko Chiba in 1959 and 1960, The Making of Japanese Print: Harunobu’s “Heron Maid” demonstrates the steps of translating an original drawing onto woodblocks, each adding a color to the outline. Although this edition is not the original copy of the book—as indicated by the two publishing dates in the preface—the paper and binding are gradually deteriorating. The paper is manufactured from wood pulp, which signifies its low durability. The folds separating each panel are thick, but the pages are slightly foxing around the margins. As the folds illustrate different stages of the process, its accordion binding brings Suzuki Harunobu’s “Heron Maid” to life. The illustrations in this long, interconnected leaf, thereby, serve to elicit the reader’s attention into appreciating the aesthetic quality of the book, the Japanese art culture of the Edo period, and intricate process of woodblock printing.

The paratext provided by the author, Reiko Chiba, introduces the concept of woodblock printing and briefly explains how printers used hand-carved blocks to color their drawings. The simplicity and complexity of this process are, nevertheless, captured in the pictures, which are a product of woodblock printing. The illustrations develop from a black and white outline into a colored portrait of a beautiful woman standing in front of a Japanese winter landscape, holding an umbrella. The verso of each opening portrays the colored segment, isolated from the original drawing, while the recto highlights the same colored portion relative to the entire image. This approach illuminates the unique quality of the book as it primarily relies on visuals to express the essential features of woodblock printing. To distinguish it from other printing techniques that require mechanical equipment, such as a press, Chiba mentions the simple tools used to transform a sketch into a colorful drawing, which include “a sharp knife to cut the design on a block of cherry wood, a chisel to gouge out the wood between the cut lines or color masses, a mallet to help the chisel, and a printing pad called a baren to apply pressure to the back of the paper as it lies on the inked block” (1). The first block—also known as the key block—lays the foundation for the printing as it encompasses the details of the sketch and contains register marks to adjust the position of the paper. It is then used to copy the outline of the design onto the following blocks, which are carved depending on the portion to be colored. 

Japanese Print Folds

This is a view of the folds spread out, highlighting the development of the colored image. 

Intaglio Impression

This is the impression that results from pressing the drawing onto the uncolored block and is known as an "empty imprint" or "gaufrage."

The Making of a Japanese Print captures ten images, with the last one being the completed illustration of the “Heron Maid.” Since each variation shades in a different area of the picture, we can infer that the artist carved ten separate woodblocks. The difference between the blocks lies in the manner in which the physical surface was altered to produce the image. In the extract “What is Printing?” presented in The Broadview Reader in Book History, Michael Twyman depicts how the processes for printing images are classified. When “the marks to be printed stand higher than the rest of the surface,” this results in relief printing (38). On the contrary, in intaglio printing, “the hollow parts of the surface produce the printed marks” (38). Once the ink fills the grooves, the surface of the block is wiped clean to create the effect of intaglio printing. The depth of the grooves contributes to the bold quality of the ink in the illustration. Since pressure must be applied to press the ink inside the grooves onto the paper, we can see the resulting impressions without any difficulty. In this case, however, Chiba states that the Japanese tend to use “gaufrage” or “empty imprint” to recreate the impressions that occur from intaglio printing by pressing the paper “on a carved, uncolored block” (2). These marks occur in the form of crosshatches on the pages demonstrating the final stages of the coloring, yet they do require taking a closer look at the pages since the impressions are transparent. In her introduction, Chiba, therefore, implies that the chisel etches into the surfaces of the wood to use relief and intaglio printing; however, she fails to elaborate on the definitions of these terms, leaving the reader to resort to other resources to thoroughly understand the process. To further enhance the functionality of the illustrations in describing woodblock printing, Chiba could have used captions that delve into the history of woodblock printing and the effects it seeks to achieve.