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Utagawa Hiroshige – Japanese Woodblock Printmaking

Utagawa Hiroshige Japanese Woodblock Printmaking

A key reason why kids need art for their development is to understand the past. And while woodblock techniques date back hundreds of years, there are endless possibilities for creative expression today. With its intricate designs and engaging process, woodblock printmaking offers a unique artistic path to explore earlier times.

Today Barbara Mason shares the life and art of Japanese woodblock printmaking artist Utagawa Hiroshige. Learn Hiroshige’s printmaking methods and about his unique accordion book about fish.

Explore the Art of Utagawa Hiroshige With Barbara Video

Join our founder, Barbara, as she teaches about the history of Hiroshige and his Japanese printmaking techniques while you create a print of your own.

Materials for Utagawa Hiroshige Art Lesson

Download the images and lesson plan so you can color along with your preferred medium as she demonstrates. Barbara teaches this lesson using pencil, markers, crayons and watercolor paints.

Learn About Utagawa Hiroshige and His Japanese Printmaking

Follow along with Barbara’s demonstration and lesson on Hiroshige’s art by using the transcript below.

Now the next artist we’re going to talk about is Hiroshige. So, Hiroshige lived longer than Hokusai. I really want to talk a little more about Hokusai – go back to him for just a minute. So, one of the things that they did because they used most of these drawings. Woodblock prints for advertisements. They were mostly for the theater and for beautiful women, and it really wasn’t a lot of landscape, but Hokusai did a lot of landscapes and so he sort of got that started and then when Hiroshige came along he continued with that, and his work is almost entirely landscapes.

I’m going to show you his drawings. He did 53 views of the Tokaido. The Tokaido is a road in Japan. It goes from Tokyo, which at that time was called Edo, to Kyoto, and it goes pretty much along the coast. This road, this is the most famous road, this is called the Tokaido. The image that I’ve chose from him to do that, we’re going to copy here is an image of a landscape image of a tree and a boat, and Mount Fuji, of course, which everybody did Mount Fuji.

So, you can see here I’ve done this one in pencil. And I’ve done this one in markers. And I’ve done this one in crayons and look at how different they look now. It’s the same drawing. It’s just the same drawing – but look at how different it looks. This is the crayons. This is the marker, and this is the pencil. The marker is much brighter, but there aren’t very many colors, so it made it kind of hard to decide what colors to use so that you could really see it. And then watercolor really is probably the right, the right thing to do this.

So, we’re going to do this with a watercolor, and we’ll just make the water blue. And then you know when you have water and you have sky, what happens is it’s pretty much the same color. The sky is reflected by the water. So, your sky and your water can really be the same color.

So, you notice when I’m painting that I’m just using the point of the brush. And I’m laying it down. I’m picking it up and I’m not scrubbing it around. I’m being very careful – just using the point. So now we’ll do the sky. So, when you go outside, and you look at the sky and you’re by water – can you see if the sky in the water are the same color? Sometimes.

You know we live here in the Pacific Northwest in Oregon, and our water is often pretty gray. And it reflects our sky, which is also pretty gray. So, we don’t want to paint Mount Fuji. We don’t want it to be blue. We’re going to find another color for it. OK, so there we are. Pretty much got everything here. And at first, I thought these little things at the top were birds, but I don’t think they’re birds. I don’t know what they are, maybe their leaves. These little white things at the top. OK, let me go now we’re going to have green for our tree.

And you can just follow the outline of this and it’s your work, you know, so you can do it anyway you want. If you don’t exactly follow the lines, it doesn’t matter. Or you can be real careful and follow the lines perfectly. So, I think these bushes down here are also green. So, we’re going have green bushes. And then our we’re probably going to have a little brown for our tree trunk. Maybe our land will be brown. OK, so we’re painting our land kind of brown here, maybe with a little green mixed in. We’ve got different bushes here.

Maybe I’ll do our mountain next. Sometimes, if you do things that are too close together sometimes it just bleeds together so we’ll do Mount Fuji purple. So instead of a Red Fuji, we’ll have a Purple Fuji.

So about 30 years ago I started to study woodblock printmaking. It’s hard to do – very hard to do. And I probably will never ever show it as an artist. But I sure like doing it – it’s very fun and we’re going to find an image on the Internet where they’re actually printing it, so we can show you what it looks like when you’re printing it.

We’re going to make our hills blue here. So, I don’t know what the actual colors are, but since this is my artwork, I can make it any color I want. That’s a great thing about art. It’s kind of hard to do it wrong. OK, and then we’ll get a tan color here for our – no, it’s kind of green. We’ll get some color here for our sand and our flowers in the foreground. So, you want to wait a little bit before you put two colors together, so they don’t bleed one into the other.

So, the fun thing about these images where we are just filling in the colors – you can make it any color you want. I always like making it any color. You know when I was really young, they had –  I’m sure you’ve maybe seen these paint-by-number sets, where you get the picture and there’s all these little squares and they have little numbers in them, and you’re supposed to put the paint the number a certain color. And I always put the wrong color in the wrong number. I don’t know. I just kind of wanted to do it my own way. So, it never really looked like what it was supposed to look like, because of course I did the colors wrong. But I liked it, so that’s all that mattered. I guess that’s what makes us artists, because we do things our own way.

OK, so now we have made this really interesting landscape here, and when you do something and you copy work of somebody who’s famous, when you sign the work  if I was going to sign this work and show it in a gallery, I would say “After Hiroshige”.  That would mean that I copied his work. It would be maybe not exactly like his work, but it would mean that I used that work to copy to start with and it’s just something that you do so that you don’t – you don’t want to be stealing somebody else’s work, you just want to be borrowing it.

Now one of the things that I want to show you is this book that Hiroshige did. This is what’s called an accordion book, and so what that means is that all the pages are hooked together. It’s just a long book and all the pages are hooked together and this whole book is about fish. Look at these fish. Isn’t this amazing?

So, each one of these is a separate page. And it’s fish, so these are images of Hiroshige, and I don’t know if this book was originally published like this, but it probably was. So, you can imagine that if he did this book and sold it in Japan, is how excited people would be to have this whole book of beautiful fish by Hiroshige. And the other thing that you see a lot in Japan that we don’t see in our artwork is they would write a poem. And I don’t know what this poem says because I can’t read Japanese, but it probably says something lovely about the fish and the stream and maybe dinner. I don’t know, but it’s probably a nice poem, so a lot of these pieces from Japan have poems in them. But I just wanted to show you this because I thought it was so interesting that the book is all hooked together. So, instead of being books like our book is all of these pages are separate, so they come apart like this and this one is blank on the back. But this side has all the fish on it, and you just open it up and it just goes on and on and on. So, this is a really long accordion book.

So, you’ve learned a little bit about Japan, a little bit about woodblock printmaking, and at the end of this, we are going to find on the Internet a sample of somebody printing something with actual woodblocks. It’s very hard to do. It’s not something that you can just say OK today I’m going to print woodblocks. It takes a long time to learn it. It takes a long time to be very good at it and carving the wood is very, very hard.

When you’re in school, sometimes when you get to be the 5th or 6th grade, you can carve linoleum and linoleum is pretty easy to carve, but wood is very hard to carve. You can imagine how hard it is, how sharp your tools have to be. Very hard to do, but we’re going to show you how it’s done so you can see it and the carvings are very beautiful.

So, I hope you enjoyed a little bit of this talk about Hokusai and Hiroshige. Both of them very famous men, both of them well more than 200 years ago. And yet their work is still so famous, so thanks for joining me at Golden Road and I’ll see you next time.

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