Identifying Original versus Reproduction – Japanese Woodblocks

Identifying an original versus a reproduction woodblock print can be challenging, as many reproductions are made to look as close to the original as possible. However, there are several factors to consider when trying to identify an original woodblock print:

  1. Paper quality: Original woodblock prints are typically printed on high-quality, handmade paper that has a distinct texture and feel. Reproductions may be printed on lower quality paper or a different type of paper altogether.
  2. Ink quality: Original woodblock prints are printed using high-quality, fade-resistant ink that is applied with precision and care. Reproductions may have lower quality ink that fades more easily or is applied less precisely.
  3. Edition size: Sometimes (although not generally in old Edo woodblocks) woodblock prints are often printed in limited editions, with each print being numbered and signed by the artist. Reproductions may not be numbered or signed, or may be printed in large quantities.  More common in Edo originals, and Shin Hanga, is the publisher seal (see next point).
  4. Watermark or chop mark: Some original woodblock prints may have a watermark or chop mark in the paper, which indicates the artist or publisher. Reproductions may not have this mark or may have a different mark.  Watanabe seals, for example, are well documented in original Kawase Hasui woodblock prints.
  5. Age and condition: Original woodblock prints may show signs of age and wear, such as discoloration or creases. Reproductions may look newer and may be in better condition.

    A Lifetime original Kawase Hasui woodblock print with publisher seal along the lower right margin

Next, the key block, or “omohan” in Japanese, is an essential component of a Japanese woodblock print. It is a wooden block that is used to print the outlines and main details of the image onto the paper. The key block is typically the first block to be carved, and is used as a guide for carving the subsequent color blocks.

The key block is made by transferring the artist’s design onto a piece of wood, typically cherry or magnolia, and carving away the areas that will not receive ink. The lines and details on the key block are then inked and printed onto the paper, creating the basic structure and composition of the image.

Once the key block has been printed, additional blocks are carved and printed to add color and shading to the image. Each color requires a separate block, with areas of the block being carved away to create different shades and textures.

The key block is an important part of the woodblock printmaking process, as it sets the foundation for the image and guides the carving and printing of the subsequent color blocks. Without the key block, it would be difficult to achieve the precision and detail that is characteristic of Japanese woodblock prints

When examining a Japanese woodblock print, it is important to look at the lines and details in the key block to determine the quality and authenticity of the print. Original prints will often have crisp, clean lines and sharp details that are difficult to replicate in a reproduction.

However, it is important to note that identifying an original Japanese woodblock print can be a complex process that requires expertise and knowledge of the printmaking process and historical context. It is always best to consult with a qualified art expert or appraiser if you are unsure about the authenticity of a woodblock print.  Please feel free to contact us ([email protected]) in help identifying your woodblock print, its value, and its authenticity.  We are always happy to help!

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