Ukiyo-e – pictures of the floating world. What made them so popular, apart from Japan opening up its borders to the west, of course? The color! Oh, how the reds flow right into the greens and the browns lining the greys. The color explosion that each Japanese woodblock
piece has is like no other. And you won’t see just one color scheme, but many – blending right into one another. This printmaking truly evolved from monochromatic sketches to a blast of several complex water-based inks on a single sheet of paper.
So where did these colorants come from?
Well, the source of these colors varied from plant-based dyes to mineral pigments to chemically generated inks . But each and every pigment was eventually mixed in a water base, giving you the paint that was used to make the print.
Now let’s come back to the colors a little bit. Traditional ukiyo-e prints of the 16th-17th century i.e. the Edo Period were full of traditional pigments like indigo, red safflower or orpiment, etc. The more modern ones through the 19th and 20th centuries brought more specific colors such as Prussian blue or, later, with aniline red and violet as the dominant colors . Prussian blue is the first modern synthetic pigment and it had just been adopted for commercial printing in Japan from China and Europe when Hokusai’s prints were made.
You might think these color choices are haphazard. But they have themes going on within them. In fact, the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston’s Asian Conservation Studio and Scientific Research department has been researching colors and color palettes used in these prints since 2002, to create a database with all the colors that the prints use in there . Pretty cool right? Some science-y artists among us used visible light and infrared imaging devices called “hyperspectral imaging” by sampling parts of the images like this and running them through what would be a scanner in layman’s terms :
And out came several themes within the same image, like this one:
Do you see how you can very quickly count five to six different themes going here, from the list of colors that were found? That was the whole idea behind ukiyo-e – to combine vibrant themes that would go well with one another. And out came such bright pieces that it seemed almost impossible to visualize that there might be a theme.
And this kind of breakdown has happened for hundreds and thousands of images as of today, since 2002. And the work of these scientists has gotten us a unique list of common colors for most ukiyo-e prints, categorized into blues, greens, purples, reds, browns, etc. You get the idea, basically the colors in a color wheel.
Japanese woodblock artists do deserve homage and applause for the amount of work they’ve put into choosing everything right for each piece.
So here’s a little homework for you. The next time you see a ukiyo-e print or go out to buy Japanese woodblock art, try to figure out some of the colors it has and then find out the actual colors it had here! And let us know in the comments if you got it right!
 Biron, Carole, et al. “Revealing the Colours of Ukiyo-e Prints by Short Wave Infrared Range Hyperspectral Imaging (SWIR).” Microchemical Journal, Elsevier, 28 Feb. 2020, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S0026265X1932377X.
[2’] “Story Map Cascade.” Home, https://www.loc.gov/ghe/cascade/index.html?appid=2ea96b5ec90e4378a363c01d10131192.
“Dayflower/Safflower: Ukiyo-e Colorant.” CAMEO, https://cameo.mfa.org/wiki/Category:Dayflower/Safflower:_Ukiyo-e_colorant.