What is an Original Woodblock Print?

When you set out to become a serious woodblock print collector, one of the first learning curves you must master is determining what is an original woodblock print.  There are so many beautiful copies floating around out there, and it might be complex to figure out if what you are seeing is an “original”.  Here we take a look at what is considered an original, in accordance with serious collectors, museums, auction houses, and in general authenticity.

An original woodblock print is a type of printmaking where the image is carved into a block of wood, which is then inked and printed onto paper. The resulting image is an original work of art that is produced in a limited number of impressions.  Thus, a woodblock print is a hand made piece of art involving a complex process of painting, carving, and inking (publishing).

To be considered an original woodblock print, the image must be created by the artist using the woodblock printing technique, rather than reproduced from a pre-existing image. The artist carves the image into the woodblock, inking the raised surface, and then transfers the image onto paper by pressing it against the block. Each print is a unique work of art, as the inking and printing process may vary slightly with each impression.

In contrast, a reproduction or a print made from a photographic copy or a digital image of an artwork would not be considered an original woodblock print.  A reproduction is often times printed in a digital, offset, or otherwise cheapened version of printing.

A lifetime original woodblock print refers to a print that was created by the artist during their lifetime. This means that the artist personally carved the woodblock and printed the image, or oversaw the production of the print during their lifetime.

The term “lifetime” is often used to distinguish between original prints that were made during the artist’s lifetime and later prints that were made posthumously or by someone else after the artist’s death.  You will often times hear about Lifetime originals when discussing Kawase Hasui – which is why the publisher seal is highly important in the authenticity of Hasui’s prints, and thus will determine the date of printing.

Kawase Hasui Original Woodblock Print

The value and rarity of a lifetime original woodblock print can be greater than that of a posthumous print because it represents the artist’s direct involvement in the creation of the artwork. Additionally, a lifetime print is considered to be a more accurate representation of the artist’s intentions and style, as they were able to oversee the entire process from start to finish.

With all this said, we’d like to summarize how to accurately determine a woodblock print’s authenticity, with a few general rules to follow:

  1. Research the artist: Learn about the artist and their printing techniques. Look for information about the materials and methods they used, as well as the paper and ink they typically worked with.
  2. Examine the print closely: Look for signs of wear, such as creases or discoloration, that would be consistent with an older print. Check for watermarks or other identifying marks on the paper.
  3. Check the signature: If the print is signed, compare it to known examples of the artist’s signature to ensure that it is authentic.
  4. Check the edition: Determine the size of the edition and how it was produced. If it is a limited edition, check the numbering to ensure that it is consistent with the edition size.
  5. Seek expert opinion: If you are unsure about the authenticity of a print, consider getting an expert opinion from a professional appraiser or art dealer who specializes in Japanese prints.

Please feel free to get in touch with us for help in determining the authenticity of your woodblock print.  Please also see our upcoming Ukiyo-e woodblock print image search.  You can search woodblock prints by image, name, artist, and more.  We have the most comprehensive digital collections and archives of woodblock prints available across the internet.

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