The History and Art of Woodblock Printing


Japanese woodblock printing has created some of the most beautiful and popular images ever made. The technique remains popular today, and artists all over the world carry on its traditions. While the work is time-consuming, it employs simple tools, and it's a wonderful art form anyone can practise.


Woodblock prints can be made by a single individual in the comfort of their home or as part of a larger operation with presses for faster production. The affordable tools and materials make this art style a popular project for children, adult hobbyists, and professional artists alike. All you need is a block of wood, basic wood-carving blades, and ink.

  • Cherry wood (sakura) is the best wood for woodblock printing.
  • Although paper is traditional for Japanese woodblock prints, you can also use fabric or other media as a base for your image.
  • It took around a hundred years after woodblock prints became popular in Japan for multicolour printing techniques to develop.


A woodblock print begins with an image. An artist sketches their design onto a piece of wood or pastes a thin paper sketch with their design onto the wood, which they use as a guide to carve the image. Any space the artist doesn't want to print on they carve out, leaving a raised relief of their work. Finally, the artist covers the relief in ink and presses it onto paper, silk, or another medium. The image left on the medium is the woodblock print.

  • It took four people to make a traditional woodblock print: the designer, the engraver, the printer, and the publisher.
  • Woodblock prints produce a mirrored image of the raised image on the block.
  • You can add watercolours to a printed image or print in multiple steps with multiple blocks to add colours.


Woodblock printmaking began in Asia around the same time Buddhism became a popular religion in China. Printing Buddhist scriptures with woodblocks are mentioned in a book from the Tang Dynasty. The Japanese adopted the practice of printing scriptures with woodblocks, and they began using them for designs as well as text in the 1600s.

  • The earliest surviving woodblock prints came from China, and they were printed on silk rather than the paper Japanese woodblock prints eventually used.
  • In the beginning, only the government could afford to carve and print from woodblocks.
  • The Japanese developed movable-type woodblock printing techniques based on equipment and methods taken from Korea.

Famous Japanese Woodblock Prints

The most famous Japanese woodblock prints come from the Edo and Meiji periods. During these times, Japan saw sweeping cultural, political, and artistic shifts that made art more affordable and popular. Japanese woodblock prints using these styles are called ukiyo-e.

  • Many famous prints depict the "Floating World," including subjects like courtesans and kabuki performers. Three Favorite Beauties by Kitagawa Utamaro is a great example.
  • Historical depictions became popular in the 1800s, and The Great Wave Off Kanagawa remains one of the most recognizable woodblock prints in history.
  • The beauty of nature has always been a major theme in ukiyo-e, and works like Plum Estate, Kameido by Utagawa Hiroshige showcase this beautifully.

Additional Resources