Re: colors and pigments used by Ukiyo-e artists

[ Follow Ups ] [ Post Followup ] [ Ukiyo-e Q & A ] [ FAQ ]

Posted by John Fiorillo on February 27, 1999 at 01:34:24:

In Reply to: colors and pigments used by Ukiyo-e artists posted by Ellen Zeiss on February 07, 1999 at 19:34:38:

There have not been any definitive scientific analyses of pigments used in Japanese prints, although there is one good preliminary study on the rates of fading that includes the identification of some of the colorants: Feller, Curran, & Bailie: "Identification of traditional organic colorants employed in Japanese prints and determination of their rates of fading," in: Keyes, Roger: Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Catalogue of the Mary A. Ainsworth Collection. Oberlin: Allen Memorial Art Museum, 1984, pp. 253-266.

On central problem is the lack of documentation about the sources of colorants and their preparation for printmaking during the Edo period.

Many of the pigments used in the 19th C. by Hiroshige and his contemporaries were probably nearly identical to those used by Utamaro and his contemporaries in the late 18th C. I believe, however, that there was at least one color that was significantly different: blue. Although there was not a single blue colorant, the "appearence" or hue of the blue pigments were generally different between the two printmaking periods. Most obviously, of course, there was the imported "bero-ai" or Berlin Blue (also called "Prussian Blue") appearing at least by the 1820s, an attractive synthetic blue that was more colorfast than the old vegetal blues. Hokusai used the pigment in his 36 Views of Fuji and it appears in Hiroshige's 53 Stations of the T˘kaid˘, both early 1830s. From then on it was almost indispensible to ukiyo-e printmaking. There were even all-blue prints called "aizuri-e" that exploited the new color in a fadish though sometimes effective manner. More subtle, however, was what I suspect was the introduction of different organic blues in the early 19th C. I have no scientific evidence for this, but the hue of 18th C. blue is generally different from that found in 19th C. prints (even excluding beroi-ai). The 18th C. blues are said to have been either "ai" from Indigo (Polygonum tinctorum) or "aigami" from the lily called the "Dayflower" (Commelina communis). The choice of blue also affected the appearance and lightfastness of purple because purple was a mixture of blue plus red ("beni" from the Safflower or Carthamus tinctorius). To my eye both the faded and unfaded blues and purples of the mid 19th C appear different from those of the late 18th C. I hope that one day a scientific analysis will be undertaken to examine these pigments.

Those who are interested in this topic might want to view a page on my new website that illustrates three prints by Katsukawa Shunei that range from unfaded to faded:


Follow Ups:

Post a Followup


Subject: Re: Re: colors and pigments used by Ukiyo-e artists


Optional Link URL:
Link Title:
Optional Image URL:

[ Follow Ups ] [ Post Followup ] [ Ukiyo-e Q & A ] [ FAQ ]