Nishiki-e (brocade printing) in theory is a simple technique – you “just” paint an image; a carver creates a block to print each of the colours you need to represent in the final image; and a skilled printer applies ink to those blocks and rubs the ink into the paper one at a time. In reality though this takes an immense amount of time to perfect and is very labour intensive.
But over the years these artisans innovated and pushed the limits time and time again to produce special effects and demonstrate their skills. The following is just a brief summary of the common ones I have discovered in my collection.
In this classic Hiroshige picture we can see that the subtle grey patches are not simple blocks of colour and in fact fade either from top to bottom or from bottom to top – this is the technique of bokashi. This effect is produced by the printer who drops the ink where they want the solid colour to be and then drops some plain rice paste where the fade should end, then they use their brushes to spread the ink and paste and then, using circular motions, bring the ink down and blend it with the rice paste, creating the fade. Making the fades even and consistent across batches is incredibly difficult.
You often see it applied to text panels like this crop below.
In some prints the artist wanted to create a subtle 2-tone effect on black surfaces where parts were polished and other areas left matt. Normal carved blocks are a negative of the original image but when they wanted to use burnishing the carver would create a special non-negative block. The printer would then apply a thick black ink, allow it to dry and then literally lay the page surface up over the burnishing block and then polish it with the baren.
This effect is most often used on areas of white hair and to give detail on white kimonos. The paper would have been wetted and rubbed over a block that had no ink on it, to emboss a pattern into it.
In addition to this a particularly deep embossing pattern can be created by pushing the paper into the moulded form, called kimidashi.
Very often you will see areas like silvery head dresses and metal objects such as swords detailed with a grey pigment. This would presumably have been metallic when it was first printed but over time the ink oxidises to grey and the ink unfortunately stains and degrades/corrodes any paper that touches it. You can see in the following picture that the headdress of this butterfly dancer and her metal antennae have caused the paper to crumble and break up.
This is a very subtle effect often seen in the broad areas of background colour in some ukiyo-e. Normal cherry-wood printing blocks were planed as smooth as possible to get an even application of ink but if the artist wanted the wood grain to show through they would instruct the carvers accordingly. The carver would then choose a piece of wood with prominent graining and use stiff wire brushes to accentuate it, allowing the subtle undulations on the surface to affect the distribution of ink.
This is actually a technique that I have only seen in the design below. I initially thought that it might have been damaged by someone spraying white paint on the paper but when I searched for other examples of the same image they all feature speckles of white and on every print those spots are in different places. I’d love to know more about this technique and whether it was used in other designs.
This is the same image from the Japan Arts Council / National Theatre of Japan website:
The same from the Japanese Gallery website:
The same from the Yamada-Shoten website:
Lastly one from the ukiyo-e seller Yamabosi:
This is a light, sparking mineral dust that is sometimes sprinkled over a print while the ink is still damp. It usually creates a lustre on backgrounds.