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Production of Actor Prints in Osaka

How Color Prints are Made

A first-hand account written in early Meiji by Kawasaki Kyosen
The writer Kawasaki Kyosen, was the son of Osaka artist Utagawa Yoshitaki (1841-1899).  

Source: The Theatrical World of Osaka Prints, Roger S. Keyes and Keiko Mizushima, David R. Godine in association with Philadelphia Museum of Art, 1973 p. 318.

An invaluable reminiscence titled “How Color Prints are Made,” comprising the only firsthand account of the designing and production of Osaka actor prints, written by the son of the most prolific late nineteenth century actor portraitist, Yoshitaki.

Nishikie ni naru made (Kinsei Insatsu Bunkashi Ko)


Theater prints depict actors made up for the stage in various attire, and all of them are drawn as actors’ portraits.  The following took place in the early years of the Meiji period.

When the titles for the summer performances, New Year’s performances, and the like had been decided on at the theaters, we would pick the scenes from the hit plays that looked like they would be popular and would make interesting pictures (a chilling murder scene from a ghost play, for example), and these would be published.

In those days, certain Osaka publishers set out to the theaters on opening day with the artists who drew actors’ likenesses.  The dividers were removed from four or five boxes right in the middle of the floor section of the theater and spread with rugs.  Tables were set up with brushes and paper, and all was made ready to sketch the happenings on stage.  The artist sat in the middle, with the proprietor of the publishing house and his clerks alongside.  Besides them, some first-class female entertainers managed the food and drink, so things were quite lively.  This was a form of promotion, as much as to say that actor prints were being designed for this performance.

Customers would think to themselves that “so-and-so is an actor-print artist, and pretty soon some good prints of his are going to be on sale,” and they would wait for them to appear.  Prints for summer and New Year’s performances were issued in quarter-block format (about 7 x 10”) as diptychs, triptychs, even five- and seven-sheet sets.  No matter how well theater prints were designed, if the faces of the figures were not exact likenesses of the actors they would not sell at all, and the publisher took a terrific loss.  So the publisher went to pains to obtain the services of the very best portrait artists, and sent them presents to encourage them to finish his commission even the least bit sooner than others.  My father Yoshitaki and others were usually besieged for their actor portraits by several publishers.

Going to the theater and sketching scenes and actors live was nothing but a formality.  We had drawn the same scenes so many times that there was really no need to see them over again, but the publishers had to show off their enthusiasm and put on their own little show.  Once the cover was off the new plays, a publisher wanted to put his prints on sale a day, a half-day, even an hour earlier than his competitors, and he kept after the artists to finish the “block-copies” (hanshita) quickly.  An artist with orders from two or three publishers would keep them all satisfied by passing out panels of triptychs one at a time to each of them in rotation, enabling them to get started on the engraving as soon as possible.

The block copies were nothing more than an outline drawn on thin Mino paper with no color at all.   The designs and detail were not subject to the publisher’s approval, but left completely to the artist’s discretion and the artist sent them directly to the engraver without the publisher so much as seeing them.

The engraver pasted the block-copy face down on a piece of cherry wood. The face, arms, and legs were left to a skilled specialist (the “head engraver”) and the rest was done quickly by a regular craftsman (the “body engraver”).  When the key block was finished the engraver sent it to the printer who printed up a set of fourteen, fifteen, or sometimes twenty impression in black on thin Mino paper, which he sent back to the artist with a request for color indications (irozashi).  Using one sheet for each color, the artist indicated the colored areas in vermilion, and labeled each sheet with the proper color: red, yellow, blue, brown, etc.  Once finished, the set was returned to the engraver who pasted them on both sides of cherry blocks, engraved and re-labeled them, and returned them to the printer.   The printer arranged the black key block (omoban) and color blocks (iroita) and printed two or three trial proofs (kyogozuri), which he once again sent to the artist with a request for comments on color balance.

The work had to be finished within two or three days at the most, and slips were occasionally made in the hastily-carved color areas.  The artist would point this out and order the engraver to repair the flaw by inlaying a bit of wood and recarving it.  He would also suggest that the sky should be a darker blue, the brown blacker, the red shaded at bottom, etc.  When these changes were carried out, the editioning would begin.

The first printing was called “block-letting” (ita oroshi) and consisted of a “stack” (ippai) of two hundred impressions.  Additional impressions (aizuri) were printed to demand in groups of two hundred.  It was customary to give two or three impressions of the original edition to the artist.

Since everything from sketch to finished print was left up to the artist, the publisher had no idea of what to expect as a result.  But he was used to this.  When a fine print came out he was delighted and set it out for sale in the front of the shop where customers were already waiting.  The first edition would sell out in no time at all and edition would follow edition, to his great gain.  This is what happened when the portraits were well received.  But the opposite could happen too, and sometimes not a single impression would sell, to the publisher’s loss, and an entire edition would never see the light of day.

Most portraits lacked the actors’ names and people recognized them from their faces and crests (mon) so it was essential to work the crest pattern somewhere into their costumes.  Fans of the various actors would compete with one another to buy prints, and would mount them in albums to preserve them.

Prints of the large format were called onishiki (about 15 x 10”).  These were more deluxe than the quarter-block prints and were issued from time to time in special sets: “Seven Changes” (Shichi henge), “Six Poets” (Rokkasen), “Vying in Artistry” (Jutsu karube), sets of ten for dance plays, etc.  When an actor died, memorial portraits (shini-e) were published with his farewell poem and posthumous name.

The above is a general account of how theater prints were made.  They were not at all like today’s color prints, which imitate the effects of painting, but rested close to the artist’s heart and showed the qualities of true woodblock prints.

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