Friday, 6 January 2012

Paper Sizes in Japanese Woodblock Prints

It’s very confusing for people visiting Japanese print galleries - especially online - to see prints described as oban or chuban or kakemono-e with no great explanation of what that means. I thought we’d sort out what these sizes are, why they are as they are and what made artists choose to use each format. It should be noted that there is no standardised measurement for Japanese paper of the Edo period. Sizes below are approximate and different sources will quote sizes that vary by several centimeters.

Japanese woodblock prints from the seventeenth century onwards have used a type of paper known as Hoshu Paper. This is derived from the mulberry tree and is a by-product of the silk industry; it has the advantage of being exceptionally strong and at the same time very soft - allowing the water based inks to penetrate deep into the fibres of the paper and yet strong enough to withstand the repeated printings and harsh rubbing with the baren that multicolour printing requires. The fibre in the paper is very long and this assists the paper in maintaining stability over periods of prolonged wetting and drying, essential when achieving perfect registration of colours over many printings.

The standard sheet size in production is 53cm x 29cm. When the standard sheet (known as o-bosho) is cut in half it produces a pleasing format of 26.5cm x 39cm, (usually trimmed to 36cm x 25cm) a size called oban and this sheet size (illustrated above) is by far the most popular for ukiyo-e artists. Landscape artists such as Hiroshige would turn the standard vertical format on its side to produce horizontal oban prints. Vertical oban prints should properly be called oban tate-e (vertical picture) and horizontal oban sheets denoted by the suffix yoko-e.

The oban sheet could be cut again to produce a half size sheet called a chuban (19.5 x 26.5), a size used almost exclusively by artists of the Osaka School (see Yoshitaki chuban illustrated above right). The oban and the chuban are the primary sizes and it is unusual to come across the many other formats that were occasionally used. Greater flexibility could be employed however by joining several of these units together. Oban and chuban sheets were used in multiple forms to produce both dramatic vertical and horizontal pieces. The commonest by far is the triptych, three sheets joined along their long edge to form a single landscape image. These prints were used at first to depict battle scenes in warrior prints but became popular for showing the full width of the kabuki stage. Kunichika in the latter years of the nineteenth century all but reinvented theatre prints with his dramatic use of this format in wide, panoramas of cinematic breadth with foreground figures set against plain backgrounds (illustrated below) .
Diptychs (two sheets joined by their long edge) were also popular for theatre depictions especially by Utagawa Kunisada in the 1850’s. For even greater impact, polyptychs were used in sometimes five or more sheets, on occasion to show several well known actors as a series of stage portraits united by the same background (illustrated below).

Particularly dramatic is the kakemono-e, a format that used two oban sheets joined along their short edge to form a scroll like or pillar print (see right). This form was popular in the earlier part of the nineteenth century as an early form of pin-up. Artists such as Kunisada and Eisen adopted the form to illustrate well known beauties of the day - sometimes prostitutes or courtesans, sometimes women of fashionable appearance. There are some theatre scenes where the kakemono-e is appropriate although these are more rare. The koban is a small format print measuring 23cm x 13cm and rarely seen, otherwise, it is unlikely that most people will encounter prints that fall outside of the range already stated.

Artists will have used the common oban format partly for reasons of economy; allowing two complete prints from each o-bosho sheet and also because the public who collected ukiyo-e were in the habit of assembling the prints into collections and then having them bound into books to keep them safe, (this explains the pin like album binding holes visible on most prints) and therefore a consistent format made the art of collecting easier. Often the triptych and diptych editions were designed in such a way that they could be sold as individual sheet portraits or as a set. Collectors sometimes mounted the three sheets onto a backing paper to keep them together. This does not much affect the value of the prints and it is not uncommon to see a print described as having “original Japanese album backing”.

In certain prints such as this Yoshitoshi vertical diptych of The Penance of Mongaku it is easy to see how the artist has chosen the format to enhance the design and composition of the piece. Equally many of the chuban series of landscape prints by Hiroshige were reduced in scale to allow for portability and mass production, though his grand designs of his later years were printed in oban tat-e format to allow him to experiment with exaggerated foreground space.

The other issue is trimming and margins. With the knowledge that most prints were to be bound into albums or joined in some way, Japanese woodblock prints were always produced with margins of a centimeter or two. It is to be preferred that a print nowadays should have the margins intact. In some cases (Hiroshige and Yoshitoshi for example) important information such as series titles or publishers details are printed outside the image and on the margin (see left). Intact, full size prints are quite rare. There is the paradox that prints which were trimmed and stored in albums were more likely to survive than loose sheets.

Generally speaking the word oban refers to the paper size, commonly seen in vertical format. The original exact dimension, the existence or loss of margins and the inconsistencies of the publisher and artist will all determine the final sheet size. As a general rule then, Format: oban tat-e with margins, untrimmed means a paper size of roughly 26cm x 35cm in vertical format with a plain paper border around the image and that remains a perfectly acceptable description.


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  2. Thanks for sharing such great things on Thanks for sharing your research new on paper sizes

  3. The quality and presence of this blog was quite worthy and appreciating. And thanks for posting information related to all paper sizes keep posting on.