Yasunari Ikenaga is a popular artist known for depicting alluring modern beauties with delicate lines and unique color palettes. In this project, Ikenaga worked with master carvers and printers who carry on traditional ukiyo-e production techniques in the present day to create his first bijin-ga – a word used to describe pictures of beautiful women in Japanese art. Traditional woodblock printing techniques that gave birth to numerous bijin-ga by famous ukiyo-e artists such as Kitagawa Utamaro were used to bring to life Ikenaga’s world of beautiful women. We looked into the production process of this ambitious project.
In bijin-ga, the lines that determine the outline of the woman’s face and facial expression are extremely important. The same is true for ukiyo-e, and the beauty of the piece is created by carving the lines drawn by the artist in a faithful and elegant manner. The carver who worked on this piece was also very much focused on the lines.
Kishi, the carver who took on the endeavor explains: “In the original painting, Mr. Ikenaga used dyed linen as a material and drew lightly colored lines underneath the fine outlines. We had to decide how much of this to reproduce in the woodblock print.”
The concept of the project was to create an original woodblock print that is different from the original painting. Therefore, a decision was made to use a single line, as is typical in ukiyo-e prints.
The next step is printing. The printer used handcrafted Japanese paper and printed a single color at a time, one on top of the other. Kyoso, the printer explains his main focus: “Of course the face of the woman is pivotal to a bijin-ga, so I was very attentive to the dynamic of the lines.”
The main woodblock captures the various nuances of the outline of the face, the hair, the shape of the eyes and the puff under the eyes to exquisitely depict the languorous expression of beautiful woman.
A major discussion point in the production process was the method of portraying the skin of the woman. During the test printing stage, a version was created replicating the skin tones of the original painting using light colors. Another version used the soft textures of the Japanese paper itself without applying colors to the parts showing the face and hands.
When Mr. Ikenaga visited the workshop to check the test prints, the printer explained the different versions to him.
Mr. Ikenaga said, “The one replicating the color tones of the original painting has its own appeal, but since this is an original woodblock print, we should go with the one that retains the soft textures of the Japanese paper.”
This determined the direction that was to be taken. Although using the same colors as the original painting was a solid choice, Mr. Ikenaga was committed to creating an original woodblock print. The decision to attempt a new form of expression resulted in a very attractive work of art.