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One way art and design can evolve is through inspiration and influence that artists find from other art and design, sometimes from different countries and cultures. The art movement, Ukiyo-e, is one that has shaped both Japanese and Western art we see today.

What started in the 17th century in Japan has made its way to contemporary Western art and design. In this article, we’ll explore how Ukiyo-e design came to be and the purpose it served as it made its way across the world. We’ll cover the characteristics of Ukiyo-e design, notable artists and how some brands are incorporating it into their designs for something unique and eye-catching.

Illustration by OrangeCrush

What is Ukiyo-e?

Ukiyo-e is a type of woodblock printing and painting dating all the way back to the 17th century in Japan. At the time, this new art style strayed away from the traditionally hyper-realistic artwork that many artists strived for.

These designs were minimalistic, usually created through simple line work and then masterfully finished with bold colors. This contrast between simplistic, focused design and vibrant, dramatic color help to bring the flat, two-dimensional design to life.

Lovers Walking in the Snow
Lovers Walking in the Snow (Crow and Heron) 1764–72 by Suzuki Harunobu via Met Museum
Midnight: Mother and Sleepy Child
Midnight: Mother and Sleepy Child (1790) by Kitagawa Utamaro via Met Museum
Evening Snow at Kanbara
Evening Snow at Kanbara, from the series “Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō” ca. 1833–34 by Utagawa Hiroshige via Met Museum

Rather than filling space with detailed, distracting counterparts, Ukiyo-e focuses on a single subject and allows the purposeful linework and colors to emphasize it amidst a natural and beautiful background. Though there are many variations, these particular components define it and establish it from other forms of design.

Key characteristics of Ukiyo-e

  • Bold or obvious linework
  • Strong shapes and designs
  • Unshaded, flat color
  • Imaginative cropping of figures
  • Bold, vivid colors
  • The art depicts usually depicts a very ordinary image
  • Nature-oriented
  • Expansive background with often asymmetrical placements of the main character(s) or focal point of the piece

Ukiyo-e design through the decades

Ukiyo-e dates all the way back to the Nara period (646-794) but became fully established around 1603. And during the Edo period from 1603 to 1867, one of the final stretches of traditional Japan, was when it truly began to flourish.

The Edo period was a time of internal tranquility—politics were stable, the economy was thriving, Japan was shifting toward a more urban culture and the population was growing.

As a result of the merchant classes rapidly benefiting from economic freedom, Ukiyo-e artwork became the center of attention in homes across Japan. This minimalist depiction of the culture, people’s daily lives and nature was already popular amongst the merchant classes but now they were finally able to purchase the pieces themselves.

Three Kabuki Actors Playing Hanetsuki
Three Kabuki Actors Playing Hanetsuki ca. 1823 by Utagawa Kuniyasu via Met Museum

Ukiyo-e, which literally meant “pictures of the floating world,” was a depiction of the wealthy merchant classes and their playgrounds. “The floating world” was the licensed theatre and brothel districts of urban Japan at the time. This art was created as a way to comment on the indulgent nature of newly elite social classes while simultaneously becoming the very artwork they consumed.

As Ukiyo-e became more popular, artists began to include humans as the focal point. Portraits of geishas and courtesans (female entertainers) became the primary subject. These artworks were used to satisfy commercial interests that mobilized images of the female body and its beauty to advertise clothing, please male onlookers and push beauty standards.

Kabuki Actor Ōtani Oniji III
A print of a very famous actor that was used to advertise his performances and serve as a souvenir via Met Museum
The Courtesan Hanaōgi of the Ōgiya Brothel
Ukiyo-e style paintings of geisha and courtesans were one of Japan’s secret pleasures and simultaneously, their main source of advertising via Met Museum

Eventually, after realizing how useful this was in the advertising world, it was then used to promote theatre shows, serving as advertisements, collectibles and souvenirs. The artwork shifted greatly toward more vibrant colors—portraying eccentric makeup and dramatic body language. The Kabuki theatre prints became one of the most notable uses as they created new and exciting ways to popularize theatre culture, something the newly wealthy merchants were particularly fond of.

Beyond geisha prints and theatre prints, Ukiyo-e artwork also included historical pieces which slightly contradicted the typical style by being extremely detailed and extravagant. It was used to depict landscapes and “spring prints,” although these forms were less popular than traditionally known prints. These last few additions were more time-consuming but now they show the expansive and broad nature of all that ukiyo-e design has to offer.

Notable Ukiyo-e artists

One of the most popular painters and printmakers of the Edo period is Katsushika Hokusai. He is known as the leading expert on Chinese painting in Japan and created one of the most famous Ukiyo-e woodblock sets: “36 Views of Mount Fuji.” This set features the famous “The Great Wave off Kanagawa,” a painting still widely used today.

Under the Wave off Kanagawa
One of the most popular Ukiyo-e paintings, capturing Ukiyo-e’s bold color palette and thoughtful line work via Met Museum

There is little known about Tōshūsai Sharaku (1794-1795), even his birth and death dates are estimates but his woodblock prints showcasing Kabuki actors remain incredibly popular. Prints of actors fueled one of the main reasons Ukiyo-e became so heavily used.

Unlike Saraku’s focus on Kabuki actors, Utagawa Hiroshige’s (1797-1858) works focus on landscapes. Some of his most notable works are “The Fifty-three Stations of the Tōkaidō,” a horizontal landscape series of a snowy painting of a station (as seen early in the article) and “One Hundred Famous Views of Edo.” He is referred to as the last great artist that followed the true tradition of Ukiyo-e design.

Naruto Whirlpools,
One of Hiroshige’s most popular landscape woodblock prints via The Clark
The Actor Onoye Matsusuke as a Ronin
One of the many actors Sharaku painted via Met Museum

Of course, there are hundreds of other artists worth looking into, but some of the most influential artists, and perhaps the most successful of the time, include Utagawa Kunisada III (1786-1865). He continuously developed his style to appease market opportunities. And created over 20,000 pieces. Also very notable is Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839-1892), who has been recognized as the last great master of the Ukiyo-e genre of woodblock printing and painting. His style is also known to be the most innovative.

Kabuki Actor
Another ukiyo-e design portraying a famous actor of the time period- just one of many by Kunisada via Met Museum
Banzuiin Chōbei
Banzuiin Chōbei by Yoshitoshi, embodying ukiyo-e style but using space and color in a way unlike most designs via Met Museum

And finally, there is Kobayashi Kiyochika (1847-1915), whose work portrays the rapid modernization and Westernization Japan underwent during the Meiji period. He uses a sense of light and shade called kōsen-ga inspired by Western art techniques. His work illustrates a bridge between traditional Japanese woodblock prints and the Westernized versions.

Heian Period Courtier
Kiyochika’s “Heian Period Courtier” embodies the new styles and elements picked up through Japan’s westernization via Met Museum

Ukiyo-e design and its impact on western culture

Ukiyo-e design was introduced to the Western world through the World Exposition held in Paris, France, in 1867. From then, Japanese art went on to influence Western works and eventually, the term Japonism was coined to refer to the popularity and influence of Japanese art.

As the Western world became familiar with Ukiyo-e design, many famous artists such as Van Gogh, Bonnard, Cassatt, Monet, to name a few, became inspired and used these techniques in their own pieces.

One example of Ukiyo-e’s expansive influence is Van Gogh. Once he became aware of Ukiyo-e, it almost completely changed the trajectory of his career as an artist. Émile Bernard, a friend of Van Gogh, had begun implementing large areas of simple colors with bold outlines and eventually Van Gogh was inspired to follow suit. The use of Ukiyo-e style techniques is much of what has defined Van Gogh’s legacy and separated his work from many other Western artists.

Van Gogh's
Vincent Van Gogh’s Courten (after Eisen) showcases the influence of Japanese woodblock prints on the Western World via Van Gogh Museum
Vincent van Gogh
Van Gogh uses bold colors, expansive contouring and loose outlining to animate flat design via Met Museum

Many artists were intrigued by the asymmetrical space and endless horizons of the paintings and began to integrate these traits into their own works, and many of these Western takes on Ukiyo-e techniques have evolved design to be where it is today.

Though Ukiyo-e artwork has served similar purposes to western art, it is still vastly different from what the western world had and continues to strive for. It directly contrasts the Western world’s desire for hyperrealism and instead focuses on more minimalistic line work, creating flat and asymmetrical paintings with vibrant, yet simple color schemes that fully portray urban Japan and much of its nightlife culture. Even today, modern art tends to focus on expressionistic, detailed, surreal styles of painting, but bold color schemes and focused subjects have continued as a result of the influence of Ukiyo-e art.

Using Ukiyo-e for a unique brand approach

There are so many aspects of Ukiyo-e that can be used to bring something new to the graphic design world. It’s versatile, eye-catching and unique. Using Ukiyo-e today is just one way to stand out from the crowd and bring a more simplistic, traditional and simultaneously bold spin on marketing and advertising in today’s society.

Some draw from the natural landscapes that are iconic in Japanese art, like how designer Stephen. uses mountains as the focus with thick strokes. While other designs find inspiration from the waves to create associations with the famous piece “Great Wave off Kanagawa.”

Similar themes such as portraying female subjects have also followed into branding today. The design by hanifimawan and leargamar captures the way many artists use women in their branding.

What’s next for Ukiyo-e design?

Ukiyo-e is still very much relevant to the modern world of design. Besides the ways it has trickled into many of the techniques still used today (many times without even realizing it), the style of artwork is still actively being built upon and created.

Its influence on graphic design has also infiltrated the marketing world. Many logos, art, posters, packaging and advertisements today use its characteristics to portray images of nature and people, as well as using the flat, simplistic, bold-colored design. Ukiyo-e design shows the versatility of its characteristics and how it can still be applied to any brand.

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