Japanese ukiyo-e woodblock prints were created by teams of designers, carvers, printers, and others with highly specialized skills. The process was collaborative, and would begin with an artist’s drawing in ink on mulberry paper. This initial draft would then take on multiple iterations as the artist altered and corrected the image before the final version was sent to a carver, who translated the composition into a woodblock. In the vast majority of cases, the artist’s original designs were either discarded or destroyed as an unavoidable result of the printmaking process.

The drawing and print pictured above, Hakamadare Yasusuke and Kidōmaru Battling with Magic (1887), by artist Tsukioka Yoshitoshi (1839–92), provides a firsthand look at the relationships between various printmaking collaborators. In this depiction of a magic battle between the legendary fighter Kidōmaru and his opponent, Hakamadare Yasusuke, the artist included basic notations indicating to the printer that the serpent’s eye should be rendered in yellow, Hakamadare’s armor in blue, and Kidōmaru’s pants in purple, but he left other details—such as the design of the background—up to his collaborators. In the face of scant evidence detailing how various artisans interacted with one another in order to create the final print, the comparison afforded by this print and drawing pair provides valuable insight into the creative exchange that underpinned the production of ukiyo-e prints.

To learn more about Yoshitoshi’s work, visit Living Proof: Drawing in 19th-Century Japan, on view through March 3, 2018.