Fading of Ukiyo-e Prints
Many traditional pigments used in ukiyo-e prints are quite susceptible to fading when exposed to visible wavelengths of light, and a few fragile colorants also change their appearance when exposed to air, ozone, or moisture. Eighteenth-century pigments are especially fugitive and most surviving examples are found in various states of fading.
Inorganic colorants tend to be relatively stable, although lead-based pigments will darken or tarnish chemically due to combining with atmospheric sulfides, while vermilion (mercury sulfide) will darken physically. Organic colorants, however, such as reds and yellows lose their intensity while the blues and purples (the latter usually a mixture of blue and red) fade into grays, tans, or buffs. Blue colorants made from the dayflower (aigami) and indigo (ai) have poor lightfastness, while safflower red (beni) fades at nearly the same rate.
To illustrate these types of fading, three prints by Katsukawa Shunei (1762-1819), all from the early 1790s, are shown below. Figure 1 has well preserved colors with the rose, yellow, and purple still retaining their normal appearance. Figure 2 shows noticeable fading with the blue of the dotted outer robe faded to buff, although traces remain of the purple for the checked robe while the pink of the face make-up and the screen behind the actor is attenuated but still recognizable. Figure 3 is a print in a poor state of preservation, with overall yellowing and all the colors faded to shades of buff except for the rose on the obi (sash), which now appears as orange. The paper is also thinned after removal from a backing.
For more on this topic, see
Yoshitaki Fading, Color Changes, and How Quickly Do Prints Fade? For more, see Shunei Comparison of the faded Shunei at the bottom right with a well-preserved example. ©1999-2001 by John Fiorillo
Fig. 1: Shunei
Sawamura Sôjûrô III
Fig. 2: Shunei
Ichikawa Yaozô III
(Partly faded colors)
Fig. 3: Shunei
Sawamura Sôjûrô III
- Feller, Robert, Curran, Mary, & Bailie, Catherine: "Identification of traditional organic colorants employed
in Japanese prints and determination of their rates of fading," in: Keyes, Roger: Japanese Woodblock Prints: A Catalogue
of the Mary A. Ainsworth Collection. Oberlin: Allen Memorial Art Museum, 1984, pp. 253-266; also Keyes, ibid., pp. 32-33 &
126, figs. 19-22.