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Utamaro print showing


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Red Colorants in Ukiyo-e Prints


Many pigments and dyestuffs (the latter are water-soluble) used in ukiyo-e prints are 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 colorants used in ukiyo-e 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, and 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 mixtures of the organic pigments dayflower (aigami, 藍紙) and indigo (ai, 藍) have poor lightfastness, while safflower red (beni, 紅) fades at nearly the same rate.

Several studies on colorants in Japanese prints indicate that it was fairly common to find three types of yellows, two reds, and two blues in a single print. In Japanese printmaking of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, three types of organic red were used:

Plant Source Japanese Name Common English Names Color
Caesalpinia sappan suo, suhô (蘇芳) Sappanwood red
Carthamus tinctorius benibana (紅花) Safflower red
Rubia akane akane (茜) Japanese madder red

There were also three types of inorganic red colorants found in Japanese woodblock prints; the last, vermilion (mercury sulfide), seems to have been rather uncommon in prints, though not so in paintings):

Mineral Source Japanese Name Common English Names Chemical Formula Color
Hematite benigara (紅殻) Red ocher Fe2O3 red
Red lead tan (丹), entan (鉛丹) Red lead Pb3O4 red
Vermilion shu (朱), shinsha (辰砂) Vermilion HgS red

Recent research using excitation–emission matrix (EEM), or three-dimensional, fluorescence spectroscopy has confirmed that prints often contained more than one yellow, red, or blue colorant. Yet, even when scientific instrumentation and analysis are not available, there are instances in which differential fading of colors may be confirmed through direct visual observation when comparing multiple impressions of the same ukiyo-e print deisgn. To help verify the use of more than one red in a single ukiyo-e design without recourse to scientific instrumentation and methodology (for such research, see references below), we can examine the changes, if any, in the appearance of the colorants over time. On this page (see images above), four impressions of a print by Shunbaisai Hokuei (春梅齋北英) published in 8/1835 are shown. Portrayed are (R) Arashi Rikan II (嵐璃寛) as Hirai Gonpachi (平井ごん八), and (L) Nakamura Tomijûrô II (中村富十郎) as Komurasaki (小むらさき) [小紫] in the play Hiyokumon sato no nishiki-e (Brocade picture of lovers' crests in the pleasure quarters: 双紋郭錦絵) at the Naka Theater, Osaka.

The four impressions reveal progressive stages of fading for one of the red colorants, while a second red colorant (used on the sleeve and inner robe worn by Arashi Rikan II) remains virtually unfaded across the four specimens (apparent changes in precise hue of the second red colorant in these illustrated examples are due to photographic artifact). Presumably, the red that is prone to fading is benibana, as it has been established scientifically as a very fugitive colorant. (The far more colorfast red has not been identified for these particular specimens.) Although the sheets were imaged under different lighting conditions and with different cameras or devices, the fading of the benibana is dramatic enough to provide a useful idea of the eventual changes in appearance caused by prolonged exposure to light.

For more on this topic, see Yoshitaki Fading, Color Changes, and How Quickly Do Prints Fade? ©1999-2019 by John Fiorillo


  • Derrick, M., Wright, J., and Newman, R.: "Plant Dye Identification in Japanese Woodblock Prints," in: Arnoldia 2017 (Feb.), 74:3, 12-28.
  • Derrick, M., Wright, J., and Newman, R.: "Characterization of Yellow and Red Natural Organic Colorants on Japanese Woodblock Prints by EEM Fluorescence Spectroscopy," in: Journal American Institute for Conservation, 2017, 56:3-4, 171-193.
  • Feller, Robert; Curran, Mary; and 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.
  • Derrick, Michele; Wright, Joan; and Newman, Richard: "Plant Dye Identification in Japanese Woodblock Prints." in: Arnoldia 74/3 , Feb. 2017, pp. 12-28.
  • Sasaki, Shiho and Coombs, Elizabeth: "Dayflower Blue: Its Appearance and Lightfastness in Traditional Japanese Prints", in: Scientific Research on the Pictorial Arts of Asia: Proceedings of the Second Forbes Symposium at the Freer Gallery of Art (Paul Jett, John Einter, Blythe McCarthy, eds.). London: Archetype Publications, 2005, pp. 48-57.
  • Sasaki, Shiho and Webber, P. "A Study of Dayflower Blue Used in Ukiyo-e Prints," in: Works of Art on Paper—Books, Documents, and Photographs: Techniques and Conservation (V. Daniels, A. Donnithorne, P. Smith, eds.).London: International Institution for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, 2002, pp. 185-88.
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