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FAQ: Impressions, States, Editions, and Quality


How many impressions were made of each print?

The standard number of prints in a commercial edition was probably much higher than many present-day collectors would like to admit. Some writers on ukiyo-e suggest that a standard edition of 200 was the likely number for the first commercial run of a ukiyo-e print design. This number is based partly on how many impressions could be completed within about a week's time by a single printer for an edition of an unexceptional full-color print design. Kawasaki Kyosen, the son of the late-period Osaka master Ichiyôsai Yoshitaki (1841-1899), wrote a commentary titled Nishiki-e ni naru made ("How color prints are made") in which he mentioned that the initial stack of impressions from a first edition would number about 200 impressions. After that, additional impressions were made on demand, in groups of 200. The implication was that if the demand were high enough, many editions would be printed, amounting to thousands of impressions, until the images finally stopped selling.

Some researchers claim that many hundreds, if not thousands, of impressions were made in standard commercial editions. A late-nineteenth century biography of the prolific artist Utagawa Kunisada (1786-1865) stated that some of his prints were issued in three or four thousand copies over the lifetime of the original woodblocks, and a publisher's diary also indicated that Kunisada's prints were issued in thousands of impressions. In an 1889 account by T. Tokuno (see bibliography below) describing Japanese printmaking, the printer Tsurûsaburô Nakamura was said to have printed a triptych titled Inaka Genji ("Rustic Genji") by Kuniteru at the rate of 3,000 sheets per day from the keyblock, plus 700-800 sheets per day for the color blocks! This extraordinary number suggests that a master printer could indeed pull many hundreds of impressions before the wear and tear on the blocks made the edition untenable. This productivity was possible despite the complexity of printing even a standard design with only 5 or 6 colors. For example, Kuniteru's triptych required the following (keeping in mind that some blocks were carved on both sides): Sheet #1 = 25 impressions from 14 printing surfaces on 8 blocks; sheet #2 = 26 impressions from 10 printing surfaces on 6 blocks; and sheet #3 = 23 impressions from 13 printing surfaces on 7 blocks.

It appears likely that surimono (privately distributed prints for special occasions) were issued in expensive, limited editions of perhaps 200 sheets or less. Their relative rarity today appears to bear this out (some surimono survive in only single impressions, and some are known only in late nineteenth century re-cut copies). Yet there was a theatrical surimono by Katsukawa Shunkô published in 1789 in an edition of 500, probably indicating that at least some surimono were issued in larger editions when the occasion demanded it. Frequently, we encounter commercial prints known in only single impressions, but whether this indicates a very small edition or a terrible loss to natural or man-made disasters is generally difficult to determine. Despite the potentially high numbers of prints, Edo's many conflagrations, the Kantô earthquake and resulting fires of 1923, the Second World War, and a century or two of maltreatment have diminished the existing stocks of prints to shockingly small numbers in many instances, especially early ukiyo-e of the 17th and 18th centuries.

Certain popular designs or entire series were printed in enormous numbers. Some prints by Hiroshige come immediately to mind, for which scholars estimate 5,000-10,000 impressions may have been taken from the blocks, sometimes spanning a few years or decades. We know without question of early impressions with sharp, unbroken key block lines and well-registered colors printed with care and subtlety, which contrast with very late impressions of the same design indicating worn-out key block lines, poorly registered colors, and crudely printed patterns. The latter were the result of many pulls from the original blocks (in some cases by several different publishers as the blocks were sold or transferred to alternate printing firms).

Whether the majority of standard ukiyo-e editions were printed in thousands of impressions remains open to debate, although the economics of printmaking and the ability of master printers to coax many hundreds or thousands of good impressions from wood blocks seem to support the likelihood that very large editions of at least the more popular (commercially successful) prints were common. ©1999-2002 by John Fiorillo


  • Keyes, R.: The Art of Surimono: Privately Published Japanese Woodblock Prints and Books in the Chester Beatty Library, Dublin. London: Sotheby's Publications, 1985, p. 21 (vol. 1).
  • Keyes, R. and Mizushima, K.: The Theatrical World of Osaka Prints. Philadelphia Museum of Art 1973, pp. 318-320.
  • Morse, P.: "Tokuno's Description of Japanese Printmaking," in: Essays in Japanese Art Presented to Jack Hillier. London: R. Sawers Publishing, 1982, pp. 125-134 (or visit the page at Dave Bull's website for Tokuno's Japanese Wood-Cutting and Wood-Cut Printing).
  • Tinios, E.: Mirror of the Stage: The Actor Prints of Kunisada. Leeds: The University Gallery, 1996, pp. 11-12 ("The cost of prints, size of print runs, and the survival of prints").

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How do you identify states or editions?

There has been no universally consistent use of the terms "edition," "state," or "impression." Some writers have used "edition" and "state" synonymously, others have not. I would suggest the following definitions:

  • State: a design produced from a particular set or configuration of woodblocks. When key blocks or color blocks are altered, eliminated, or added to print a design, such changes constitute different states. Thus a new state would depend on the publisher to remove one or more blocks from the set or the woodblock cutter to either alter existing blocks or add new ones.
  • Edition: a design with particular printing characteristics within a state, that is, the changes would be attributable to printing differences from the same woodblocks, not from changes in, additions to, or eliminations of any of the blocks. A different edition would therefore be the result of the block printers using different colors or eliminating or adding special techniques (such as overprinting of colors, metallic pigments, blind-printing, or shaded colorations).
  • Impression: a print from either a given state or edition that is distinguished by its overall quality. For example, an early ‘impression’ would have sharp, clear key block lines, a middle impression would show some wear to these lines, and a late impression would suffer from worn, weakened lines (see Block Wear). Thus an "impression" designates the quality of a given print, not whether it is part from a particular state or edition.

For an example of a deluxe early edition and a reprinted commercial edition of the same state, see Enjaku Editions. It is not always easy to determine how many color blocks were used for a given state, especially as ukiyo-e printmaking became more and more complex with multiple overprintings and mixtures of colors. We will also probably never know for certain how many editions were issued for many ukiyo-e prints or, for the vast majority of ukiyo-e print designs, how many impressions were made within a given edition. Attempting to judge the number of impressions on the basis of block wear alone is very difficult because we do not know the history of the progression of wear. Damage or noticeable wear might have occurred fairly early in the life of the blocks, even if they were used for only small numbers of impressions, or instead over long periods of time for large numbers of editions and impressions. Establishing a timeline for block wear to assist us in the identification (not to mention dating) of editions seems nearly impossible. Certain designs or series were immensely popular and were printed in thousands of impressions over many years. For example, how can we possibly identify which impressions belong to which editions of Hiroshige's 1855 series 'Gojûsan tsugi meisho zue' ("Famous views of the fifty-three stations," the so-called "Upright Tokaidô" set) , which is said to have been periodically re-published from the original blocks until the 1880s? ©1999-2019 by John Fiorillo

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What makes an impression good?

There is a general consensus among ukiyo-e scholars, researchers, and collectors that the earlier the impression, the better. There are exceptions to the rule, of course, but it is most often true that the earliest impressions pulled from the blocks have the sharpest image outlines, the most accurate registration of colors, and the finest control over the nuances of color or special printing techniques. When the woodblocks were used for large editions, the blocks would begin to wear, warp, crack, or suffer other damage, resulting in inferior impressions taken after the deterioration of the blocks (see Block Wear). Later printings of ukiyo-e designs were often issued in less expensive editions, sometimes by secondary publishers who acquired the rights to use the blocks. These late editions were thus produced with less-refined printing techniques, fewer color blocks, or fewer elaborations (overprinting of colors, metallic pigments, blind-printing, shaded colorations, and so on). This simplification was done in the service of reducing time and expense while reissuing popular designs. The result was, unhappily, impressions of inferior aesthetic and technical value.

Judging the quality of an impression requires experience and involves both objective and subjective assessments. In general, impressions with sharp, clear outlines and finely controlled applications of color are considered the most desirable, while later impressions showing block wear or more crudely applied colors are considered inferior. ©1999-2019 by John Fiorillo

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