Admirers of ukiyo-e tend to speak lovingly of more than just a composition's color and line. They also delight in relatively inconspicuous components of the design, bits that make reference to cultural mores or a juicy historical tale, or which braved the threat of shogunal retribution and suggested social criticism.
Equally worthy of appreciation, in the minds of many a print enthusiast, is the near-alchemic process by which ukiyo-e were actually fabricated. Just how was it possible for small teams of humble artisans, working with crude slabs of wood and no machinery, to turn out so many impeccably-rendered prints so quickly and so cheaply?
Accounts vary, but some suggest that lavish, intricate prints could be conjured up more or less overnight, that editions routinely ran to the thousands (in the city of Edo, at least), and that the retail price of a print was the same as that of a bowl of noodles. Another compelling figure is 3 million, the number of individual ôban sheets estimated to have materialized on the market in a typical year.
The wonder of it all helps explain the fierce competition among collectors for artifacts that recall the workshop wizardry. In this regard, at the top of most wish lists sits a suitably worn and sumi-ink-stained 19th-century key block. Alas, the climate, the prevalence of pests and conflagrations, and an inherent lack of storage space in Japan combined to make resonant old hangi essentially unfindable already by the early 1900s.
Almost as evocative are hanshita-e, copies of the artist's original drawing executed (by a hikkô, or copyist) on thin tracing paper. The fate of these block sketches, however, was to be placed face down on the hangi, and then sliced into in order to transfer the lines onto the wood's surface as a guide for the carver. Though the term hanshita-e is frequently uttered by folk who possess a ukiyo-e drawing done on thin paper, it stands to reason that what they probably have is a student tracing of a finished print.
That brings us to an artifact that, in theory, could have survived both the process and the ages — the key block test proofs of the printer. Proof sheets (kyôgozuri-e) are easy to store, and each new keyblock entering production might have resulted in several proofs — one for testing the line carving, one for presenting to the artist for color notations, and logically, one for archiving in an inventory book in the event the image was needed years down the line.
Proof of a proof
Just like not every drawing is a coveted hanshita-e, not every 19th-century print missing its color blocks is a printer's proof. In fact, every keyblock print that I acquired early in my career (with great excitement) has been demoted to the more humdrum category of tameshizuri-e, black outline prints marketed for low-end users, and for hobbyists to color over (nuri-e) or paste cloth over (oshi-e). (See Daruma 30.)
A clue as to whether a black-and-white print is truly a printer's proof is the thickness of the paper. Thin is good; washi of regular commercial weight would not have been wasted on in-house use. Also a favorable sign is the existence of comments brushed on the sheet.