Color as a Narrative Tool in Surimono Prints

by Sarah Sutro

Emperor Ming Huang and Yang Guifei Playing the Flute Together

A show of surimono prints at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston (March 9– December 1, 2013), “Luxury on Paper: The Art of Surimono,” has propelled me into thinking about color. Created in Japan from the 1760s to the 1840s, these works offer a tour de force of color woodblock printing technique and an unusual integration of poetry with the page. Produced in the hundreds or less, for a limited and very educated audience, these prints (surimono means “printed matter”1) offer a range of specialized printing and coloring techniques, such as metallic and lacquered pigments, high-quality inks, burnishing and embossing. Created by both leading Japanese printmakers, including Hokkei and Hokusai, as well as poet/artist masters, they differ not only in quantity but in quality from the more commercial mass-produced (printed in the thousands) full-color prints so familiar in the West, such as the 53 Stages of Tokaido by Hiroshige and the 36 Views of Mt. Fuji of Hokusai. Surprisingly, works in the latter style, called ukiyo-e, were not considered fine art, but inexpensive prints for the general public,2 and have become synonymous with Floating World imagery (literally, “mirror of the passing world, subjects drawn from the life of common people”) now denoting woodblock prints in general.3 In contrast, the surimono are known as distinctive, small edition prints often sent as gifts for special occasions, especially at New Year, which falls at the beginning of the spring season. Surimono originated in limited edition calendar prints, often displaying animal imagery appropriate to a particular year (the year of the rabbit, tiger, etc.) as well as spring nature imagery.4 Other surimono prints illustrate poetry commissioned by amateur literary groups, and celebrate specific actors and their roles in the Kabuki theater.

Utagawa Kunisada, Actors Ichikawa Danjuro VII and His Son Ichikawa Ebizo VI

From the 1760s on, nishiki-e, a new kind of woodblock printing with effects comparable to brocade,5 was used. Natural colors on damp mulberry paper produced subtle ranges and translucencies. This significant effect and technique, bokashi, is visible in many of these prints, where one color shades or blends into another. In mass-produced ukiyo-e, colors were less subtle, very intense, graphic, vivid, flooded fields, in what amounts to a more simplified and direct style. Both use multiple blocks for different colors and a “key” block, where black lines are the last element printed. In the 1840s, surimono prints stopped being produced, possibly as a result of a change in fashion, government sumptuary laws or economic change.6

Color from mineral or vegetable sources was used for printing in Japan until around 1860, when imports of aniline colors, developed in Germany, arrived from Europe. In Japan, the surimono prints, with their narrower range of audience, exhibited a heightened sense of luxury materials, including pearl and “gofun,” composed of crushed oyster shell;7 imitation gold, silver, copper, real mica and metal powders. Combined with poems, the prints were aimed at the select literati or intellectuals. The prints carry a refined, rarefied character, since they were gifts unrestricted in cost in terms of printing, paper, inks and production. They were produced with delicacy and great care by master printers. The mulberry (kozo) paper, the most common print paper in Asia, is naturally non-acidic, strong and absorbant.8 These characteristics affect how the color is received and how easy it is to emboss. A lacquer effect is created by mixing black ink with glue and burnishing when dry. Certain hues were used repeatedly, including airo (indigo), made by boiling bits of  old  indigo cloth; taisha (red ochre); zumi, a yellow-brown made from bark; kushinashi, a yellow from gardenia flowers; and sumi, which was soot from the smoke of burning pine-needles.9 Each color carries a history and an integrity of material, suggesting the term “narrative color.”

The surimono prints often express humor, especially puns and allusions, in the form of thirty-one-syllable “comic” or “mad” poems.10 Kyoka poets used conventions like “pillow words,” or stereotyped phrases; and honkadori, or “allusive variation,”11  as well as parodies of well-known classical verses. With lyrical lettering scattered over the page, the calligraphy becomes a pattern, with the main focus on the integration of text and image. At times, writing becomes shape or conforms around an image, an imaginative use of text familiar to us now as Concrete Poetry. At this time, the Japanese kept prints in book-like albums, accounting for their longevity and relatively high archival quality. Examples from three categories stand out in the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, show: nature, still-life and figure. All have a story-telling cast, in keeping with the literary flavor of the surimono. In The Tongue Cut Sparrow (1804–18), Kubo Shuman, a poet as well as an artist, creates a quirky naturalistic study of birds pecking and cawing, referring to a fairy tale from the simple books of tales, or ababon, about an old man who is given great wealth in reward for helping a sparrow.12 The poetic syllables dangle vertically across the top of the page, a scratchy movement like the movement of birds, heads and bodies in different directions looking for feed. The sparrows may refer to “sparrows,” or courtesans, of the licensed pleasure quarters of Yoshiwara, a double entendre. The overall feel is light and gentle, with pale brown and gold birds set against a pale blue ground.

In Fish, Flowers and Telescope (c. 1804–13), Katsushika Hokusai evokes an elegant, restful collection of objects with a series of curving diagonal forms: caught fish tied with straw, a branch with flowers, a cloth purse, a telescope. The colors—warm orange, dark red, clear cerulean blue, light yellow, a touch of muted green—paint a picture of seasonal fruits and pleasures. The poetry, cryptically visual, suggesting fish hanging on a line, blossoms dangling from a branch or the straw that binds the fish, is about “the scattered petals viewed in the early morning while returning drunk from a party,” and “the power of a daimyo’s procession to command even the wind that blows the blossoms.” With clearly defined color, immaculate drawing and delicate gradation of tone, this print is a masterpiece. The pattern on the telescope represents the seal of the Asakusa-gawa, the poetry club that commissioned the work.

Prints involving figures evoke more drama and use stronger, bolder colors  to  effect  action,  in  accord  with  the  accompanying  poem/texts.  Utagawa Kunisada’s Actors Ichikawa Danjuro VII and His Son Ichikawa Ebizo VI (1832) is likely a commissioned piece to honor a particular theater production and role. It has a deep blue fading into a lighter blue, then merging with a light green background, setting up a contrast with the bright reds, yellows, deep greys and whites in the figures of the actors. Two men are caught in an attitude of tension, the father in an offensive stance, his figure in the upper right hand corner visually about to pop out of the picture plane; the son in a defensive pose, crouching in surprise, looking back over his shoulder. The vivid color, dramatic shapes and lines form a wild tangle of movement and action, capturing a pure Kabuki stage moment. The text in this print is subordinate to the action of the forms and figures, appearing lightly sketched into the deep blue background, functioning more as a scrim of letters or pattern rather than as an equal design element.

Katsushika Hokusai, Fish, Flowers and Telescope

In another contrast, Emperor Ming Huang and Yang Guifei Playing a Flute Together (c. 1820), by Yashima Gakutei, depicts a famous Tang Dynasty couple within an overall pattern, visually subdued and flat. The simple action of playing a flute together symbolizes intimacy. The individual identities of  the subjects merge in languorous curves, absorbed into the elaborately patterned clothes,  fabric  background  and  couch.  Resembling  a  Vuillard  or  Bonnard painting or print in its density, the work is filled with pattern and color, a play of figure and ground, where figures are subsumed in the confining pattern surround. The eye dances around the print, trying to find a place to stop. Finally, the orange horizontal flute that joins the heads of the two figures, where one notices the delicate tracery of their hair and features, brings the eye’s journey to an end. It is said that the emperor’s consort was “so beautiful that she caused him to neglect his duties and led to the downfall of his reign.” The layers of blue  and  orange  robes,  grey-patterned  cushioned  chair,  walls  of  multi-patterned brocade, orange and white lamp tassels, and blue-and-brown patterned floor create a swirling sense of  being lost. An impression of  opulence and a lavish environment overwhelm the figures. The poetic text here, in two vertical lines, appears as a pattern in light gold against the back of a black mirror—or it could create visual music.

Keisai Eisen’s Women at a Cherry Blossom Viewing Party (late 1820s) seems to combine the qualities of the previous two prints. In a diptych format, two elegant women are seated, each inhabiting a side of the print, the whole seen against a landscape of embossed cherry blossoms. As in the print of the two actors, there is tension, where one woman prepares to write a poem about the blossoms, but turns to look left at the other woman, who holds out a sake cup to her. Through unspoken language, the women, wrapped in kimonos that formalize their stance, create bulky forms that twist and hunch geometrically. These are not placid faces. They seem to express the intense moment at the conception of a poem, scattered cherry blossoms adding to the agitation of the picture. Their elaborate costumes, hair and ornaments become design elements in an intimate drama. A black-and-white checked cloth on the ground connects the two women, and an active scene of river and boats in the background adds even more energy. The forms and patterns, lines and textures themselves suggest movement. The poem under the branches is like part of the tree itself. The contrasting play of depth and flatness is characteristic of Japanese prints, where flat graphic shapes coexist with three-dimensionally described objects, in a field of challenging, contrasting dimensions. In another allusion, the butterfly pattern on the sleeves of the women represents the sign of Ryuotei Edo no Hananari, a pen name for a famous daimyo lord, who was “an avid fan for such popular delights” as the light-hearted surimono.

What can be surmised about color in the surimono? Color seems to follow subject, reflecting its stillness or intensity. Colors are softer, because of fading or the effects of the ink printed on thick paper. There is an earthiness to many of the colors. Still-life prints are delicate, like watercolors, with open, light backgrounds. These pieces are more like image-poems floating in white space, like lyric odes or layered musings. In contrast, prints dramatizing actors are bright and aggressive, strongly suggesting three-dimensionality. Juxtaposed complementary colors are used effectively to burst the forms outside of the page. Their impact seems to be closer to that of  the  commercial  ukiyo-e print. Some works, like the women writing, pouring sake and perhaps asking a question, rely on complicated graphic excitement, lines and shapes arranged to make the eye shift back and forth—a scrambled agitated line that suggests something is happening in an impressionistic way. In the print of the lovers playing a flute, the figures are almost camouflaged, wrapped in dense and complicated pattern. Complementary color is also used here, but it is so broken up that forms cannot move within the complexity.

Keisai Eisen, Women at a Cherry Blossom Viewing Party

At the end of the Edo period and at the time of the Mejii  Restoration (1868), when Japan was forcibly opened to Western intervention and trade, the bright, bold, spatial, simple examples of ukiyo-e printing arrived in Europe. During this period, photography was introduced to  Japan  and  virtually replaced the accessible, affordable everyday ukiyo-e prints, making the bright statements, which once had universal appeal in Japan, now marginal and nearly forgotten. They were so diminished that they were used as packing material for  exports  going  to  Europe.  As  art  historians  have  documented,  European artists saw these dynamic graphic works in stores and packing boxes, and were inspired to incorporate their directness, freshness, simplicity and flatness of form into innovative movements. Mass-market prints were seen by van Gogh, Monet, Degas, Whistler, Cassatt, Toulouse-Lautrec and others. These works inspired new, vivid and startlingly clear canvases, which used unusual cropping, flatness, incisive graphic outlines and rich color. Under the influence of the writer and color theorist Michel Eugene Chevreul, and with the impetus of Japanese prints, these modern European painters rejected harmonious color for more luminous and autonomous color that would eventually turn into abstraction in the twentieth century.

In “The Principles of Harmony and Contrast of Colors and Their Application to the Arts,” Chevreul wrote about the law of simultaneous contrasts: “In the case where the eye sees at the same time two contiguous colors, they will  appear as  dissimilar as  possible, both  in their  optical composition and in the strength of their color.”13 The color pairs he is talking about are red-green, orange-blue, greenish/yellow-violet and indigo-orange/yellow.14 Painters in Europe began to outline their forms with complementary colors and juxtapose fields of opposing color to animate their canvases in an extraordinarily bold way. The Fauves represent the epitome of this trend. In surimono prints, color often includes complementary pairs, with the color still defined by shape or form. Surmino prints also came to the West and were purchased by collectors, including the American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, who became a successful Asian print dealer and filled the rooms of his architectural clients with Asian prints and artifacts.

In appreciating the techniques and color used in surimono prints, I am reminded of the possibilities of colors derived from natural ingredients  in other cultures, which offer narratives alive with history. The  history  of  a color and its use cannot be separated from the color itself, as I saw from local responses to all questions about indigo in South and Southeast Asia.15 Indigo’s shadowy history of forced labor in Bengal still lingers. In Thailand families, carefully guarded secret recipes for indigo anthropomorphize the pot of indigo as a living being that must be fed and treated with sacred respect. In Asian natural color, a kind of harmony results from many colors existing within the same color family. This same effect can be experienced in the show of surimono, where color is modulated both by its sources (mineral, vegetation) and by its application, where the pressure of the printing creates a kind of buffered screen of textured dots, also affected by the surface of the paper that invites light and dilutes the intensity of the colors.

The painter, teacher and writer Josef Albers understood harmonic relativity, calling the interaction of color, the “color action within the painting.”16 He writes: “Colors present themselves in continuous flux, constantly related to changing neighbors and changing conditions.”17 One could almost wonder if he were putting into paint his own shifting experience of identity in “changing neighbors and changing conditions,”18 as a German  refugee  to  the  United  States. This is in contrast to Wilhelm Ostwald, who earlier defined the harmonious as “chiefly two…namely the color circles of equal shade (colors of like brilliance or like darkness) and the triangles (on the color wheel) of like hue (that is, the possible mixtures of a color with white or black).  The  circles  of  like  shade yield harmonies of different hues, the triangles yield harmonies of like hue.”19 Later, Johannes Itten, originally a Swiss artist teaching at the Bauhaus, went on to argue, in The Elements of Color, that complementary pairs are harmonious.20 Intention and subjectivity obviously play a part in the definition and understanding of color. In graphic works such as prints, the sharp contrast of color against white, superimposed with black “key lines,” creates a different effect, and helped to turn European painting on its head. Then, too, color follows experience. All this suggests far more of a narrative understanding of color than previous formalist rules and theories have allowed.

As elite well-funded projects, surimono prints, with their deliberate use of word and visual play, expressions of thanks or as clever celebrations of acting careers, employ color and printing techniques of the highest quality with no financial constraints. Featuring natural  printing  inks  with  great  subtlety, the prints emerge as thoughtful and sophisticated visual statements incorporating image and text. The character and intent of surimono prints seem more to resemble pages in a book, as they are read across a surface, than do the mass-market woodblock ukiyo-e prints that reached Europe, with their dramatic color and line. A range of color exists in these prints, from a quiet, reserved use, to wildly bright, active, dense color used with minimal negative space. Unlike the well-known popular ukiyo-e prints that capture the viewer’s eye, with beauty and ease, surimono are more pointed and clever, and they carry a message. Color is used as a narrative tool. The tendency to keep color within a harmonious range, as described by Ostwald, presents the surimono as consistent rather than radical, descriptive rather than exaggerated, and curiously literary, combining lyrical calligraphy with delicate color tones.


1. Joan B. Mirviss, “A Hidden Legacy: The Surimono Collection of Frank Lloyd Wright,” in The Frank Lloyd Wright Collection of Surimono (New York: Weatherhill, Inc., and Phoenix: Phoenix Art Museum, 1995), p. 13.

2. Lauren   Rogers,   Metropolitan   Museum   of   Art. Accessed July 3, 2013.

3. Edward  F.  Strange,  “The  Colour  Prints  of  Hiroshige.” Accessed June 27, 2013.

4. John T. Carpenter, “Ways of Reading Surimono: Poetry-Prints to Celebrate the New Year,” in The Frank Lloyd Wright Collection of Surimono (New York: Weatherhill, Inc., and Phoenix: Phoenix Art Museum, 1995), p. 42.

5. Mirviss, op. cit.

6. Ibid., p. 18.

7. Ibid., p. 15.

8. “The  Production  of  Japanese  Woodblock  Prints.” process.html. Accessed June 29, 2013.

9. David  Bull,  Encyclopedia  of  Woodblock  Printing. Accessed July 3, 2013.

10. Mirviss, p. 14.

11. Carpenter, “Ways of Reading Surimono: Poetry-Prints to Celebrate the New Year,” in The Frank Lloyd Wright Collection of Surimono, pp. 39–40.

12. Wall Text, “Luxury on Paper: the Art of Surimono,” Museum of Fine Arts, Boston. Accessed June 23, 2013. All the following quotations, unless otherwise noted, are from this text.

13. Quoted  in  Georges  Roques,  “Chevreul’s  Colour  Theory  and  its  Consequences  for Artists.” F1 web good.pdf. Accessed July 5, 2013.

14. Ibid.

15. See my Colors: Passages through Art, Asia and Nature, describing my experience mixing earth tones, similar to those in surimono, in my own paintings.

16. Josef  Albers,  Interaction of  Color (New  Haven: Yale  University Press,  1963), p. 5.

17. Ibid.

18. Ibid.

19. Quoted in  Johannes Itten,  The Elements of  Color (New  York:  Van Nostrand  Reinhold, 1970), p. 21.

20. Ibid., p. 19.

American Arts Quarterly, Fall 2013, Volume 30, Number 4