Bird Print History


Published by the Reader Collection, Ontario, Canada, 2014  ISBN 978-0-9937035-1-5

Reader Collection > Guides > History of Japanese Art: Bird Prints


Chapter 3 – Shin Hanga Bird Prints



Picture Format


Shin hanga (SH) printmakers chose a vertical orientation for most of their bird prints, similar to their ukiyo-e (U) predecessors (i.e., 70%a SH versus 86% U). The same three vertical formats were used; namely, height 2-3 times the width (39% SH versus 38% U), height 1-1.5 times the width (28% SH versus 36% U) and height more than 4 times the width (3% SH versus 12% U). A shin hanga example of each format is shown in prints 37, 38 and 39, respectively.






37   Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) by Soseki Komori, 215 mm x 390 mm, woodblock print


38   Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica) by Suikō Fukuda, 265 mm x 400 mm, woodblock print, 1936


39   Domestic fowl (Gallus gallus) by Kōhō Shoda, 80 mm x 340 mm, woodblock print



Shin hanga printmakers also used two different horizontal formats, one almost squareb (10%) and the other with the width much greater than height (20%). Prints 40 and 41 are examples of these two formats. Ukiyo-e printmakers used only one of these two formats (i.e., width much greater than height). The almost square format was used traditionally for poetic and calligraphic artworkc so its use for pictures of birds by shin hanga printmakers is both novel and surprising. 

a   Percentages are based on a sample of 1459 shin hanga bird prints by 77 different artists. Their names, signatures and examples of their prints are included in Appendix 2.
b   The Japanese name for this format is shikishiban.
c   Parent (2013)



40   Large-billed crow (Corvus macrorhynchos) by Zeshin Shibata, 260 mm x 245 mm, woodblock print




41   White-cheeked starling (Sturnus cineraceus) by Koson Ohara, 365 mm x 195 mm, woodblock print



The majority (60%) of shin hanga bird prints had a white border, either on all four sides (e.g., prints 37, 38) or on at least one side (e.g., print 41). In contrast, few (7%) Ukiyo-e bird prints had a border. This difference presumably reflects the fact that many shin hanga bird prints were marketed not only in Japan but also in the west (i.e., Europe and America) where prints were mounted in wooden frames and a picture border facilitated mounting.

Shin Hanga printmakers typically included some written information on their prints. Artists signed their name using the kanji alphabet (prints 37, 40, 41) and (or) included their personal seal (prints 37, 38, 39, 41). Publishers added their logo to some prints (10%), either on the print border (print 37) or within the picture area (print 41). The name of the bird subject was also included on the border of a few (10%) prints (print 38). Similar information about the artist, publisher and birds appeared on about the same percentages of Ukiyo-e bird prints. Unlike ukiyo-e printmakers, shin hanga printmakers dated some (4%) bird prints (print 38) but did not include any poetry.


Picture Composition

Birds were most often paired with plants, either flowering (53%) or without flowers (33%). Both the plum flowers (Prunus mume) and Eurasian bullfinch in print 42 are associated with the spring season in Japan. The Japanese waxwing in print 43 is a symbol of autumn which is presumably why the artist showed it perched in a leafless tree.  Ukiyo-e artists had also paired birds most often with flowering plants (69%) or plants without flowers (22%).



42   Eurasian bullfinch (Pyrrhula pyrrhula) by Koson Ohara, 195 mm x 390 mm, woodblock print



43   Japanese waxwing (Bombycilla japonica) by Koson Ohara, 190 mm x 365 mm, woodblock print


Earth or water also appeared in about a quarter (28%) of shin hanga bird prints. Prints 44 and 45 provide examples of pictures in which they were important components of the design. Ukiyo-e printmakers included earth or water in a similar percentage (27%) of their bird prints.




















44   Japanese quail (Coturnix japonica) by Kōgyo Tsukioka, 290 mm x 275 mm, woodblock print




45   Mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) by Goyō Hashiguchi, 405 mm x 265 mm, woodblock print



Atmospheric elements were included in more shin hanga bird prints (30%) than ukiyo-e bird prints (17%). The types of atmospheric elements also differed. Rain (print 46) or snow (print 47) was typically featured in shin hanga bird prints while the sun appeared more often in ukiyo-e bird prints. These differences likely reflect the influence of the western art on shin hanga artists, especially western paintings with dramatic, overcast skiesa.  

a   See Conant et al. (1995). The Japanese word mōrōtai, meaning hazy style, was coined to describe the work of western-influenced Japanese artists who emphasized atmospheric elements.




46   Little egret (Egretta garzetta) by Koson Ohara, 185 mm x 365 mm, woodblock print



47   Common kingfisher (Alcedo atthis) by Fuyō Narazaki, 175 mm x 395 mm, woodblock print



Man-made objects were included in some (5%) shin hanga bird prints, similar to ukiyo-e bird prints (5%). By including a ship’s mast in print 48 the artist portrayed flying cranes in a very novel way, partly hiding them from view. Birds were sometimes paired with humans in ukiyo-e bird prints (3%) but they rarely appeared in shin hanga bird prints (0.1%). In print 49 they are barely visible in the background. 



48   Red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis) by Kōga Iijima, 180 mm x 195 mm, woodblock print



49   Rock dove (Columba livia) by Shōun Yamamoto, 90 mm x 205 mm, woodblock print



No other objects accompanied birds in some (4%) shin hanga bird prints, typically when birds were flying as in print 50. In contrast, birds were rarely unaccompanied (0.5%) in ukiyo-e bird prints.



50   Little egret (Egretta garzetta) by Bakufū Ohno, 405 mm x 290 mm, woodblock print



Bird Species Chosen for Depiction

Shin hanga printmakers chose a wider rangea of naturally occurring bird species for depiction than ukiyo-e printmakers but the most popular bird families were largely the sameb. The five most popular families were (1) fowl and pheasants (38%c), (2) egrets and herons (33%), (3) sparrows (32%), (4) ducks and geese (29%) and (5) cranes (24%). The species chosen most often from these five families are described below.

a   152 species from 51 bird families were chosen by shin hanga printmakers in the 1459 prints examined compared to 87 species from 41 bird families chosen by ukiyo-e printmakers.
b   Egrets and herons replaced hawks and falcons on the list of top bird families. The large size of egrets and herons make them easy to see with the naked eye which likely contributed to their popularity. Hawks and falcons were less popular with shin hanga printmakers presumably because Japan was no longer governed by military men who likely helped popularized them through sport.
c   percentage of shin hanga printmakers who chose a species from this family for depiction



(1) Fowl and Pheasants (Phasianidae)


Green peafowl (print 51), domestic fowl (print 52) and green pheasant (print 53) each appeared often in shin hanga bird prints. Their colorful plumage likely contributed to their popularity. Each species is a symbol of manly beauty in Japan. While both the green peafowl and domestic fowl were not native to Japan their presence in aviaries and in the barnyard, respectively, made them familiar birds to the Japanese. The native, green pheasant would have been a common sight in rural Japana


a   Brazil (1991)

















51   Green peafowl (Pavo muticus) by Sōzan Itō, 170 mm x 385 mm, woodblock print



52   Domestic fowl (Gallus gallus) by Seihō Takeuchi, 385 mm x 295 mm, woodblock print



53   Green pheasant (Phasianus versicolor) by Benji Asada, 450 mm x 295 mm, woodblock print



(2) Egrets and Herons  (Ardeidae)

The little egret (print 54) and black-crowned night-heron (print 55) are the two members of this bird family usually depicted by shin hanga artists. Both are common in Japan, found in a variety of shallow-water habitats, and are symbols of the summer season. The little egret is also a symbol of purity and delicacy because of its pure white feathers and relatively small size. 


54   Little egret (Egretta garzetta) by Gessō Yoshimoto, 130 mm x 255 mm, woodblock print












55   Black-crowned night-heron (Nycticorax nycticorax) by Gessō Yoshimoto, 130 mm x 255 mm, woodblock print



(3) Sparrows (Passeridae)

The Eurasian tree sparrow (print 56) is one of the commonest wild birds in Japan. It was often accompanied by snow in shin hanga bird prints due to its symbolic association with winter. 













56   Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus) by Sekka Kamisekka, 500 mm x 335 mm, woodblock print



(4) Ducks and Geese (Anatidae)

Similar to ukiyo-e bird prints, the mallard duck (print 57) and white-fronted goose (print 58) were popular choices for shin hanga bird prints. Also similar to ukiyo-e bird prints, descending birds were often shown with a full moon in the background or with snow on the ground. 



57   Mallard duck (Anas platyrhynchos) by Kōitsu Tsuchiya, 195 mm x 375 mm, woodblock print



58   White-fronted goose (Anser albifrons) by Koson Ohara, 195 mm x 370 mm, woodblock print



(5) Cranes (Gruidae)

Shin hanga artists only depicted one of the two species of cranes chosen by ukiyo-e artists; namely, the red-crowned crane (print 59). It was often paired with the pine tree because both are symbols of longevity in Japan.  



59   Red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis) by Nisaburō Itō, 270 mm x 300 mm, woodblock print











60   Scarlet macaw (Ara macao) and hyacinth macaw (Amodorhynchus hyacinthinus) by Koson Ohara, 105 mm x 265 mm, woodblock print



Many (43%) of the bird species chosen for depiction by shin hanga printmakers did not appear in ukiyo-e bird prints.  Some of these birds would have been unknown to ukiyo-e printmakers. The two species of South American macaws depicted in print 60 are good examples. They were likely first brought to Japan when trade began with Americans in the late 1800s. Of the other speciesa chosen exclusively by shin hanga printmakers only a few (8%) had any symbolic association. Since most (92%) birds chosen for depiction by ukiyo-e printmakers had a symbolic association these other species may have been of less interest. 

a   These other species include white-cheeked starling (print 41),  white-winged widowbird (print 68), Ryūkyū robin (print 76), tufted duck (print 78) and olive-backed pipit (print 84).



Accuracy of Depiction

Perhaps the most obvious difference between shin hanga and ukiyo-e bird prints is the accuracy with which birds were drawn. Shin hanga artists with western art training typically drew birds more accurately than ukiyo-e artists.  The later had been influenced by the Chinese philosophy of art in which accuracy of depiction was sacrificed to reveal the bird’s inner spirit. In contrast, the objective of traditional western art was to show the external features of the bird subject as accurately as possible without concern for any possible inner spirita.

Shin hanga artists achieved greater accuracy four ways. First, they eliminated the black line used by ukiyo-e artists to outline a bird’s shape. Second, the bird’s shape was drawn without exaggerating certain features as typically done by ukiyo-e artists to help reveal spirit. Third, a wider range of colors was used to reproduce the bird’s actual color scheme. Fourth, color was applied unevenly to simulate the effects of shading and give the bird a three-dimensional look. Ukiyo-e printmakers had applied color evenly which made birds look two-dimensional (i.e., flat). These four methods of achieving greater accuracy were used in about 70% of shin hanga bird prints. Two examples appear below (prints 61, 62). To fully appreciate the greater accuracy achieved by shin hanga artists compare these sparrows and cranes with those drawn by ukiyo-e artists in prints 7, 20, 23 and 33. 

  a    Most westerners do not believe in the spiritual equality of birds and humans because the dominant western religion of Christianity has taught them that animals are inferior to humans in both body and spirit.  In contrast, far-eastern religions such as Buddhism and Shintō teach that all animals are endowed with a spirit, not just humans.



61   Eurasian tree sparrow (Passer montanus) by Koson Ohara, 190 mm x 365 mm, woodblock print








62   Red-crowned crane (Grus japonensis) by Koson Ohara, 190 mm x 365 mm, woodblock print



Birds were drawn only semi-accurately in the other 30% of shin hanga bird prints. Some artists who were influenced by western watercolor painting used graded color to the extreme and created blotchy looking subjects with indistinct shapes. Print 63 is an example. Other artists did not use graded coloring at all so their birds look two-dimensional instead of three-dimensional. Print 64 is an examplea. Note that both the domestic fowl and dragonfly in print 64 cast shadows which is another influence of western painting style on shin hanga bird art. 

a   See print 37 for a more accurately drawn common moorhen and print 39 for a three-dimensional domestic fowl.
















63   Common moorhen (Gallinula chloropus) by Seitei Watanabe, 280 mm x 215 mm, woodblock print

















64   Domestic fowl (Gallus gallus) by Kiyochika Kobayashi, 330 mm x 230 mm, woodblock  print




Method of Printmaking

Shin hanga printmakers used the woodblock printing technique to make their bird prints, similar to ukiyo-e printmakers. The inks used for printing by ukiyo-e printmakers were made by mixing water with naturally-occurring pigments which had been extracted from various plants, animals, rocks and earth.

Shin hanga printmakers also made use of synthetic pigments imported from Europe. The first synthetic pigment, a mauve color, was created by an English chemist in the 1850s. Synthetic pigments had three advantages over naturally-occurring colorants. First, they were less expensive. Second, they did not fade following exposure to the sun as did many naturally-occurring pigments and third, new colors not available naturally could be made. The use of these synthetic pigments for bird prints was particularly fashionable in the 1880s, especially the intense reds, yellows and blues evident in print 65. Once the novelty of these new, intense colors had past shin hanga printmakers returned to the traditional use of a more subdued color palette. However, the amount of pigment used per print continued to exceed that typically used by ukiyo-e printmakers. The entire picture area was inked in about 80% of shin hanga bird prints compared to only 20% of ukiyo-e bird printsa. Inking the entire background with a dark color was particularly useful for depicting birds whose dominant color matched that of the paper, as in print 66.

a   The lower cost of synthetic pigments is presumably responsible for this difference.




65   Swan goose (Anser cygnoides) by Gyōsanb, 255 mm x 375 mm, woodblock print


b   Gyōsan’s surname is unknown.




66   Cockatoo (Cacatua sp.) by Hodō Nishimura, 275 mm x 395 mm, woodblock print





Notable Artists or Back to Guides