keyblock proof; with artist's watermark on bottom right margin, Ishikawa Toraji; the blocks carved by Yamagishi Kazue, published by the artist, ca. 1934-35
dai oban yoko-e 13 7/8 by 19 1/2 in., 35.2 by 49.6 cm
Keyblock proofs were produced for multiple purposes: in traditional woodblock print production the black outline proofs were primarily used to actually make the color blocks- subsequently destroying the proof while carving the block. Keyblock proofs from the 18th and 19th century are relatively unusual, and often those that have survived are from obscure designs that never made into production.
But by the 20th century, collectors became more appreciative of all of the nuances of woodblock print production, and occasionally keyblock proofs (or cancelled keyblock proofs) were made available to sell along with the prints themselves. At the same time, the process of developing a print for production had changed somewhat: prints were often based on completed paintings, as opposed to designs made expressly for woodblock prints. Toraji, more of a painter than a printmaker, often used his keyblock proofs to experiment with colors. For some of his print designs there are several hand-colored proofs extant. Presumably, as the carver finished each keyblock, Toraji would have a number of blank proofs pulled for the express purpose of hand-coloring several in order to determine his final palette. The remaining uncolored proofs, such as this one, eventually made their way to the market as companions for the lavishly produced color prints.
References (for the print in full color):
Kendall H. Brown, Light and Darkness: Women in Japanese Prints of Early Showa (1926-1945), p., 75, cat. 80
Amy Reigle Newland & Hamanaka Shinji, The Female Image, 2000, p. 172, no. 237