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This paper examines the relationship between learning and practice, rule and invention, in Japanese art. Drawing on Chinese precedent, learning through close observation of conventional models underpinned training in most arts and crafts in Japan. The practice of building individually inventive projects was usually developed only after the successful completion of long apprenticeships in studio settings. The pictorial engagements of Edo, today's Tokyo, form the principal focus for this examination of how individual pathways developed within the formal constraints of Tokugawa period (1603–1868) art-training arrangements. This paper adopts nineteenth-century popular prints as its primary resource material for the examination of ukiyo-e (floating world picture) learning practices; its analyses of selected examples reveals how studio consistencies could be maintained, while distinctive ukiyo-e pictorial projects could develop in quite inventive ways. It proposes that methodologies of play, or asobi, empowered artists to break with convention and seek new graphic solutions to changing pictorial problems. Its examination of the ways Torii School artists embraced the changing affordances of their media, or how asobi, creative connection making, and synthesis could provide fruitful methodologies for Katsushika Hokusai's (1760–1849) pictorial risk taking, provides insights into the creative processes of ukiyo-e. Building from these insights, this account proposes an underlying tension between conformity to rule, on the one hand, and pictorial invention, on the other, in the urbane works of the ukiyo "floating world" milieu that has implications also for appreciating relations between learning and invention for the arts in general.