Seeing is ...

I received a wonderful present the other day from an acquaintance in France. I have never met this person, but he has an interest in the techniques of traditional Japanese printmaking, so has corresponded with me on occasion, usually to ask a question, or to clarify some point or other. I have no idea whether or not he is actually making prints, as he has never offered to show me any work, but he seems to know quite a bit about the topic, as some of his questions touch on fairly esoteric sub-topics of the genre.

His present was simply a link in an email, directing me to something he had found online - a digitization of a French documentary film about Japanese printmaking. This would be interesting in itself, but when I saw the date - 1961 - I perked up considerably, and began to watch intently.

And what a treasure he has found! It was taken in the old Mejiro workshop of the Adachi company, and shows the basic step-by-step process of making a print based on an Utamaro design. Now this process is not new to me, of course, but I would certainly appreciate the chance to take a time travel journey back to workshops in the 'old days', and although 1961 isn't all that far back (I was then ten), I'll take whatever I can get!

I was in our Ome workroom when I first accessed the page with the video, and one of our other printers was here working. When the video came onto the screen, she heard my excited voice and came over to watch it together with me. This is a lady with about three years of experience, and a person who is quite interested in learning whatever she can about this field. In other words, she was just as intently interested in this video as I was.

But after we had watched it and were discussing what we had seen, I realized that the two of us had apparently seen two completely different videos. She had seen 'just another' demonstration of the basic woodblock process, something she was well familiar with, and was then ready to turn back to her desk and resume work. I on the other hand, felt that we had just received a 'master class' in advanced carving and printing techniques!

Watch that printer! See the way that his left hand creeps close to the edge of the paper while the baren in the right hand is still busy with the final rubbing stage, and then ... flick! The paper is whisked off the block, even before the right hand has returned the baren to its rest pad. Each and every movement is fluid, practiced, and smooth beyond belief.

Look at that carver's blade! The back side is hollow ground to a very deep shape, to allow all the sharpening pressure to be focussed on the very tip of the blade. The point must be incredibly sharp!

There were far too many such details for me to recount here: the angle that the printer held his baren, with most of it projecting out past the 'meat' of his palm, the incredibly close distance that the carver brought his large chisels to the carved lines ... almost literally every single shot of this video brought something else for me to drink in and marvel at.

Now please don't misunderstand. Not much of this was really new to me. I may not be able to work at the same level as those men, but I'm no slouch, and am doing pretty well at this craft, even without the benefit of their long experience.

But the fact that my printer trainee - who is coming along very well actually - saw none of the things that I saw, makes me wonder about the inherent value of such material. I think of my own videos, dozens of which I have carefully prepared and uploaded to YouTube. Is there actually any point to taking all the time to do that? If the only people who can understand what they are seeing ... are the people who already understand what they are seeing, then what is the point of making them?

It's a bigger question actually. I'm coming to believe that we really can't 'teach' anything; all we can do is provide a model as an example, and a framework within which practice - and thus learning - can take place. Just how much knowledge will be taken in is completely under the control of the person who is doing the learning.

Nothing can actually be 'pushed' into somebody's head. There are no such things as teachers ... there are only students ...


Comments on this story ...

Posted by: Dave

I suppose I should include the URL of the video, in case there are others out there who could learn from it ... :-)

Posted by: Jakub Makalowski

And its funny how with that last statement you sum up what I see as a major issue with most school systems, where teaching is emphasized and learning is discouraged. No wonder you have such a strong history of distaste for them.

Posted by: Jacques

Please continue making those videos of your current carving and printing work! I guess I am probably even less knowledgeable than your printer trainee about the "hidden" and subtle technical lessons that can be learned from this kind of filmed material. But I still definitely love every second of watching you working your magic on the wood and paper media in your YouTube videos displaying the craft!

Posted by: Margaret Maloney

I think it's important to keep making videos of this type. Even if the young trainee didn't notice those important details, that doesn't mean that she didn't see them. I know that I have used similar study to improve my own craft work.

For example: three years ago, having never sewn before, I made a quilt for my new nephew. It was a trial. My workmanship was fine, but it took forever to complete. I learned a fair bit making it, but if I had made another one right away, there would not have been a marked improvement in my skills from one to the next.

Over the next three years, I started several small projects, but didn't complete any--didn't even get beyond the beginning stages. Given my studies, I didn't have the time. What I did do was watch many, many videos of quilting techniques. (YouTube is a treasure.)

This fall, anticipating another nephew, I finally had time to make another quilt. And I was much much better than I had been on the first one. Now, of course, if I had been able to practice all that time I had been watching the videos, I'm sure I would be even better, but the videos themselves had a large effect on my skills.

Like your trainee, I'm a beginner. I can't perceive all the nuances of what I'm watching when I see a master quilter at work. In fact, I probably can't tell the difference between a master quilter and just a very good one by watching them go through the motions. But it doesn't matter; I still absorb that information, and it still improves my own skill when I attempt to repeat what I've seen.

Posted by: Jennifer Worsley

I remember watching one of your videos where... you put paste and pigment on the maru bake instead of the block!!! What a revelation!! (At least to me!) This may seem very basic, but the "wow" of the experience makes me come back to watch again to see what other revelations I missed on the first viewing.
The nice thing about a recording, as opposed to a live workshop, is that someone can always take another look to see what was missed on the first time through, especially after a bit of hands-on experience. (My favorite books are similar in this respect.)
Thank you so much for putting so much work into showing your methods. I hope you keep making your videos!

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