Back in the 'old days', younger men who were learning the crafts of woodblock printmaking always did so 'under the wing' of older more experienced men. The master/apprentice system served as a good method for passing on techniques and for providing younger workers with a basic living while they were yet too inexperienced to be able to make a living independently. In the days before the introduction of printing presses turned everything upside-down, there was always plenty of work that even inexperienced workers could do - printing food wrappers or other such simple jobs.
It seems that the apprentices weren't specifically taught very much; they were expected to just pick things up as they went along (the Japanese call this 'stealing' from the master). But although there were no actual 'lessons' given to the young apprentices, I can imagine that there was plenty of advice thrown their way - particularly when they made mistakes that cost the master money in spoiled materials or lost time!
I was reminded about this a few months ago when I myself made a rather large mistake that cost nearly two weeks of lost time. There is nobody here to yell at me of course, but I couldn't help but wonder what 'he' would have said ... 'he' being one of the (very strict!) masters who are always here in this room ...
* * *
"I hope you learned a lesson from that little escapade. You think you're pretty hot, doing all these jobs yourself: carving, printing, and now trying to prepare the block too. Perhaps you might understand now that if you try to do too many things, you'll never be able to do any of them properly ... Back off a bit, and leave some of the work to the proper professionals!"
* * *
But it's not just when I make a mistake that I hear this sort of voice. Luckily for me, I hear them when I am just about to go wrong ...
* * *
"I was looking at your block while you were off on that errand just now ... I noticed you left out a little patch of leaves while you were carving this tree branch over here. What's going on! Do you have the idea that 'nobody will ever notice' that sort of thing? Look - your job is to carve! If the designer puts a clump of leaves there, it's your job to carve it - not to take it out.
"And anyway, what's the point of doing that ... you trying to save time? For what? You know that when this block is finished, you're just gonna start the next one right away, so why cut corners? Now prepare a plug for that space and re-carve the whole section, and do it before knocking off tonight!"
* * *
"About that batch of prints you 'finished' this morning ... didn't you notice that the registration was off on the far right hand side of the yellow block? Yeah, I know - that block shrunk a bit, obviously. Colour blocks always shrink more than key blocks, they are made from lighter wood. Shrinking is the name of the game for old blocks like this. You want to call yourself a suri-shi you better learn how to deal with this sort of thing! You could have printed that colour twice, once from the left, once from the right, with a gradation in the middle to blend them together. Yeah, it takes twice as long, but so what? If you think we're putting our workshop stamp on this batch of prints, you better think again.
"Start over. And the cost of this wasted batch of paper is coming out of your pay this week ..."
* * *
"Look, I shouldn't have to say this, but I can't help noticing that it's been around a half-hour now since you last touched up that blade on the sharpening stone. You found a new magic way to keep it sharp? Let us all in on the secret!"
* * *
"No, you can't have a day off this week. Look at the schedule! What are you doing asking me such a ridiculous question!"
* * *
"Mr. X from the publisher will be coming over in a while, I want you to pack up your tools and make yourself scarce - go run an errand or something. Last time he was here I saw him looking at your baren, and he saw the ridiculous way that it was tied. You should have seen the expression on his face! I don't want him to think we are running a pre-school here, so this time, keep out of sight.
"Just how long is it going to take you to work out how to tie that thing properly? The very first week you were here I showed you how to do it; you think I should have to repeat the demonstration? Think again ..."
* * *
"Not bad work you turned in this time ... although I have to say that I'm getting a bit tired of the same colour tones you keep using again and again. It's time you started to 'stretch out' and get a bit more creative. Where did you get the idea that these things are set in stone? Look, didn't you see that copy of the sheet that came from the designer, with his instructions on what colours to use on this print? Here it is ... look at what it says: 'Blue here' 'Purple here' ...
"Blue ... Purple ... what on earth does that mean? Almost nothing! Within that simple word 'blue' you've got an infinite range of tones to play with! You've seen plenty of this guy's work before; his style is well established; you should easily be able to use your imagination and start to create prints that are true to his intentions, yet which will stretch your printing abilities as far as they will go.
"We are printers. We are the people who create these works. The clients who buy them will see only the designer's name on the finished print, but it's not our place to complain about that.
"You've been working here for years now ... it's time you shifted up a level and turned in some real prints. Show me you can do better with the next one ..."
* * *
Perhaps that's enough ... I think you get the idea ... I should mention that even though I am trying to imagine that I am working in a fairly strict environment, I don't feel particularly browbeaten or stressed. I work in this quiet room at my own pace, sometimes listening to music as I carve or print, and generally feel quite relaxed about what I am doing.
But there is no question that because I work alone, and have never had the opportunity to work in an environment where I have continuous opportunity to learn from experienced men - either by observing their work or from their criticism - it is essential for me to create such an environment in this way.
Yes, I hear voices ... I constantly hear voices ... Do you think we should send for the men in the white coats?