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When, Oh When?


I am now near the end of the sixth year of work on my big woodblock printmaking project - reproducing the one hundred illustrations for the 'Hyaku-nin Isshu' designed by Edo-era artist Katsukawa Shunsho just about 220 years ago. As I make ten prints each year, this means that I am nearly 60% done, with just about four years left to go.

At the most recent exhibition, in January of this year, I had on display the fifty prints finished at that time, and when I saw them all up on the wall together, I was astonished at the difference between the earliest work and the most recent.

Those first prints are clumsily carved and feebly printed. The hesitations of my knife are clearly visible in every line, as is the lack of 'body' in the colours, stemming from my lack of skill at handling the 'baren', the bamboo-wrapped printing pad. It is difficult for me to look upon them with any kind of pleasure. There are just too many defects. But I can remember quite clearly how I felt at the time I finished those prints, five long years ago. I thought they were wonderful! I couldn't believe that I had actually made them. Me! That delicate lettering ... Those smooth colours, perfectly fitted into the outlines ... The balance between the soft tones ... Just beautiful!

As good as I thought they were though, I wasn't completely blind to the fact that they weren't perfect. But such defects as I could then see, seemed quite trivial in comparison to their overall beauty. As we all know, it is very difficult to get any real criticism of one's work in Japan, and this was fine by me. Every opinion I heard, matched pretty well what I already 'knew'. This was good stuff. I was a good printmaker.

Month-by-month, print by print, I worked my way slowly through the series. And gradually, even without being conscious of it, I gradually became more comfortable with the tools, and more confident in their use. The prints slowly but surely, showed a gradual improvement. As I looked at the fifty prints on the gallery wall, I could see the steady improvement over the five years. Not in a direct line. More a case of three steps forward, two back - but onward and upward nevertheless.

But somewhere along the way, somewhere during that five years, there was a big change in the way I saw things. Yes, my skills vastly improved. Yes, my carving became more delicate and fluid. Yes, my colours gained smoothness and depth. When then, do I no longer find the prints very satisfying? Can't I see these good points?

Of course I can, and yes I do get some satisfaction from the exercising of these hard-won skills. Hand-in-hand with the improvement though, has come a corresponding increase in my ability to see. To see these prints as others can see them - not the unsophisticated eyes of those casual viewers, but with the super-critical eyes of the experienced printmaker. The man who truly knows what a woodblock prints can be, and who knows just how far my work still falls short of that standard.

So I look at those fifty prints on the wall with mixed feelings. Yes, they are 'OK', especially the newer ones. But when, oh when, am I going to get 'good'?! I am torn between two points of view, to be like I was five years ago, satisfied with the work, enjoying my skills, and assuming that I will continue to slowly improve; or to be like I seem to be now, rigorously critical of the prints, and constantly seeing only the defects that need to be improved?

I write these thoughts now, because as I finished the latest prints just last night, I was especially struck with how 'clumsy' it seems. Is there no way that I can look at it with 'five year old' eyes? I want to be happy with my work, to enjoy again that warm glow when each print is finished. But I also want to improve. Is there no happy medium?

I remember reading somewhere about one of the famous old classical composers, who was apparently so super-critical of his own compositions that he burned many of them rather then permit them to be heard in public. Although I haven't ever done that, I have sometimes felt almost ashamed as I have sat there signing prints ready for sending out to collectors. "Am I cheating these people? This print should be so much better!" Maybe next time ...

I suppose realistically, there is no resolution to this dilemma. Just do the best work I can, remain conscious of how it can be improved, and try and take satisfaction in what improvements are indeed apparent from year to year. Try and take that longer view. Think in terms of years, over which spans of time improvements are visible, rather than of each particular print.

And then, when it is all done, four more years from now, take my satisfaction not from that hundredth print in particular, and how 'finely' it is made, but from the grand panorama as a whole. The panorama of ten years in my life spent in a climb up a very, very high mountain. And if at that time I still can't see the top ...

Well, I guess I should save thoughts like that until later ... For now, I'll try and just take things a step at a time, looking back now and then to enjoy seeing how far I have climbed, and not being so worried about how much farther I still have to go. Who was it what said, "We travel, not to arrive, but simply to travel ..."?