I recently received a letter from a reader asking about something she saw in the illustration for one of last year's columns - a large flask hanging in front of the light bulb at my carving bench. What is it for?
The flask is full of water, and acts as a lens. If I just used a bare bulb shining on the bench, the light would be dispersed in all directions. With the flask placed between the light source and my woodblock, the light is focused into the central area, and it becomes very easy for me to see the lines of the hanshita, and the tip of my knife. But as a flask full of water is not really a very sharp lens, the light becomes soft and fuzzy, not sharp and 'hard'. The shadow from my knife blade is also fuzzy, and does not block my view of the hanshita lines.
This was not my original idea, but something that I learned from one of the old carvers. Something else I learned was that it is a New Year's tradition for carvers to take their flasks with them when they make their 'hatsu mode' visit, and replace the water inside with 'new' water scooped from the source at the shrine. I suppose this is so that they can feel the presence of the 'kamisama' with them during the year's work, but there is also a very practical reason. This water is very cold, very clear, ... and very clean. It stays this way all year long, and doesn't become clouded with algae.
Soft, clean light ... Without it, my work would be impossible ...