Using the baren

I suspect that those of you living in 'far-off' lands like North America or Europe are sometimes perhaps reading my contributions to this Encyclopedia with a bit more respect that I would like - after all, I live here in Tokyo, have frequent contact with very experienced craftsmen, and have myself been printmaking for nearly twenty years now; I must be an 'expert', right?

Well, yes and no. Yes, because I have indeed getting better and better at this craft over a period of many years, but ... let's just say that I do still have a great many things to learn.

If one of the older printers here in Tokyo was to hear that David had written an 'encyclopedia entry' on 'How to use the baren', he might do one of two things: if he was in 'polite' company, one of his eyebrows might start twitching as he struggled to keep his face from giving away his feelings. If however, he was in a group with the other craftsmen, his reaction would be somewhat less restrained - he would fall on the floor laughing uncontrollably, and it would be quite possible that an ambulance would have to be called ...

I'm not trying to belittle myself by saying this; I'm making pretty good prints these days, and am proud of my work. But coming at this traditional craft as I have done, by self-study and endless experimentation, it is inevitable that some of my practices and habits don't quite match what those craftsmen think is the 'right' way to do things.

But until the day comes that Seki-san, Matsuzaki-san, or any of the other guys is willing to contribute something to these pages, then my description will have to suffice. Don't take these opening comments as an implication that what I am about to write is 'junk' - far from it. I am going to tell you not only about what I do, but also about what I see done ... Read it, and read it carefully, and I think you will learn some very valuable things.

Holding the baren

In the early days of my time here in Japan, I visited a number of different craftsmen to get some input on the ins and outs of this craft. Holding and using the baren was of course one of the top items on my 'list'. The first printer who befriended me was quite clear in his instructions on this:

"Put just the tips of your four fingers under the handle; don't let it ride all the way up onto the flesh of your fingers, but keep it just at the tips. It's quite difficult to actually hold it at first, it tends to fall off before you get to the paper."

Once the baren was being rubbed on the paper surface, the fingers were not used at all - he showed me how he could continue rubbing powerfully even with his fingers opened to stick up in the air! All the power and pressure came from the base of the palm of the hand.

I of course heeded his tutoring, and tried to copy. Some time later when I was visiting another man, he saw what I was doing and laughed out loud:

"What are you doing, holding it like a woman! Grab that thing!"

He showed me his way - the fingers curled under the string, and the baren squeezed in a grip so tight that the ategawa actually curled up at the edges into an extraordinarily sharp curve. Nothing but a couple of square centimeters of the base of the baren could ever touch the paper at any one time. He had giant callouses on his fingers and palm in the spots where the contact was made - and I mean giant; the callous on his palm was a full centimeter in diameter, 8~9 millimetres high, and as hard as a rock.

If he held the baren up in the air and I brushed it with my hand, it wouldn't move in the slightest bit; that of the first craftsman would have flown across the room. Who was right? Neither, of course. It is just that there are many ways to do this ...

(Incidentally, I learned very early on in the game never to say things like "But X-san showed me a different way ..." I simply listen, nod, and accept what they say. Communication would come to a very quick stop if they thought I was going to be constantly comparing them against each other. That's happening in my own mind of course, but I certainly don't do it in public. At least not much ...)

So there you have two basic ways to hold the baren, one in which it is a tool held in the hand through which the force is applied, and one in which it becomes part of the hand. In either case though, what comes next is pretty much the same ...

Rubbing with the baren

The first strokes of the baren on the back of the paper are 'tacking' strokes - they tack the paper down into the proper place on the carved block. If heavy rough strokes are made right from the beginning, the paper may slip a bit from its proper registration.

These first few strokes are difficult for the beginner - the block has suddenly become 'invisible' after being covered by the paper, and it is difficult to know where to 'touch down' with the baren. If the wrong area is pressed, the print will be destroyed. Try and keep a mental map of just what part of the block has been covered with pigment and which must now be rubbed. After the first few prints in the stack have gone by, it becomes easier to remember ...

Don't bang the baren down into place - gently sweep it down in a curved motion. The first few strokes should be made in such a direction as to 'push' the paper in the direction of the kento, the corner guide mark. If made the other way, the motion can sometimes pull the paper slightly out of register. 'Tack' here and there, in each area in which colour has been applied.

Now, with the paper properly set in place, the main rubbing begins. Again, rub mainly 'into' the kento; for right-handed people this will be a backhand motion. (The printing process brings many problems for 'lefties'. They will be discussed on a separate page ... ) The actual pattern of the rubbing will depend of course on the shape and size of the carved areas, but one very important point must be emphasized - the pressure being applied at any given moment, and the size and pattern of the rubbing movements, change from moment to moment as the baren moves across the block. Here there is an area of wide colour ... the baren 'digs in'. There the colour is broken up into multiple smaller areas ... the baren 'lightens up' to avoid smashing the paper. These changes in pressure are invisible to an observer (although they are audible!), but they are constantly taking place - and they happen without the baren being lifted up and away from the back of the paper at all. The baren is literally 'flown' smoothly across the back of the sheet of paper. But if one could somehow have a scale attached to the baren to measure the pressure, it would fluctuate widely from zero as the baren passed over 'empty' carved areas, right up to very high levels on the wide areas of colour.

General rules

  • Avoid making single long strokes across the paper. Work in short zigzags, spirals and circles.
  • Remember that most of the pressure is concentrated in a relatively small area of the baren, under your palm. When thinking about where to rub, think 'palm', don't think about that far edge of the baren - it doesn't do much of anything at all in the way of actually making the impression.
  • KEEP IT LEVEL! This is the most common error of inexperienced printers. The baren must stay absolutely level at all times. Never allow it to tilt up at one side. You will bash into the edge of every carved area, and will end up with a million blotches.
  • Keep the 'grain' of the bamboo skin aligned with the 'grain' of the paper - horizontally. Don't let it 'wiggle' from side to side, and don't rub it in a diagonal direction. A carved area of the block that happens to run in a diagonal direction is still printed with short horizontal movements.
  • Rub long enough and firmly enough to ensure that all the pigment is picked up and pressed into the paper. How can you tell? Not rubbing enough will leave pigment residue on the block, where it will be visible after the paper is removed.

One important rule ... very important:

  • To get good transfer of the pigment, and to end up with smooth and deep colour, the rubbing motion must include small, tight and firm circles. How small a circle? No wider than a centimetre or two. How firm? Firm! (I'm speaking here of solid colour blocks, not delicate fine line blocks) You've got a good quality, well-sized paper - carefully moistened, right? Then RUB IT! After half a dozen sheets have gone by ... have you taken off your sweater yet? No? Then what are you doing? START RUBBING!

Obviously, common sense is required. If your block is small in scale or the carved area is quite small, then go easy .... But for an area of colour of any substantial size you should be digging in quite firmly. (Again, I'm assuming that you are using a good quality Japanese paper like 'hosho' - designed to take this sort of treatment, colour after overlaid colour after colour ...) Printing is hard work, and with wide colour areas being done on a thick paper, it can be very hard work indeed. You are acting as a human printing press, and if you want beautiful deep colour, or wonderful embossings, the energy to produce them has to come from you ...

Notes ...

If you're having trouble with the back side of the paper becoming abraded, a sheet of thin paper - an 'ategami' - can be used as protection for it. The trouble may be caused by weak sizing in the paper, too much moisture in the paper, or a rough skin on the baren, but can also occur with certain carvings ... wide enough to need strong rubbing, but small enough to become damaged by that rubbing ...

A special very strong, very thin, and very slippery ategami paper is made just for this purpose.

Note the similar words: ategami is this thin paper, ategawa is the disc that holds the coil of the baren.


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