Carp Climbing a Waterfall

I get fairly frequent feedback from collectors of these prints, either through personal discussions, or by letter or comments added to the post office payment slips, and of course the annual exhibition is also an excellent opportunity for me to observe at first hand how people react to my work. Each Surimono Album covers quite a wide mix of print styles, and it is always interesting to see which type of prints get the most positive reaction. Peoples' tastes differ, and the feedback reflects this, varying from month to month. But every year, when I include a 'painterly' print in the set, I find that is the print that gets the most attention.

I can only suppose that this is because of the cultural background here in Japan - everybody has experience using the fude (the calligraphy brush), and whether or not they consider themselves artistic, they do have an appreciation for this type of work. Most people could never make an ukiyo-e print, but they can draw with a brush, and they know what's good and what's not ...

Shibata Zeshin, designer of this image, was an acknowledged master of his brush, and this print is a good example of one of his major strengths - leaving things out. Just a fish shape, a rock shape, and a dash of water ... enough to tell the whole story. I have books here with more Zeshin designs, but some of them I couldn't dare to send you - you would send it back saying "David, you forgot to finish this one; it's mostly blank paper!"

Just because these prints are 'minimal' though, doesn't mean that they are easy to make. This print has nine impressions, ranging from faint 'scratchy' falling water, to the deep black gradations on the fish and rocks, and getting the balance right between all the different 'levels' is not easy. One of the 'ingredients' that went into this edition was beer ... and I guess that needs a bit of explanation ...

Just a few steps from my front door is a small restaurant/bar. Mr. and Mrs. Hamanaka, the owners, are friendly and the place is a popular gathering place for local people in the evenings. Mr. Hamanaka prepares tasty hand-made udon (noodles), and I sometimes drop in to have some. But I don't 'join in' the convivial drinking; it's not that I want to be unfriendly, but simply that if I have a drink of beer with my meal, when I return to my printmaking work after dinner I won't be so careful as I should be, and the work gets 'sloppy'.

In the past though, I have heard comments that my work is too careful, that I control too much, and that a feeling of freedom and naturalness is sometimes missing from my carving and printing. If you think about Zeshin creating this design with his brush, there is no way that he could be tightly controlled while doing it - the brush had to move quickly, dabbing here and there at the paper. Spontaneity is much more important than control. Although of course that is only possible when the brush (or baren) is so well trained that one can 'let go' to this degree ...

I guess that perhaps you can see what I am getting at. One day last week I was over at Hamanaka-san's place, and yes, I did order a glass of beer to accompany my dinner. When I got home, I went back to the bench and continued work on this print, doing the heavy black gradation on the back of the fish. Now I don't suppose for a minute that this made any real difference in the way that the print came out, but I do know that I enjoyed the work that evening, and did feel that I was slapping on the pigment in a way that more closely approximated the way that Zeshin must have done when he drew the original.

As with anything in life, balance is important. I'm not about to start to get drunk before sitting down to work every evening (to be honest, I don't like the stuff so much ...), but this was a good, if gentle, reminder that I shouldn't put quite so much emphasis on rigorous control. A while back it was suggested that my work was teinei-sugi (too careful), and I understand the comment; as my experience grows, I'll try to work as freely and naturally as I can.

June 2002