Lesson #12: 'Locking' the paper into the 'hikitsuke' ...
(a 'tip' from carver Mr. Keizaburo Matsuzaki, passed on here by David Bull)
The pigment has been brushed over the block and smoothed out, the paper picked up by the fingers and set into the registrations marks with the thumbs and then gently allowed to fall into place on the wood ... What comes next? Of course, rubbing with the baren is the next step, but first a small hurdle must be crossed ...
Picking up the paper and getting it into place on the wood is definitely a 'two-hand' job. How then, is one to pick up the baren without 'letting go' of the paper? When the carved area is wide and the pigment quite wet, the paper will not usually move from the position into which it fell, but when the areas to be printed are small and scattered about, there is nothing much to 'hold' the paper in place, and at the first touch of the baren it may shift - spoiling the registration. Ideally, one would like to keep the two thumbs 'clamping' the paper in place on the registration marks, but without a 'third hand' to pick up the baren, this is not possible.
The procedure that Japanese printers use for 'locking' the paper in place is simple, but requires that the blocks be carved in a standardized way - with the 'L'-shaped 'kagi' in the front right corner, and the straight 'hikitsuke' along the lower left side of the block (as you look at it in the printing position). As the right-hand corner of the paper is being slid into the mark, the printer always ensures that both of the two trimmed edges of that corner come in contact with the wood.
When the thumbs come down to lock the paper in place, it is not the wide 'meat' of each thumb that does so, but the side edge of the thumbnail (along with a touch of the side of the thumb). These two nails are allowed to grow to about 4~5mm in length, to provide enough nail to bite into the paper.
Then, with the left thumbnail securely holding the paper in place (together with the 'tension' from the edges of the paper touching both faces of the 'L' mark), the right hand is free to pick up the baren from its resting place, which of course must thus be a position on the bench to the right hand side of the block. The baren is then lightly touched down on the paper over one of the carved places, and the first small and light stroke that will 'pin' the paper in place is always made stroking towards the corner kento mark, so not to pull the paper out of place. In the case of wide and secure colour blocks, the left thumb is now free to release the paper, but for delicate blocks, this nail continues to clamp the paper throughout the entire printing operation.
The reverse sides of Japanese prints thus frequently show a series of small striations along one edge of the paper, caused by this thumbnail clamping.
(And as for us lefties, if we want our blocks to be printable by 'normal' printers (and thus not carved in 'reverse' fashion), we have quite a problem ...)