Shiko Munakata

Netsuke - The Foxes Carve & Print


I'm back in the studio carving the foxes. As I carve the block I realise I am not focused. The lens in my brain turns slowly anticlockwise and my mind can't catch up with what's in front of me. My hands are restless and eager to carve but too quickly and impatiently. I'm not present and take a chunk out of a tail, then another tail, then a hip, then a toe but I keep going and finish carving until I have something to print. I dampen a few small squares of Hosho paper for some test prints and print off a few to check the image. It's not as bad as I imagined and even with the mistakes I like the feel of the print.

Like the vastness of space, like a universe unlimited, untold, unattainable, and inscrutable- that is the woodcut.
— Shiko Munakata

Five Netsuke from The British Museum

I've just received a reply from The British Museum. They only allow five objects to be shown in one viewing so I've chosen The Foxes, The Rat, The Goldfish, The Dog and The Okimono of Turtles.

I am fascinated by the Goldfish. Orange and bulbous with gigantic scowling forehead.

"This ugly, yet adorable, goldfish is known as the lion-head goldfish or ranchū, and is highly regarded in Japan. Keeping goldfish as pets became popular from the 1800s onwards. By Masanao I of Ise (1815–90), Japan. Made of boxwood, inlaid with light and dark horn eyes (F.1074)" Dressed to impress: netsuke and Japanese men’s fashion Noriko Tsuchiya, curator, British Museum.

A Riot of Goldfish

One of my books recommended by Lucinda at Mr B's Emporium was 'A Riot of Goldfish' by Kanoko Okamoto. Mataichi, the main character of the story is obsessed with breeding the perfect goldfish to impress the woman he has quietly loved since their childhood. This netsuke takes me to a moment in the book which where Mataichi opens the lid of one of the jars in his laboratory to view his goldfish.

"Awakening to the light of the electric lamp, the pair that had been lying together began to swim at a leisurely pace, now in tandem and now apart. Their tail fins were three or four times larger than their bodies were wide or long. So when they unfurled their delicate silk fins and gowns spangled with black stars, their bodies and heads were momentarily obscured. But soon there bobbed into view, like a Corpulent French beauty or a graceful and majestic woman of the Tempyo era, a round body, eyes, and a mouth with eyebrows, that made you want to paint them." A Riot of Goldfish' by Kanoko Okamoto

Perfection vs Passion

Mataichi's obsession to create perfection through controlled conditions is greatly contrasted with Shiko Munakata's impulsive expressive nature but both are driven and passionate and dedicated to their creative explorations.

Munakata himself has said "the mind goes and the tool walks alone", but actually his extraordinary speed springs from intense concentration, a capacity for passionate absorption. The idea must not be twisted around, badgered and revised, doubted and restudied. It must come out in one creative surge" Soetsu Yanagi on Shiko Munakata - The Woodblock and the Artist - Southbank Centre London 1991

As I look over my netsuke prints I am aware of their imperfections. I have so much to learn if I want my carvings to be perfect but when I look at the work of Shiko Munakata I see the life force exploding from his prints and it makes me consider my own practice. Do I want to spend my time seeking perfection and obsessing over every line I carve or do I want to passionately dance to the nature of the wood?

Netsuke - Ox (& the Art of Listening)


I discovered Onbeing at the beginning of the year. I have no recollection of the thread in the web that brought me to Kristas Tippett's website but ever since I found it I am a complete fan of her heart warming inspiring interviews with poets, thinkers, speakers, makers, teachers.... from all over the globe.

I'm listening to Gordon Hempton's soundscape of nature's silence 'A Hike through the Hoh rainforest.' He takes us on a guided walk along the trail through tall tree, ferns and moss, a winter wren twittering, a river echoing of the edge of the valley and the call of a Roosevelt elk. In his conversation with Krista Tippett he talks about the art of listening.

"Listening is not about sound - If you ever find yourself listening for sound, that's diagnostically a controlled impairment. Simply listen to the place and when you listen to the place you take it ALL in - We're about to enter into a giant driftwood log -Sikta Spruce log, the material used in the crafting of violins - when the wood fibres are excited by acoustic energy -in this case its the sound of the ocean itself - the fibres actually vibrate and inside you get to listen to nature's largest violin.” Gordon Hempton - Onbeing


Shiko Munakata & Kiyoshi Saito

While I carve my second ox, I wonder where this magnolia wood was growing and how many years it stood rooted in the earth before being cut into blocks. The death of the magnolia tree. The aliveness of mark making. The transforming of tree to print. This time I leave more wood, less carving, more outline and I am more gentle as I listen to the sound of the hangito cutting into the block. I love how Shiko Munakata really listened to the wood when he was carving. He let the wood speak as there is no right and wrong, just the doing of it and the way Kiyoshi Saito, another master of the Creative Print Movement (Sosaku Hanga) embraced the texture of wood grain when printing flat bold areas of colour.

"Flat areas of colour and the texture of the woodblocks' grain communicate the essentials of the nature of bold and harmonious designs. Saito's simple style possesses great freedom and spontaneity, and there is an international avoidance of elegant refinement. " Masterful Images - The Art of Kiyoshi Saito. Barry Till.

"The nature of the woodcut is such, that even a mistake in its carving will not prevent it from its true materialization." Shiko Munakata


I have returned to using the Japanese carbon ink as I am not yet used to the smell of the sumi ink. I use dry Japon simile paper and rub the baren over the woodblock. The plastic cream baren is hard and unforgiving of the slightly uneven surface where I had put too much pressure on the wood with the bone folder. I use my shredded bamboo baren and the next print is much cleaner. This ox is better than the last one but still with its many imperfections. I stick a sample into my notebook along with the previous samples.


I wonder whether sketching these netsuke from 'life' will make a difference. The central archives department at the British museum have forwarded my request on to the department of Asia and sent me their email so I can contact them directly. I send another email to the department of Asia and wait for their reply.

Netsuke - Man with a Fan

This is the first experiment printing a netsuke wood block on dampened Hosho paper. I sketched the image from the photograph of the Man with a Fan from Ammy's netsuke photo album.


I first learnt about Hosho paper from illustrator and printmaker Peter Brown when I joined his Japanese woodblock printing course at Spike Island in March 2012. I was hooked but spent the next three years resisting the actual doing of it. Instead, I was thinking about it and spending time looking at Japanese woodblock prints, researching print makers and sourcing books on Japanese woodblock printing. I didn't know it would take another three years for me to start making my own woodblock prints.

I have been printing on off-white Somerset satin and Japon simile for test prints. I love the contrast of the watery blackness of the ink on the dampened white hosho paper.

"I was fumbling with colour prints," he continues, "until one day I saw a woodcut by Sumio Kawakami. It was black and white, a small work showing a woman walking in the wind, with a poem about the wind of early summer. Suddenly I knew I had found what I was looking for. Kawakami had shown me the way. I threw myself into prints." Shiko Munakata - On Woodblock Prints - Southbank Centre London 1991

Transferring and carving Man with a Fan


Inking up Man with a Fan

Sosaku Hanga & Orchids in the Wood

Shiko Munakata

My Swimming Whales exploration reminds me of my trip to the Bower Ashton campus library at UWE last October. While exploring the library shelves I came across Shiko Munakata, founder of the Creative Print movement in Japan. His process resonated with me as he also let the wood speak as there is no right and wrong, just the doing of it.

"The essence of hanga lies in the fact that one must give in to the ways of the board," he says. "There is power in the board and one cannot force the tool against that power. It is this power which lies outside this artist, rather than any power within him, that dominates the creation of hanga." Shiko Munakata The Woodblock and the Artist - Southbank Centre London 1991

Naoko Matsubara

On the shelves of UWE library I also found a thin pamphlet hiding between the heavy hardbacks. It's an exhibition booklet of prints by Naoko Matsubara, a Japanese woodblock printer also from the Creative Print Movement. I have fallen in love with her dynamic and expressive work which focuses on nature and architecture, dancers and movement.

"Nature, in a Matsubara print, is not a passive, uncomprehending background to our endeavours, as much as a pulsating force whose destiny is closely intertwined with that of humans." David Waterhouse


Not long after my visit to UWE library and finding Naoko Matsubara and Shiko Munakata's inspiring work I was determined to try and make a two colour print of some orchids I drew at Wisley Gardens a couple of years ago.


It was very experimental as the registration was completely wrong but some interesting results!