Okimono - Dog on the Roof

A couple months before New Year my sister brought Bella into her home. A new member of the family. Part bat, part monkey, part gremlin, part human. A magical creature from Planet Pug. She instantly reminded me of a drawing of a similar creature I sketched at Bristol Museum back in November 2015. I had thought it was a Japanese netsuke but found out later it is an okimono (置物), an ornament purely for decoration. The absolute joy of meeting Bella, gave me the inspiration to make a woodblock print from this little dog snuggled up on broken roof-tiles.



"Okimono - dog nestling down on 2 broken roof-tiles - signed Gyokuyosa"

Not long after making the decision to print this little dog, I overhear a conversation about wood in MAKERS shop and gallery while working upstairs in my studio. It's Alan from Alan Hosegood Restorations whose workshop is just around the corner from my studio. I lean over the bannister and introduce myself. I'm interested to find out if he has any off-cuts of wood to test out on this little dog. Although I enjoy working on the magnolia, I fancy exploring some different woods for carving. I also remember master carver, Motoharu Asaka, at Spike Print's Japanese Woodblock Printing Demo Workshop, who mostly uses mountain cherry wood as it is much better for carving due to its fine grain and sticky consistency. Alan is very happy to have a look for some off-cuts so I pop over a bit later and he kindly gives me some lemon, lime and cherry wood.


Test Carvings on Cherry and Lime wood

I carve the lemon wood but don't get on with it at all so give up and concentrate on the cherry wood. It a hard wood, quite nice to carve and and the print shows up a nice grain. The lime wood is extremely soft almost like carving a rubber stamp. I wish it had made a good print but it's rough, lacking definition. I make quite a few prints just incase I have over inked the block but it doesn’t matter how many times I print the image, it’s never as good as the block from the cherry wood. I re-carve the image on the other side of the block and try printing again.

Dog on the Roof - Final Print

After not much success with the lime wood and three and a half attempts later I try out my trusty magnolia woodblock. It all feels so familiar and I feel more at ease carving the image. This time the magnolia produces the best print. I find the perfect frame for this little print and write in capital letters "FOR BELLA" to my new pal, part bat, part monkey, part gremlin, part human, part okimono.

Netsuke - Sitting Dog with Paw Raised

This little dog is from a sketch I made of a netsuke at The British Museum in London (Four views of Sitting Dog with Paw Raised). This week I transferred the sketch to woodblock to make a carving using Kento registration.


Carving Dog

I transfer one of the views onto a new woodblock. I sit with my carving tool and begin cutting into the wood. I start by carving the outline with the knife (Hangitō) and then continue inside the ears and paws and round the tail. There are fewer lines in this sketch so I will need to cut away more wood for this block. I use the small round gouge tool (Komasuki) to clear the larger areas inside the dog. The V tool (Sankakutō) to carve fine lines in the paws. I use the bigger Komasuki to clear the outside and edges finish off with the small flat chisel (Kentōnomi, also used for Kento registration) to smooth the background area.


Retail Therapy & Woodcarving Totem Poles

I take a break and pop out to the Beatroot Cafe for a piece of cake. On my way back I make detour into Bloom & Curll second hand bookshop where I happen to bump into illustrator and wood carver, Dan Bendel. He is currently running a workshop with Avon Cub Scouts who are in the process of designing and carving a totem pole to be put in the Centenary Wood near Bristol. Dan also makes ink drawings influenced by comic books and animation. Here's a link to his humorous study "My Children are Musicians".

I head back to the studio with cake in hand to finish carving the dog.


Dogs on the Green & Rainbows

I clean up the block, leave the woodblock to dry and head into the city centre. My dog radar is heightened and I am more aware of the many different species walking the streets of Bristol. I make my way to College Green for a vigil to commemorate those who died in the shootings in Orlando last week. People are gathered together showing support for peace and unity. Police are wearing rainbow stripes on their shoulders. The new Mayor makes a heart warming speech. The Sing Out Bristol choir sing in beautiful harmonies as balloons drift across the sky. An over zealous Border Collie is standing on its hind legs putting its paws up on the nearest available human. A white Bichon Frise and a Chihuahua are snuggled in the arms of burly men. A red setter bounds across the green. All these dogs gathered on this colourful green, ignite conversations between strangers, friends and lovers. I can't help but be in awe of their beautiful nature. They shower us with their joyful spirits.

Woodblock Print of Sitting Dog with Paw Raised

Original netsuke 'Sitting Dog with Paw Raised' from the British Museum. Made by Yamaguchi Okatomo - Japan. Acquisition date1978-1984.

Original netsuke 'Sitting Dog with Paw Raised' from the British Museum. Made by Yamaguchi Okatomo - Japan. Acquisition date1978-1984.

Netsuke at The British Museum

I set my alarm for 6am and spend the night tossing and turning and worrying that I won't wake up to catch my bus to London. And so predictably I wake up fifteen minutes early and watch the count down to 5.50am then crawl out of bed into the shower, quick bowl of cereal and out the door. The last minute indecision about which sketchbook to bring is resolved by bringing them all including the heavy hardback one which I had dismissed the night before. So I start the journey with a slightly heavier bag stuffed with sketch books and snacks and all set for the British Museum. My appointment is at 11am. After two buses and a tube adding up to four and a half hours and the last half mile walk with Google maps whispering directions in my headphones I am finally here. I am late and running up the steps of the entrance into the museum.

Inside The British Museum I am overwhelmed by unexpected beauty. I haven't been here for years and I had forgotten how magnificent this place was. A modern Greek palace with its bright limestone walls and a curved glass roof curling with the core of the circular stairs. Contributors names engraved on the cylindrical wall of the staircase. This is The Great Court. It is light, spacious, majestic and I feel immediately tranquil for a moment until hoards of school children come herding through the main hall.

Sketching The Okimono of Turtles

To find the Asia study room I follow the curve of the stairs and round past the book and gift shop right to the back of the main hall and up a few flights of stairs. I take a left into a deserted room full of Chinese ceramics. Tranquility is unbroken here. I gently pull the enormous glass doors leading to the study room. I ring the bell. Lowri greets me at the door. I sign my name in a big name book and Lowri offers me a place to sit. She opens a cupboard and brings out a large plastic box, brings it over to the table and asks me what I would like to draw first. The Okimono of Turtles are popping their heads up through the tissue. Lowri wears gloves to handle the netsuke and places it on a sponge mat it in front of me. I had seen The Okimono of Turtles on the British Museum website but it is so much smaller in reality and much harder to see the detail. I have been so used to drawing from close up photographs where the netsuke have been enlarged at least double their original size. I take out my pencil and start sketching. I haven't warmed up or settled in properly yet and The Okimono of Turtles is a bit challenging for a first drawing. The turtles are piled on top of each other like pancakes. I have over complicated the drawing and can't see how this will work as a print. I can simplify it later so I take a break and move on to The Foxes.


Sketching The Foxes

This time I'm pleased with the drawing and enjoy the simpler form of this netsuke. I prefer the shape of the foxes huddled together wrapping their paws and tails around each other. Their long noses and curling bodies weaving in rhythmic form. I turn the sponge to get a different view of the Foxes and make two more little drawings. My drawings are small but not as small as the netsuke which are only 4.5cm high.


Sketching The Tanuki

The Tanuki (a type of Japanese racoon) is a lovely rounded character with its paws on its pot belly (described on the British Museum website as Tanuki beating belly.) The first sketch is plausible but the second looks more like a chicken or maybe a penguin if you rub out the pointy ears and the third is not far off a pig. Time seems to be racing so I move on to The Dog.


Sketching Sitting dog with paw raised

I can't believe my time is nearly up and I still have two netsuke to draw. The dog is tiny. Only 3cm high. I make four little sketches of the thin little ribbed dog from different angles. It's ears flop over its head turning away towards its circle curling tail.


It's almost one o'clock and no time to sketch the little palace. Lowri offers me an afternoon slot as the study room is quiet today but this afternoon I have made plans to visit Laura Boswell and Ian Philips woodblock print and lino print exhibition at the R K Burt Gallery. I thank Lowri and head through the room of Chinese ceramics on my way out pausing to look at the beautifully glazed Northern Song Ru stonewares. Then up the stairs to see the netsuke case in the Japanese gallery.

Japanese Gallery at The British Museum

The Goldfish, the Sleeping Rat and the Kirin are all there behind the glass. I try to take photographs but the light is too dim, again producing grainy, blurred photographs. I open the big wooden doors into the Japanese gallery and immediately in front of me is replica of a wooden tea house with tatami matting and paper sliding doors. Unfortunately you can't step inside the tea house for a rest or a cup of tea so I move on past the earthenware figurines, bronze bells, tarnished mirrors, spearheads, ceramic tombs, vessels, wooden statues of buddhist deities, hand scrolls of the sutras and landscapes, masks, shrines, jars, tea pots, tea bowls, Samurai armour, illustrated books, woodblock prints, paintings.

Two smaller glass cabinets hang on the wall above steps to modern Japan in the next part of the gallery. Both cabinets hold a small collection of netsuke. One with netsuke animals. A monkey clasping its leg, two horses entwined into the shape of a heart, an eagle gripping a tanuki in its claws, a curled up snake , an ox with calf, a deer holding up one hoof and a tiger baring its teeth with its tail whipped round to front of its chest. The second cabinet holds netsuke people. A Chinese official, Dutchman and cockerel, Ainu woman and child, Monkey trainer and monkey, Okame bathing and Naked Chinese woman.


I continue into modern Japan and find a woodblock carving on cherry wood of Stonehenge. 'Woodblock for Stonehenge by Night' carved and printed before 1916 by Urushibara Mokuchu who had come to London to teach woodblock printing techniques at the Anglo-Japanese Exhibition of 1910.

I carry on back down the steps towards another staircase. Halfway down the stairs a huge silk scroll hangs on the wall with a couple resting beneath a trellis of moonflowers sharing a cup of sake. "Evening Cool beneath Moonflowers" by Yokoyama Kazan.


A reminder its time for a drink and a bite to eat. I head out into the main hall for a quick snack and then to the bookshop. I find a book about Netsuke 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan by Noriko Tsuchiya and Japanese Netsuke by Julia Hutt with an introduction by Edmund De Waal. I buy the books and make my way to the R K Burt Gallery.