Netsuke at the Royal Festival Hall

The train is sighing and heaving and trees blur behind rain scratched windows. I'm drinking a hot take-away tea while reading a book 'Names for the Sea, Strangers in Iceland' by Sarah Moss. My fingers seem to take longer to thaw as I hold the book of ice. It was glorious sunshine yesterday. I'm heading back into the city of London as the clouds darken. The rain is persistent.

100 Miniature Masterpieces

The first and last stop is The Royal Festival Hall on the Southbank. It's too wet and too cold to keep trekking through puddles and be rain soaked without an umbrella or raincoat. I stay here to keep warm and dry. I was hoping to draw netsuke at the V&A today but instead I'm drawing from the book I bought yesterday at The British Museum. 'Netsuke 100 miniature masterpieces from Japan' by Noriko Tsuchiya. I flick through the book containing photographs of netsuke in human form, immortals, ghosts, masks, animals and manju. I am interested in the animals and pick out one of the oldest netsuke in the museum (about 1700). 'Elephant and man in the form of a seal'. The photograph of the netsuke is at least three times the size than an original netsuke making it so much easier to draw and kinder to the eyes. I don't have the option to turn the netsuke and view it from a different angle but I can take as long as I like as there is no time restriction here.


Drawn with Music

I feel relaxed drawing the netsuke while listening to music on my headphones. The Royal Festival Hall is buzzing with people working and chatting and the music doesn't shut it out, it just softens the edges. A one-to-one language course is in full flow at the table behind me. A couple on the far table are in deep conversation with paint pots, brushes and paper and lunch all piled up together. A man sits with his smart phone, a woman with her lap-top. Two woman with pads of paper and paper cups also in deep discussion. Downstairs people are piled in the cafe. The rain continues to fall as I move on the 'Reclining Goat' by Kaigyokusai Masatsugu. Then 'Horse' - unsigned, 'Hare with Loquats' signed by Yamaguchi Okatomo and lastly 'Sleeping Cat' - unsigned.


When I've finished I look back through the sketch book and compare drawings. These are much larger than the ones I drew at the British Museum. It will be fun to carve them and see how they print. I pack up my books step out into the rain and head for the tube.

Goats Herons & Whales

Netsuke - Recumbent Goat

In the last week I've been trying out my new tools carving a galloping horse and an ama suckling an octopus. Today I've carved a larger Recumbent Goat from Edmund De Waal's collection on magnolia wood. The resulting print is much better than the print I made from the smaller sketch.



Alongside this new netsuke project I have been working on another carving which is much bigger than the netsuke.

I make a simple sketch of the heron directly on to the larger plywood, then trace the outline with black pen. It's much more tough to cut than the magnolia but I'm not ready to blunt my new tools yet so I carve the heron into plywood with my old tools. As the sketch is quite loose, it frees up the carving resulting in an imperfect but dynamic heron.


Travelling with Birch Plywood

I bought this plywood a few years ago. This gigantic piece of birch plywood was stacked amongst more gigantic pieces of plywood in the warehouse of Robbins Timber Yard. I had cycled up to buy the wood and didn't think about the logistics of getting this giant home! They kindly offered to cut the plywood into smaller squares so we went for 30cm x 30cm. Even at 30cm x 30cm, when you have over twenty of these, it's a heavy load for a bicycle but somehow miraculously I managed to fit them all into my panniers and cycle home without any problems. I remember as soon as I arrived home I dived into my box of wood cutting tools and started carving immediately. I didn't draw or trace an image first, I just carved straight into the wood not knowing where I was going but just following the grain. I enjoyed the freedom of just letting the grain do it's own magic with no preconceived idea or pressure for any kind of result, only the process of carving. When I had finished I had made a carving which was more figurative and than I expected. I didn't have the facilities to print at home so I put it back on the pile and started to work on a new block with the idea of making a two colour print.

Woodblock Registration Block

I had kept the copy of Peter Brown's clear instructions for registration and re-written these for myself help me clarify the process. I drew out the registration marks. Instead of carving the block I initiated the idea of bringing the blocks to a fellow print making friend's house with a view to exploring the process of two colour prints together. If we could get our heads around it together, we might get there quicker. So one morning I arrived with the blocks with my instructions in my bag and as I pulled the blocks out of my bag my heart sank. I realised my idea wasn't going to work. One of us needed to have some knowledge on how to do this and I had given the impression that I did know but I had spent just one day on a Japanese woodblock printing course and hadn't got my head around the two colour printing. I was not ready to step into this process as a group until I had got to grips with the process myself.

I had lost the enthusiasm to print the first image which had felt so dynamic and free. So instead of following up on my quest to get more experience I felt so overwhelmed by what felt like a huge hurdle that I left the blocks stacked up in a pile under my desk at home gathering dust.


A few months ago when I brought the blocks to my studio I finally made the time and space to have a go at printing this block which I had enjoyed carving so much. I used my letterpress inks with a hand roller; laid a large piece of white somerset satin 300gsms paper on the plywood and rubbed the back of the paper with a baren. When I peeled back the paper there was a sea of swimming whales and mountains flowing from the wood. Although it's a faint print and would need a press to get a good even solid colour I like the immediacy of the image and free flowing expansiveness.