new year

Netsuke - Monkey Wearing Short Gown


New Year

A few months ago I visited Bristol Museum to draw netsuke. One of the netsuke I chose was Monkey Wearing Short Gown. I am carving and printing this netsuke to reflect the forthcoming Chinese New Year (Year of the Monkey) and Japanese Buddhist and Shintō Lore.

By the time Buddhism reached Japan (mid 6th century AD), the monkey and monkey lore were already common elements in Buddhist legend, art, and iconography. Thereafter, monkey worship in Japan grew greatly in popularity, especially among practitioners of Taoist Kōshin rites introduced from China and among followers of Tendai Shintō-Buddhism.
— Copyright Mark Shumacher

Dampening Hosho paper

I have seen a few different methods for dampening hosho paper and I notice I do it differently each time. I still haven’t worked out which is the best method but today I lay a sheet of dampened newsprint on the top front of the hosho paper. Then a sheet of dry newsprint on top of the damp newsprint. Then the hosho, then the dampened newsprint, the dry newsprint and so on. The recommended time to leave the paper in the newsprint is 2 hours minimum. Today I leave mine for only an hour before printing but after making a test print I am happy with the results. I’m aware the temperature of the room can affect the dampness of the paper too and it is warm in my studio but it’s working so far so I’m going with my own intuition today rather than follow the technical gurus.


Carving Monkey

As I carve Monkey I am thinking about a quote from a book I am currently reading which resonates with my desire to keep these prints as simple as possible.

No matter how magnificent these objects were, I found the fewer I placed in the house, the more beautiful it became. I removed more and more, eventually leaving the thirty-six square meters of polished floorboards in the main room completely bare. With nothing except the ‘black glistening’ of the open floor, the house took on the majesty of a Noh stage.
— Lost Japan by Alex Kerr

Carved Block Washed and Ready to Ink

I wash the block, removing the gampi paper and ink from the printer, leaving just the bare wood ready to ink up. I make a test print and soon realise the uncarved surface surrounding the carved monkey is obstructing the baren from producing an even pressure on the monkey. Once the rest of the wood is removed my fingers are numb from the intense gouging. This tool is only 6mm wide. It is time to invest in the right tool for the job!


Another test print and the outline of the monkey is ragged. I clean up the edges with a combination of the 3mm and 6mm gouge tool and make another test print. I haven’t made registration marks for any of the blocks so far as the blocks are so small. All my printing is done by eye which is fine for now as I want to keep these as single colour prints. To print using more colours I will need work on bigger blocks to allow space for the registration marks without obstructing the baren.

Carved Block Inked and Ready to Print

I dampen the block and add a little nori paste to the Japanese carbon ink. As I brush the ink across the wood the ‘black glistening floor’ from Alex Kerr’s house in ‘Lost Japan’ stretches before me. This 'Monkey Wearing Short Gown’ appears to be quietly sitting still in the centre of this woodblock but its spirit is leaping onto the black glistening stage.

Monkey worship in Japan peaked in the Edo Era, but has declined significantly since then. Even so, the legacy of monkey faith is easily spotted in modern Japan. One can still find old stone statues with monkey motifs in many Japanese localities — statues that are weathering away, unprotected from the elements. – Certain Japanese shrines (Hie Jinja locations nationwide) and temples (Shitennō-ji in Osaka) continue even today to perform the Kōshin rites for those who still believe (most are elderly Japanese), and lucky charms featuring the monkey are still easily found at Japanese temples, shrines, and trinket shops. The color RED is often associated with the monkey, for it signifies the dual role of the monkey as protector against disease as well as patron of fertility.
— Copyright Mark Shumacher

Original netsuke 'Monkey Wearing Short Gown' from Bristol Museum. Unsigned.


Mark Shumacher

Lost Japan by Alex Kerr