sumi ink

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 - Tiger (Signed Okatori)

This tiger by Okatori has big heavy eye lids and a swirling tail curled up on his back. His markings are carved slithers of wispy leaf like patterns. He crouches with his hind leg reaching up to his mouth, licking his paw - a yoga pose definitely to aspire to!

I sketch what I can from my dark grainy photograph and scan the sketch, print on tracing paper, rub the image onto the block, carve the tiger and ink up.

Two bottles of ink sit on my studio table like two characters, a bright green squat rounded shape with a black cap and a tall black cuboid with a red cap. I have been using the little green bottle of Japanese Carbon ink which smells of cool mint. Today I am going to try the tall bottle of Chinese sumi ink. The smell is pungent almost like stale blood. I recently read 'Colour' by Victoria Finlay. Each chapter is titled by a colour. In 'Black' she explains the origins of producing ink from soot and sometimes from dead bodies and I wonder what concoction this bottle is holding as I find it hard to get used to the overpowering smell.

Wood Tiger

Before inking up the wood I look at the carved image. I can't make out the shape at all. First I see a dog, then a monkey and then finally my eyes adjust to the lines and a tiger emerges from the grain. I am still printing on dry paper as I just want to get a quick idea of the kind of print this wood will make. If it's a bad print at least I won't have wasted time dampening Hosho paper. Fortunately the first print on Japon Simile does reveal a tiger and not one to be messed with. His eyes are staring wildly, much more than the one behind the glass at the V&A. It's the biggest print of the mini prints so far (9cm x 7cm) which shows that tigers really do need their space.


"Although the tiger is not native to Japan, it has been widely used as a motif in Japanese art because it is one of the 12 animals of the East Asian zodiac which derives from Chinese cosmology. The 12 animals, one for each year, were used in a fixed order that was repeated every 12 years. The traditional order is rat, ox, tiger, hare, dragon, snake, horse, goat, monkey, cock, dog and boar. The rat, monkey and tiger were among the most popular of the zodiac animals. A tiger netsuke might be used over the new-year festivities for the year of the tiger, as well as at any time throughout that year." V&A online collections

Japanese Woodblock Printing Courses

I have so many questions I want to ask about this process and a few months ago I had booked a one to one day course with printmaker Laura Boswell. Laura had kindly offered to come and teach at my studio in Bristol but unfortunately due to unforeseen family matters we had to cancel the date. I hope to try and book in with Laura again some point in the future. For now I look forward to her exhibition at R K Burt Gallery in London with Ian Phillips from 12th - 22nd May.

In the mean time I have been looking at alternative Japanese Woodblock Printing courses. I had decided it was too far to travel to Edinburgh Printmakers a few months ago when I was researching courses but today I'm feeling adventurous. Paul Furneaux will be teaching the course at Edinburgh Printmakers. I came across Paul Furneaux a few months ago and really like his work. His approach is very free, direct and expressive. Here's a video showing the process of dampening paper for printing.

I ring the college to find out more. There is one space available...I click the book online now button.


Laura Boswell

R K Burt Gallery

Paul Furneaux

Dampening Paper video

Tiger by Okatomi (430-1904 Dresden Bequest)

Netsuke - Rat Clutching its Tail With Forepaws

While I am waiting for my new tools to arrive I continue to explore some more netsuke on the plywood. I make a test print with sumi ink. I wonder what this rat would like in a different colour. I only have a few old watercolours left over in a box. Most have dried out. There's a Burnt Umber and Yellow Ochre still useable so I mix these together with nori paste creating a slightly sickly brown. I make another test print. A sick rat is right. I'm not sure about the dark eye so cut it out and make another print in black sumi ink. Now a black demon hollow eyed rat peers out from behind its tail and I wish I had left the eye alone. I am finding it a challenge carving such a small design and hoping new tools might help.

Netsuke - Rat Clutching its Tail With Forepaws