An Introduction to Netsuke - V&A


Thank you to my friend Jo for this wonderful gift, 'An Introduction to Netsuke,' which belonged to her father. I will treasure it.

This book of Netsuke from the Victoria & Albert Museum by Joe Earle, takes me back to a trip I made to the V&A in February 2015. Many of the plates in the book are ones I made prints from last year including Tigress and Young - Signed Tomotada and Tiger - Signed Tomotada. Lovely to see the underside and detail of the Tiger's paws with Tomotada's signature carved into his hind leg.

Little is known of the lives or origins of the netsuke carvers but we do know that during the seventeenth century miniature Buddhist shrines for domestic use were coming into widespread use and it is reasonable to assume that the makers of the images for these shrines would have been among the first to turn their hand to netsuke - we can learn something about the relations between netsuke carvers from their special art-names, which often share common elements. For example, among Kyoto artists mentioned by Inaba we find Tomotada, Tomotane and Okatomo. Tomatane and Okatomo were pupils of Tomotada, while Okatori was the brother of Okatomo. The strong master-pupil relationship implied by these closely related professional names has been a characteristic of Japanese arts of all periods.
— An Introduction to Netsuke (V & A Museum Introductions to the Decorative Arts).

I have been meaning to make a print of the little wooden bird too, so maybe now it is time...

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)

Carving Tiger

I moved into my studio in March 2012. I set up my Adana 8 x 5 platen press and began to print. No computer. No digital printer. Just the simplicity of my printing press, tools, inks and paper. This was good for a time but when I recently started to explore woodblock printing I realise the beauty of combining the print world with the digital world. I was initially sketching my images directly onto the tracing paper and then rubbing the reversed side onto the wood but soon realised its limitations - if I needed to re-carve any of these netsuke I would have to sketch from scratch each time as I did with Recumbent Goat. So a few weeks ago I brought my old computer and printer to the studio, which has been a break through and another step forward in getting to grips with this process.


Every month I meet with Lilla and Meg. We carve out time and space to explore print making, stamping, make connections, conversation and share our explorations. I have brought the tiger ready to carve. I know it's going to be the most difficult one to carve so far as the image is so small (5cm h x 4cm w).

I start carving...a couple of hours later I've already taken out some of the tiger's eye. The outlines are unrecognisable. I take it home to finish and know that this little tiger is far too small for my limited experience with Japanese wood carving tools. I have lost the definition from the original sketch.


The good news is I can re-size the original image in Photoshop and print on a fresh piece of tracing paper to transfer to a new block. I notice also that the tools are not as sharp and it's time to use the slipstrop to hone the blades.